Tomoto Neo, Nendo, Santa Cruz Islands, Solomon Islands. A bauxite mining proposal has divided the small island community. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The Australian mining company denies any impropriety and says landowners are keen to find out if there are mineral resources on their land
Ben Doherty | The Guardian | 6 July 2017
An Australian mining company is embroiled in a standoff with landowners in the Solomon Islands over allegations it coerced, bullied and tricked communities into signing over prospecting rights to their land.
A government has been overthrown and local landowners have taken to blocking the roads with stones, and even reportedly confronting miners with bows and arrows, to thwart prospecting on their island of Nendo, in Temotu, the easternmost province of the Solomon Islands.
The miner Pacific Bauxite denied any allegations of impropriety and said it had worked in close consultation with landowners who overwhelmingly supported their work. So far it has engaged only in hand-augered prospecting.
“Landowners are also very keen to determine the potential for minerals resources on their land,” it said. “Prospecting provides landowners with a free evaluation of their land while not committing to mining.”
The company’s application to prospect had divided the Nendo community, a former Solomon Islands governor general has said.
Several Nendo residents have said dozens of landowners across the island had withdrawn their authorisation for Pacific Bauxite to prospect on their land.
The company said it was not aware of any landowners withdrawing their consent and that it remained committed to consulting with all owners.
Some Nendo landowners have said they were not properly told about the environmental impact of mining, and others claimed they were coerced into signing, told to sign blank pieces of paper, or had their signatures forged.
Ruddy Oti, a Temotu landowner and legal adviser to the Temotu Conservation and Sustainable Development Association, told the Guardian many people on the island felt they had been manipulated into signing surface access agreements for the company on their land.
“There was no proper consultation, people were not informed about the potential impacts on their land,” Oti said.
“People were asked to sign blank pieces of paper and those signatures were collected and used to say these landowners have agreed to have prospecting on their land. They did not agree.
“Some signatures were forged. When I went to see those people, they said they had not agreed.
“And some landowners said they felt pressured to agree, or that they weren’t told about the impact upon their land. Those people have now written sworn affidavits to revoke their consent.”
Oti said landowners were resolute in their opposition, having seen the damage of logging on other parts of the island. Some villages have reportedly put roadblocks up to stop miners’ access or threatened vehicles with bows and arrows.
A video clip posted online shows some of the community resistance to bauxite mining on Nendo.
The short clip, shot on a phone, shows a group of primary school students and adults in the village of Noipe on Nendo blocking the road and not allowing a Pacific Bauxite vehicle to pass.
Mark Gwynne, the executive director of Pacific Bauxite, tells the group – most of the children are holding signs in protest – the company is engaged in “good, ethical mining”.
“There is good mining, and there is bad mining, and I have witnessed a lot of bad mining,” he says. “We work really hard with communities. We reach agreements with communities for good mining. We do everything we can to protect the land, the villages, the people. We provide education for the children, we provide training for the adults for working. Can I show you some photos?”
He is told by one man from the village:
“Excuse me. We don’t need photos.
“Just stop everything. We don’t need mining and we don’t need prospecting. That’s all. The land is our heritage and our future for young generations.”
The standoff ends politely and without incident.
Brett Smith, the director of Pacific Bauxite, told the Guardian that at this stage the company had only completed reconnaissance prospecting and that no landowners were compelled to allow mining.
The Solomon Islands. Mining has a damaged reputation in Nendo after logging and mining on Rennell Island, on the south-western edge of the Solomons archipelago. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
“The results from this are highly encouraging and warrant further work to determine the potential for mineable resources,” he said.
“We are hoping that the bauxite deposits at Nendo provide the potential for a long-term industry that will result in the generation of beneficial sustainable businesses for the people of the Temotu province.”
Smith said Pacific Bauxite had a strong commitment to the environment and the community on Nendo, in particular around health, education and future sustainable economic development.
“To date, the company has provided much needed medical equipment to the Lata hospital and donated equipment to several schools. This community support will continue while the company is working at Nendo.
“The company also has a policy of providing employment opportunities for the local community. Expatriate workers are kept to a minimum to allow maximum benefit and training to local people. In the event that mining takes place in the future, the company intends constructing a training facility to Australian standards. That will have the capacity to provide skilled employees from the local community.”
