World Environment Day: Connecting people to nature – reflections for Solomon Islands
EVERY year, June 5 is celebrated as World Environment Day worldwide. It is the United Nation’s principal vehicle for encouraging awareness and action for the protection of our environment. Each year a theme is adopted to advocate on emerging environmental issues from marine pollution, human overpopulation, and global warming, to sustainable consumption and wildlife crime. This year 2017, the theme was ‘connecting people to nature’. It invited us to get into nature, appreciate its beauty, and think about how we are part of nature and how intimately we depend on it.
This article is a personal reflection of how true this theme is for Solomon Islands, after all, 70 to 80 percent of our people live in rural areas and are highly dependent on their environment for survival. In addition, our economy is largely dependent on the natural resources that exist in the natural ecosystems or the environment. We have joined the world this week to celebrate our close connection to our environment and advocate for its sustainable management.
The majority of our population thrive on natural resources and the environment
The dependency of our people on the environment cannot be overemphasised. Over the past few years, the development focus has been on improving the lives of the rural population. This has led to significant policy direction towards rural development also known as the bottom up approach or rural development policy. This policy direction was accompanied by huge financial resources directed towards socio-economic development and access to basic services. The most famous being the Rural Constituency Development Fund (RCDF) focusing on constituencies. Our development partners such as the World Bank and the others are also engaged through the Rural Development Programme (RDP).These initiatives have contributed significantly to improving community livelihood and access to much needed services.
A major area that should be further explored by these rural development policy initiatives and programmes is strengthening the capacity of our rural communities to manage the very natural environment and ecosystems that support their livelihoods. With the increasing population brought about by better health care services, the pressure on the natural environment will be enormous. Examples of thematic areas that require investment and rural development focus include managing deforestation for subsistence farming, soil management, protecting and managing watersheds, managing degradation of mangrove and wetlands, managing coastal ecosystems and coral reefs. These natural ecosystems including land can be is basically the insurance policy for the majority of the rural population. Adding other values such as traditional use and recreational values make the case more compelling, after all you don’t need big recreational park when you are living in one.
The threats from climate change also present a significant challenge for small island countries like Solomon Islands. The impact will worsen in the coming years. Coastal communities and atolls throughout the country are already at the frontline of the issue. Maintaining the health of coastal ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrasses and coral reefs will help secure food and livelihood for coastal communities. These coastal ecosystem also help protect coastal communities from king tides, storm surges and natural disasters. This underlies the need for the current rural policy direction and programmes to broaden their scope to invest in the protection and effective management of these natural assets, ecosystems and natural infrastructures. These natural ecosystems have sustained the people of Solomon Islands for thousands of years and will continue to do so in the face of long term climate change impacts and natural disasters.
Our economy is dependent on natural resources and the environment
The 2016 CBSI annual report highlighted the importance of forestry, agriculture and the fisheries sector to the economy. The extraction of natural logs for example increased in 2016 with exported log volumes rising by 17.4 percent with total export at 2,292 million cubic metres. The growth was attributed to re-entry into previously logged areas, clears felling for large projects such as bauxite mining, and increased volumes from plantation logs. The economic growth for 2017 is projected at 3.6 percent with the assumption that logging exports will remain stable in the coming year. The one year projection linked to log exports becomes worrisome when a long term (over 10 -20 years) economic projection and foresight is made. Whilst the economic and fiscal policies are not the subject of this discussion, it is inevitable to highlight this because the natural resources are at stake.
The increase in log export volumes in 2016 is due to multiple re-entry into logged areas and logging pockets of small forests and areas above 400 metres. The risk is that in the near future the country will experience a significant decline in log exports and much needed revenue. This also means that we will destroy a significant portion of the watersheds which communities are dependent on as water sources in addition to ongoing forest and environmental degradations. The argument for sustainable forest harvesting and reforestation is therefore not just an environmental argument but an economic one. This is more compelling when consideration is made to the huge potential and opportunities that lie in forests product down streaming processing. Effective management of our forests therefore requires change and innovation in forest policy formulation and updating the current forest legislation as a starting point.
The absence of effective policy direction and leadership in the mining sector over the years is a cause of major concern. The Gold Ridge, Isabel Nickel and Rennell mining issues are useful reminders. This also requires an innovative and broad policy decision with a case by case approach varying from Island to Island. Gold Ridge mine for example used to account for a reasonable amount of the country’s gross domestic product when in operation. However, without effective management, the environmental burdens are borne by the government and resources owners. The current mining operation on Rennelle islands is a story of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. The environmental consequences are significant for the people of Rennelle and the country. The country is in urgent need of a rigorous holistic mining policy to ensure that all parties get the maximum benefit whilst at the same time, managing the natural ecosystems and the environment.
Connecting people to nature – it is inevitable for Solomon’s development
There is no doubt that the rural people and economy of the country are intricately linked to natural resources and the environment. This has been the emphasis and one that should dictate current rural development policy, programme implementation and the extraction of the country’s natural resources. The article in many ways has strayed from the details of ongoing environmental degradation and issues facing the country such as wastes, pollution, soil degradation, mining pollution, land degradation and many more. It also falls short of providing detail information on what the issues, are and what policy examples can be considered as solutions. Issues relating to capacity have not been discussed as on many instances, it may not be policy issues or shortcomings but rather the will to implement. The assumption is that many of these issues are obvious ones and have been here for sometimes.
The argument to incorporate natural resource and ecosystem management into rural development policy and programmes must be taken seriously. In addition, serious innovative policy steps must be taken within the forest, mining, agriculture and fisheries sectors that are critical to the country’s economy. The adhoc policy approach to these natural resources sectors is not sustainable and is proven to have failed. Having consistent, stable and predictable policies in the natural resources sector will secure their long term economic viability. As we celebrate world environment day let’s take heed of the fact that nature and the environment is critical to our livelihoods and the economic prosperity of the country.
FRED SIHO’OU’OU PATISON
Disclaimer: the views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not necessarily the organisations he works for or is associated with.