29 January 2010
Augusta Ali Seo was a young woman in 1963 when the British colonial government was trying to take control of a large tract of her ancestral land on the southwest coast of Santa Isabel Island, Solomon Islands. Administrators from Honiara were looking for land across the archipelago to convert to forest reserves. They figured that once these ‘uninhabited’ areas were in government hands, the forests could be better managed, including for commercial forestry.
Government officials with local mediators succeeded in negotiating transfer of 75,000 acres from the customary owners to their control. The land - known as the Allardyce Tract – today retains the name of the company to whom its care was entrusted - the Allardyce Lumber Company.
Augusta recalls negotiations with her uncle, the late Andrew Kera and what followed them: “After logging, I saw the land was destroyed”. How the colonial government actually took control of the tract is not easy to decipher but Andrew Kera’s living descendents feel aggrieved that this moment of loss was the starting point of their present problems. Their hurt is amplified by the fact that the family is now split – cousin against cousin – over how best to recover the land that – 45 years on – is still under government control, this time in the hands of provincial bureaucrats.
“Our land has never been sorted out because the big men from the provincial government never settle the land rights question in our favour,” Augusta complains. “They did not want to give back our land to us, the rightful owners. They never wanted to let us know about what is going on with the land.”
While ‘legal’ alienation occurred in the 1960s, the land was de-populated when Anglican missionaries shifted villagers in 1903 to Kia village on the westernmost tip of the mainland. Kia is now the centre of a clan dispute which threatens to prolong this alienation. The division, on one level, is about inheritance rights to about 8000 ha of the Allardyce tract. On another, it is a clash of visions over how ancestral land should be exploited for community benefit.
Isabel kastom requires land to be passed down along the mother’s line. This does not deny male descendents rights over use and control but their offspring will not be beneficiaries when the land passes to the next generation.
Augusta and her siblings are grandchildren of Hugo Rarata of the Babahulu clan. Because he had no sisters, his clan is considered extinct under the matrilineal system. When he married Elena Zalani of the Zote clan, their children took over Babahulu land. One of their sons was Andrew Kera and one daughter was Anika Suani, Augusta’s mother. The children of these two elders both claim inheritance rights to their grandfather’s land. The five children of Anika Suani claim ownership through their mother. They insist that it was the wish of Hugo Rarata that the land belonging to his clan be transferred through his daughter Anika, thus restoring the mother’s line. However, the children of Rarata’s sons reject this, arguing that under customary law, the extinction of the mother’s line leads to rights reverting to the male heirs. That is to say, when the mother’s line dies out, inheritance becomes patrilineal.
Augusta believes it is this interpretation by her male cousins that has caused a division that has festered for 6 years.
“Our families have been divided because our uncles’ sons want to take control of our lands which is not according to traditional principles,” she explains. “What they do is not right in terms of inheritance and ownership. The lands should always belong to the females and pass down from those who are born from the female side.”
A spokesman for the male cousins, Reginald Hasting, told Telinga Media in Kia village that Suani’s children – as blood descendents of Hugo Rarata – have every right to settle and use the land but not to have its ownership transferred from the Babahulu clan to the clan representing the female line, known as Zote.
Ironically, what brought the Zote and Babahulu clans together was the forced marriage between Maringe-speaking Elena Zalani and Zabana-speaking Hugo Rarata. The Babahulu elder was seeking a wife outside the local clan network so he sent his men to Holokama, a village on the northeast coast near the present-day provincial capital. There, a very young Zalani was kidnapped in a violent raid and taken back to the west of the island.
In 2004, a chief’s court was convened in Kia to sort out the issue of inheritance. The chiefs urged the parties to share use of the land but were inconclusive on the question of inheritance rights. This hearing was initiated by the male cousins to clear the air soon after consensus between the two sides broke down over logging on registered land controlled jointly by the now feuding parties.
These registered plots comprise small parcels of coastal land and sand islands (totaling about 630 ha) which were returned to customary owners at independence. But this still leaves title to 8000 ha with the Isabel Government. Those like Augusta who claim matrilineal rights soon found themselves fighting on two fronts – the long-standing demand for the provincial government to return land lost to the Allardyce Company, and a more recent feud with their own kin over logging of land to which they share title.