Smith said mining on Nendo would have the smallest possible footprint and minimise the environmental impact.
“Rehabilitation will focus on returning a large majority of affected land to its former condition, while small areas will be considered for future beneficial businesses which will be fully owned by the local community.”
He said the company was being discredited by a small group that had misinformed the community.
Solomon Islands’ director of mines, Thomas Toba, said officials from his department considered several objections to mining on Nendo before granting the prospecting licence. Department officials have travelled to Nendo to speak to concerned landowners.
Toba recently launched the Solomon Islands’ new national minerals policy, which established a legal framework for minerals extraction, something the country had not had previously.
“Another thing is people will realise that resource owners have a part to play in this; they have a voice in this industry compared to the past when they can only participate through signing of surface access agreements,” he said.
While some landowners say they are resolutely opposed to mining, others argue it will bring development to the most remote region of the Solomons archipelago, often overlooked by the central government in Honiara.
Father Brown Beu, a former provincial premier, said that Pacific Bauxite prospecting would bring educational and health facilities to the province.
“We trust this company,” Father Beu told a radio interview. “Unlike other investors who are invested in Temotu province, the AU Mining[50% owned by Pacific Bauxite] will shortly after this be able to provide medical facilities that we will never – I don’t know, for centuries to come – never have.”
But the penultimate premier of Temotu province, Nelson Omar, who was overthrown in March, believes he was ousted because of his resistance to business licences for miners and loggers in Nendo.
Omar’s government had refused to grant a business licence to Pacific Bauxite. In March he was defeated in a sudden vote of no confidence. Within a week, a business licence was granted by the new government to Pacific Bauxite.
Omar said he warned the Temotu assembly that his refusal to grant the licence – and another logging licence to an unrelated company – were the bases for efforts to remove him.
“In fact it did happen. Days after the closure of the assembly, the licence was granted in an urgent executive meeting, exactly as I predicted,” he said. “The consent from the resource owners, the landowners, how it was conducted, was not done in accordance with existing legislations which govern the mining and logging acts.”
A traditional ceremony in Nendo. The great majority of locals do not want the mine, says former governor general Father Sir John Ini Lapli. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo
The former Solomon Islands governor general, Father Sir John Ini Lapli, said the possibility of mining had divided families and tribes.
“The great majority of people do not want this,” he told Radio New Zealand. “Just the few that … are working with [the miner]. And there is a real possibility for clashes between the landowners, tribal groups, even relatives themselves if the government is not clear cut about how to deal with this.”
Lapli said the people of Temotu felt their wishes had been ignored in the central government’s decision to issue a prospecting licence. He said the land belonged to the people, not the government.
“They came with some agent unknown, they didn’t come through the procedure, and so they were able to pay some people to sign accepting this proposal they signed up and that is how they locked [in] these landowners.”
Mining has a damaged reputation in Nendo after logging and mining on Rennell Island, on the south-western edge of the Solomons archipelago.
The mining, by Bintan Mining, was initially undertaken with an illegally granted mining licence and has left the island with widespread environmental damage and little development. A video, Ripples in Rennells, by the environmental advocacy organisation OceansWatch has been played widely across Nendo.
Pacific Bauxite was formerly Iron Mountain. Pacific Bauxite bought a 50% stake in AU Capital Mining, which was the original holder of the prospecting licence from the Solomon Islands Mines and Minerals Board.
Pacific Bauxite’s website says of the Nendo project:
“The company is extensively engaged with the local community and is ensuring that all stakeholders are made fully aware of current and future activities regarding the project. To this end, meetings held with local parties to date have been extremely positive and much enthusiasm has been generated by the recent phase of exploration.”
It says the company’s initial auger drilling and pit sampling had confirmed “extensive large-scale bauxite deposits” on the island.
The main area earmarked for mining is approximately 12km by 2km (24 square kilometres) but that is expected to grow.
“Identified areas of mineralisation are significantly larger than historically defined,” the company said.
Bauxite is the principal ore in aluminium and is also used to make refractory materials, chemicals and cements. Australia is the world’s largest producer of bauxite.
Bauxite deposits are found in tropical and subtropical areas, in deeply weathered volcanic rock, which make up many islands in the Solomon Islands archipelago.