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Talking about mining in the Solomon Islands

Staff Reporter | 6:15 AM | ||
Mining is not just about finding some minerals and then digging a hole. Even after an agreement with the local landowners is achieved, there is a long way to go. 

It usually takes a several-years-long prospecting phase and a lot more needs to be done, until the mining corporation can conduct a feasibility study to decide if it makes sense to finally start the billion dollar expensive mining process.

Understanding how complex mining is, and being aware of the economic, social and environmental issues around it is crucial to avoid having wrong expectations and getting disappointed.

Especially in a country like Solomon Islands, that has very little experience in mining. 
To understand mining, people need to be able to obtain all the necessary information about it. That information is normally issued through the media .

As for the medial and given the potential for the industry to change small economies, it’s the journalist’s task to explain to the Solomon Islands public that it is inevitable that the economic lifeline of the country will shift from logging to mining. 
That is just about to start in the country.

Journalists that have an in depth understanding of mining have a chance to critically look at the stories that are being brought to them via press releases and through informants, and to go out and find important stories themselves. 
Taking all of the shortcomings in local journalism and mining, last Monday, Dorothy Wickham, a local journalist in Solomon Islands, and  Antonette Wickham, an environmental engineer and community specialist, made use of their NGO, Solomon Islands Women Empowering Local Women (SIWELW) held a workshop on mining at the Heritage Park Hotel in Honiara. 

The NGO invited journalists from all the important media organisations – the radio stations and all the newspapers.
The journalists attended a series of presentations delivered by mining stakeholders such as the Government, the mining companies and involved landowner groups.

Already  the first presentation by Dr Philipp Tagini, Special Secretary to Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo, showed the journalists how important mining will be in the near future of the nation. 

Today, Solomon Islands is still a logging country.  In 2012 Solomon Islands exported logs worth more than $1.6 billion.
This is by far the biggest share of the country’s export revenues. 

It makes Solomon Islands heavily dependent on the future of the logging industry, a future not looking bright at all. 
Studies suggest that the export revenue of logging will dramatically decrease by 2015. The government is looking for something else to fill the gap. And it seems that mining is the choice.
The numbers presented by Tagini highlight that. 

The national revenue of minerals export in 2012, with 800 million SBD or 24 per cent of the export revenue, was still only half of that of logging. 
The increase is staggering though. In 2011 only 16 per cent of export revenue was achieved through minerals. 
The numbers are even more impressive considering that there is only one mining operation going on at the moment: Gold Ridge on Guadalcanal, which restarted the mining process in 2010 after a ten years break. 

More mining operations are likely to follow soon. 
According to Joseph Ishmael, Deputy Director of the Mining Division of the Ministry of Mines, Energy & Rural Electrification, there are more than 100 prospecting licenses granted today to as much as 13 different companies. 
As Dr Tagini said, the government hopes to get a least one more operations going by 2014. 
To achieve this, companies need to pass a seven steps process until they get finally granted their mining license, as Mr Ishamel highlighted.

 On the other hand, the presentation delivered by Edward Danitofea from the Environment and Conservation Division revolved around the environment protection laws trying to minimize the damage to the nature caused by mining.  

While Australian based mining company St Barbara Limited that owns Gold Ridge Mine did not participate in the workshop, two other mining companies participated by explaining their models explained their business models to the attending journalists: Japanese mining giant Sumitomo and Australian mining company Axiom Mining Limited.
The two companies both try to get hold of a world class nickel deposit in Isabel Province. 
They are currently engaged in a court case that started this Monday and will go on until the end of the year. 

The case is premised on various grounds including, a challenge on the legality of the Prospecting license held by Axiom, the registration of the land forming the tenement and the lease arrangement entered into by the landowner representatives and Axiom.
Sumitomo, in the person of Solomon Islander Nicholas Biliki, concentrated its presentation on the vast experience the company has in other countries. 

Biliki mentioned the successful rehabilitation efforts that Sumitomo achieved in reforesting mining areas after the operations were concluded. 
He also mentioned the various ways in which the Isabel Communities benefit from Sumitomo’s engagement, from Scholarship Schemes to the evacuation of locals in medical emergencies. 

