Solomon Islands: Wagina residents win bid to stop bauxite mining planPublished by MAC on 2020-11-09
Source: ABC, Amnesty International
A mining company planned to dig an open-pit mine on their tiny island.
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November 6, 2020
A remote community in the Solomon Islands has scored a huge victory against a mining company, which had planned to dig an open-pit mine on their tiny island.
Wagina Island is just 78 square kilometres in size, and residents argued the open-pit bauxite mine the company had been given approval for would affect 60 per cent of the island, damaging land, rivers and the sea.
It's been a seven-year battle for the island's residents, who first took Solomon Bauxite Limited — a company owned by two Hong Kong-listed businesses — to court over its mining plan back in 2014.
The complaint was heard by the country's Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), which last year revoked the development consent given to the mining company by the Solomon Islands Ministry of Environment.
The committee said the company had failed to follow the law by not getting community consent for its planned mine, and that it failed to provide residents with copies of its environmental impact statement.
That decision was thrown into doubt after Solomon Bauxite Limited appealed, but the country's Minister of Environment has now rejected the appeal.
Wagina Island resident Samao Biribo told the ABC the decision to reject the company's appeal was a huge relief for those living on the island.
An island of refugees
The Wagina Island situation was far from a simple environmental case, as it also involved land rights and the troubled history of colonialism that persists in parts of the Pacific.
Most of the roughly 2,000 people who call Wagina Island home can trace their history back to islands that now make up the Pacific nation of Kiribati — due to drought, they were resettled in Solomon Islands in the late 1950s by the British colonial government, which controlled much of the region.
This was no small move: their home islands in Kiribati were around 3,300 kilometres away from Wagina Island, or around the same distance as the crow flies between Perth and Sydney.
This also wasn't the first time colonial powers had moved the islanders. They had previously been evacuated from other islands in Kiribati two decades earlier in the 1930s, again due to drought.
As a result, the residents of Wagina have a completely different culture to the communities on nearby islands in Solomon Islands.
And while the colonial administration considered Wagina Island to be uninhabited at the time of the resettlement, tribal groups in Solomon Islands have since contested its ownership.
Ms Biribo said the Minister of Environment's decision to reject the appeal has affirmed her people's right to live on the island.
"We stayed here for 50 years. When I received this news it's a beginning for us, it is a recognition of who we are, the Minister recognises us," she said.
"If the Government can continue to recognise us, give us political equality and land rights for us as minority group here."
Case to make waves across the islands
Wagina Island residents used a previously untried provision within the country's environment law to challenge the company's right to mine there.
Lawyer William Kadi from the Public Solicitors Office in the capital Honiara represented the islanders — an undertaking he said proved difficult at times given how far away Wagina Island is, and patchy mobile phone coverage.
The Carteret Islands were the first place in the world to require population relocations due to climate change, with predictions they would be submerged by 2015.
He said the case would have major implications beyond Wagina, providing a model for other rural communities who feel powerless against companies with Government-issued mining or logging licences in their area.
"It gives hopes for us to see that there's another alternative avenue … to challenge decisions made by [the] public authority without going to the courts," Mr Kadi said.
Solomon Bauxite Limited still has an existing mining lease on the island, however it will need to re-apply for a new development consent if it wants to attempt to mine on the island again.
The ABC has sought comment from Solomon Bauxite Limited's country representative.
Solomon Islands blocks bauxite mine in victory for Wagina islanders who feared for livelihoods
6 November, 2020
The Solomon Islands Minister of the Environment has upheld a decision that had refused the development of an open-cast bauxite mine on Wagina Island.
“This is a hard-won victory for Wagina Island residents who rely on their island and waters around the proposed mining site for their livelihoods,” said Richard Pearshouse, Amnesty International’s Head of Crisis and Environment.
“The Minister has heard their concerns loud and clear: environmental decisions are always better when local communities are adequately consulted. When Amnesty International conducted research on the ground in 2019, many community members said they did not feel sufficiently informed or consulted about this mining proposal.”
In December 2019, following an investigation on Wagina Island, Amnesty International called on the Minister of the Environment to conduct face-to-face consultations with local communities to hear their concerns before deciding the fate of a proposed open-cast bauxite mine. Residents told Amnesty International that they were concerned about the possible impacts from mining on fishing and sea-weed farming from mine run-off or disturbances to fresh groundwater discharges into the sea.
The Ministry of Environment had granted Solomon Bauxite Limited (SBL) a permit to mine there in 2013. The next year, Wagina Island residents fought the decision, eventually winning a Supreme Court stay on the mine’s development until the matter was further scrutinized. In March 2019, the Environmental Advisory Committee overturned the mining licence, after residents raised fears it could impact livelihoods on the island.
The Minister’s latest decision comes in response to an appeal from SBL to overturn that March 2019 move.