After the devastation of Allardyce’s seven years of clear-felling that ended in 1972, Malaysian loggers – who went on to control most of the timber industry from the 1990s – took up concessions on the tract at the invitation of Isabel officials. Resentment grew as new operators pushed soil into mangrove swamps which drain into the freshwater rivers. One logger was suspended in 2003 for breaching its licence conditions but there were more to follow. Another in 2006 operated under dubious authority and further split the clan. And in early 2008, a different company again was temporarily prevented from unloading its machinery during a confrontation with the Zote claimants.
In 2006, Glengrow (SI) Ltd - also from Malaysia - won a tender from the provincial government to log large swathes of the tract. Three log camps were set up, two of them on Augusta’s grandparents' land. Outside these concessions, her cousins – even though trusteeship is shared across the divided family – continue to develop those registered plots, without her or her siblings’ consent.
“Currently, they are cutting down trees at Sugouna and damaging the land,” Augusta laments. “But we as landowners have never been told about any of these arrangements, nor have we agreed to the cutting of logs. It is the sons of our uncles that arranged and support the cutting of trees.”
During the 1990s, there was a change of policy away from established colonial-era resource companies and towards the courting of Malaysian investors. The two governments of Solomon Mamaloni attempted to devolve forest policy to make it easier for loggers to deal directly with landowners and provincial officials. A similar policy had been disastrously implemented in Papua New Guinea the previous decade but Mamaloni pushed ahead by dismantling the functions of the national Forestry Division. As Judith Bennett put it in her history of Solomon Islands forestry, Pacific Forest: “Devolution meant handing over forests to authorities lacking the implementation capacity to combat loggers’ illegalities”.
This hastened the formation of landowner companies which often obtained a logging licence only to sub-contract the felling of trees to foreigners with access to the capital and machinery for large-scale operations.
Just such a company – Ruruma Development Company – was established by John Kera (Andrew Kera’s son). At the start of 2008, he invited another Malaysian group known as Mega Enterprises to log coastal forests not under the control of the provincial government. When Telinga Media visited its base at Ruruma, John Kera was not there and all logging was suspended by a court order.
It is not only the destruction of trees on her customary land that Augusta objects to; the hidden nature of arrangements between her cousin’s development company and foreign loggers is also a source of resentment among her siblings.
The clan was once united in its desire to have its land handed back by the Isabel government and sent many delegations to the provincial capital Buala. They also sought the intervention of officials in Honiara. But by 2003, divisions had surfaced. Initially, it was over on which areas to allow logging but what has now emerged are different visions of how the clan should use and maintain the land for those that come after them. The children of Anika Suani do not oppose logging outright but rather the destructive ‘tree mining’ they have witnessed on the tract in the last decade. They also note the history of failed attempts to reforest areas which they attribute to soil damage from clear felling in the 1960s. But they insist they are willing to work with the provincial government and technical advisers to establish some kind of sustainable forestry. Securing a hand-back from the Province is the more urgent since they believe they must secure management control of any development to ensure protection of unstable mountain slopes, catchment areas and tambu sites.
The trouble is their cousins – while also wanting to have the land returned – have a different strategy in dealing with the current provincial controllers. A united negotiating front to engage provincial politicians seems far off while the dispute over customary entitlements remains unsettled.
“There has been an arrangement to share the land some years ago with the help of the leaders but was never actually settled,” says Augusta, referring to the 2004 chief’s court decision that failed to endorse their claims to ownership. “We have been told by them to just live our lives, eat and drink just as we did ages ago. Ever since then, nothing had been resolved.”
When her brother Christian Gora speaks, it is as if he feels a distortion of history has been perpetrated: “The information that has been collected and written down during that time has been transformed, giving the rights to the wrong people. The problems escalated. If only they had got the history right from way back, things would not be as they are now.”
This does not bode well for reconciliation and may have the effect of delaying the return of title to their ancestral domain. Speaking for the male cousins, Reginald Hasting still believes the key leaders can sit down and resolve their feud for the good of the clan but warns that if the suspicions continue, a “great problem” lies ahead.
The hoodwinking of Andrew Kera at Allardyce at the hands of land-hungry colonial officials resonates in the memories of those who long for history to correct itself.
“To those who come after – when you reach the stage at which the government belongs to the black people, you will be able to get the land back,” Kera noted in his diary in his native Zabana tongue. “You will be able to work the land again, and eat and drink from it.”
Hugo Rarata and Elena Zalani’s divided descendents are still waiting for that day.