He did not however say exactly when Sumitomo will start mining.  If anything it depends on an EIS study that is still to be completed.
Axiom on the other hand,  focused more on its bottom-up business approach.  
Axioms Community Relations Manager and local  lawyer Francis Waleanisia explained how the Axiom Model is different from other model in that the landowners are joint owners in the operating company.   
“This model has been tried in Australia and so we believe is important for our purposes as well.  
“On top of these our model also departs from other models in many other ways. 
“These include, employment, use of existing traditional systems of consultations, respect for the people, land and their practices and importantly, the need to train, educate and involve landowners in the business spin offs,” Mr Walenisia said.  

His Australian Axiom colleague Tom Saunders showed case studies of successful indigenous involvement in mining operations in the Australian state of Queensland. 
Saunders worked for 20 years for the Queensland Government in this sector.

The discussions following the two presentations circled around how the two companies want to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not happening again.
As organiser and moderator Dorothy Wickham pointed out, there have been a lot of discussions around the fact that landowners and locals did not profit much over the vast logging in the past and the Gold Ridge mining operation .
During the discussions, the complex land issues in Solomon Islands showed how complex mining is in practice . Yoritoshi Ochi, Managing Director of SMM Solomon Limited, Sumitomo’s Solomon based company, pointed out on how hard it was to get approval by landowners. 

“There are different landowner groups with different interests”, Ochi said. 
Axiom’s Waleanisia on the other hand pointed out that the key is to teach people how to build their own businesses out of the monetary benefits they get.  

Mr Waleanisia in replying to the question said, there is a lot more going on but for landowners, the key is getting the right setting for consultations and ensuring that their interests are seen to be protected.  
“Once the confidence of landowners are won over the rest can easily follow on.  This is not possible if the approach has no respect for their own ways of doing things.

To profit mining landowners need to speak with one voice.
As Chief Ernest Koli from Isabel said at the workshop this is not easy: “We want to become participants, not remain spectators, but we need to prepare ourselves”. 

So far, only very few people have got the needed education and involvement, Koli said, “and we are not united”. 
He invited the media to come to Isabel to take a look themselves.
Both mining companies present at the workshop expressed their support to help the local media broadcasting and writing about mining issues.

 Australian Ryan Mount, group CEO of Axiom Mining, expressed his view that good work done by journalists is not only crucial for the public but also for Axiom as a mining company. 
“Transparency and therefore a good working media sector is very important,” Mount said. 
“That is why we are here today”. 

Mr Ochi, Managing Director of Sumitomo in the country, said: “Our doors are always open for journalists. Just come to our office and we provide you with all the information you want”.
To proof their willingness, both companies supported SIWELW in financing the workshop. The workshop was jointly funded by both companies for which the organisers were really thankful for.  The NGO plans to continue with its awareness-programme.
“A complex thing like mining is not fully understood in a day,” Dorothy Wickham says. 
“But you have to start somewhere.” 

According to Mrs Wickham the next step will be to help the journalists to find perspectives for their stories. 
In a series of trainings organised by SIWELW journalists will be discussing possible angles for stories about mining, thinking about ways to approach stakeholders, developing questions and looking for ways to present stories to the readers.
SIWELW will conduct the trainings with the help of two foreign journalists living in Honiara: Australian writer, editor and producer Anouk Ride and Swiss freelance journalist Elio Stamm. 

Mrs Ride, who wrote many articles about mining in her career, opened Monday’s workshop with a brief overview over the most important issues around mining and possible journalistic approaches.
Mr Stamm, who part-time works with One Television to improve the TV-channel’s feature story capacity, will deliver a presentation on feature writing in the following training. 

The NGO will try to support journalists throughout the investigation process, until in depth features about mining are finally published and broadcasted in the national media. 

If everything works out as SIWELW plans, the ultimate goal is to allow local journalists to travel to the provinces where mining is about to take place, so that they can see the issues with their own eyes, and discuss them face to face with the people in the communities affected by mining.

On Monday the attending local journalists proved that they are up to the challenge and willing to investigate. They asked so many questions to the mining stakeholders that the workshop did not end before 7pm.

Solomon Star