Mining in the Pacific – Why the Legal Victory on Wagina Matters

Following a seven-year legal battle, the environmental advisory committee of the Solomon Islands overturned Solomon Bauxite Limited’s permit to open a mine on the small island of Wagina in 2019. The proposed plan would have affected 60% of the island and involved clearing 2,000 hectares of forest. An airport would have been built, along with new roads and significant excavation in order to facilitate the movement of roughly 150 truckloads of bauxite every day for 20 years, with the mine working 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. Bauxite is an important source of aluminium, and the Solomon Islands’ proximity to China, the world’s largest importer of the ore, made it a prime spot to develop mining operations. Wagina, like other islands in the Pacific, is already under pressure to manage the effects of climate change, such as extreme heat waves, rainfall events, and high intensity tropical cyclones, all of which would have been exacerbated as the mine consumed essential water and food resources. Likely, the mine would have forced Wagina’s people to move again – for the third time, after already having been displaced in the 1930s due to land shortages and overpopulation, and then again in the 1960s, most likely due to British nuclear testing. Since moving there, the people of Wagina have turned their island into the largest exporter of seaweed in the Pacific, and would have needed to restructure their society again. 

The importance of this decision stretches farther than just Wagina. For others living in the Solomon Islands, the Wagina case gives them a model for other rural communities to follow when battling against powerful companies with government-issued mining or logging licenses, as it made use of a previously-untested provision in the country’s environment law. The Solomon Islands offers mining and logging companies generous tax exemptions in return for contributions to government coffers, and in the hopes of growing their economies with the few natural resources they have access to. This fact gives us a rather bleak look into what could have been if the people of Wagina hadn’t won by examining West Rennell, another Solomon Island. 

Logging companies arrived on West Rennell about a decade ago, causing massive deforestation, followed swiftly by mining companies, whose leases covered much of the island. Since 2014, up to half of all the bauxite-rich soil in West Rennell has been exported. These soil pockets were traditionally used by the islands’ inhabitants for farming, and their removal has placed significant stress on the island’s agricultural economy. Due to a shortage of arable land, the atoll has become dependent on processed foods delivered by irregular shipping services. The influx of foreign miners also caused a breakdown of traditional family life, leaving many single mothers struggling to fend for themselves and their children, gain acceptance from their families, or find future partners. 

The environmental destruction on West Rennell goes beyond just damage to farming and traditional life. Local residents say that birds and animals have all but abandoned the island, migrating to the nearby East Rennell, a UNESCO heritage site home to the largest enclosed lake in the Pacific islands. With the soil on much of the island removed, it will take centuries for the now-exposed rocks to wear into sediment. In addition, in February 2019, during Cyclone Oma, West Rennell became the site of the largest man-made disaster in the history of the Solomon Islands when a ship attempting to load bauxite from a nearby mine ran aground on the Kongobainiu reef, spilling 300 tons of oil into the bay. The water turned black, freshwater sources became contaminated, the island became reliant on food deliveries from the 250 kilometer distant island of Honiara because the oil contaminated the fish supply, every chicken died within a week, and children suffered skin and eye infections. The spill led to the direct loss of 10,000 square meters of reef, more than 4,000 square meters of lagoon habitat, and economic losses worth up to 50 million Australian dollars. A leaked report from the Solomon Islands government stated the bay could take up to 130 years to recover from the spill. Only five months later, the bay was hit with another spill when 5,000 tons of bauxite dumped into the ocean while being loaded onto a barge, turning the bay red. Landowners on the island have still not received compensation for damages from either spill as of November 2020. 

The Solomon Islands aren’t alone in dealing with problems caused by multinational mining and logging corporations. In Papua New Guinea, Australian mining companies pay almost no taxes despite making huge profits off the country’s natural resources. As such, almost all the wealth from these operations leave PNG entirely. Large companies convince small Pacific nations that their projects will bring jobs and wealth to beleaguered economies, but often much of the work goes to foreign laborers, and the projects are handled without regard for environmental or social harm. 

Hopefully, the victory on Wagina will keep other islands from suffering the same fate as West Rennell. At the current rate, the Solomon Islands would exhaust all its natural forests by 2036. The destruction of these forests has already caused massive damage to the country’s coral reefs, caused significant internal migration, increasing food insecurity, localized inflation, and the destruction of mangroves and food gardens. However, even those on Wagina know the fight isn’t over. William Kadi, who steered Wagina’s legal battle, residents still have to live with the threat that miners might return to their home. For many in the Solomon Islands, and the Pacific islands as a whole, the fact that a mining company could easily sign off a lease for three-quarters of their home takes away the sense of owning the land where you live. Maybe, however, the victory on Wagina can pave the way for other islands to fight back. 

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