Preserving the Forests in the Solomon Islands

by Gill Fickling

Zaira village, Vangunu Island, Western Province, Solomon Islands

Zaira village, Vangunu Island, Western Province, Solomon Islands

Eight pm on a Friday evening.  My skype pings with an incoming message.  It’s my cameraman/fixer, Wade Fairley, in the Solomon Islands where I’m due to be joining him the following Monday to shoot two stories for “21st Century”.  There’s been a tragedy.  The small boat we were to travel in the next week to a remote island in the Western Province to cover a story on sustainable logging has gone down in a storm.  Five of the seven people on board have been drowned, including employees of the non-governmental organisation we were to have worked with and the boat’s captain.  Boat-travel in the Solomon Islands is essential but hazardous.  These small vessels with outboard motors often sail heavily overloaded risking storms, high winds and dangerous currents.   But with few roads across the almost 1000 islands that make up the country and the price of air-travel exorbitant, voyaging by sea is usually the only option for locals.

This was a devastating catastrophe for the local people on the island of Vella Lavella, where we were to have filmed one of the few communities in the country who engage in sustainable timber production.  And we now needed a new story – fast!

UNTV Filming in Zaira Solomon Islands

UNTV Filming in Zaira Solomon Islands

Furious activity, largely by Wade, during the next 24 hours, the real threat of cancellation spurring us on, resulted in an alternative story and the shoot was saved.    But after a 30 hour flight to Honiara, the capital, followed the next day by an bumpy hop in a small plane to another island in the Western Province, we then needed to board the same type of boat as recently sank to take us to the community of Zaira, on the “ocean” side of the island of Vangunu.   The captain warned that the swell was rising and the winds were increasing, so we needed to leave as soon as possible.  With six of us on board, our camera equipment safely stored in waterproof bags and covered in a plastic sheet, we set off – firstly across the tranquil turquoise waters of the Marovo Lagoon, and then out into the open sea.  I have probably never been more terrified!   The waves dwarfing our small vessel were 3 metres high – walls of water alongside us, many of them breaking on the top – the sky grey and foreboding, and the wind howling.  We clung on to the wooden slats across the tossing boat which served as benches for two and a half hours, drenched with sea spray.  Whenever the boat rose to the top of a wave, I eyed the rocky shore and calculated which part I thought I could swim to when we capsized.   But, thanks to the impressive proficiency of the captain, we didn’t – although the sea was too rough to land at our destination so we went on further to a sheltered bay and then hiked two hours the next day, along the beach and through the forest to reach the village of Zaira.  Eight local men helped us carry all the gear!

Arriving eventually in Zaira was like stepping into paradise!  Not only were we alive, but we had walked into a time-warp – no electricity, no running water, no phone network, no shops but an abundance of warm hospitality and a pristine environment of wooden huts with palm-leaf roofs surrounded by one of the few swathes of virgin forest in the region, untouched by commercial loggers.

Zaira Village

Zaira Village

For the next five days, we lived in a village house, eating what they ate and bathing in the local river as they did.  We filmed how they harvested just what they needed from the forest – individual hardwood trees to build the roof of their new church; “maria” nuts, similar to Brazil nuts, which form a staple of their diet – each family knows which tree is theirs to harvest; and root vegetables planted in forest clearings.   But not only does the forest provide for most of their needs, the villagers are now involved in a new scheme to help finance its future; the development of eco-tourism.  Through the protection of their forest and sustainable management of its resources, they hope to attract visitors, charmed by the simplicity of the life-style and beauty of the surroundings.  This kind of venture, which combines forest management with the provision of livelihoods for small communities, is heralded by the UN Forum on Forests, with whose support this film was being made.   UN Television is producing four films for UNFF this year to showcase similar examples of sustainable forest financing around the world

Leaving Zaira was a challenge – both physically, as the boat had to be launched off a platform of rocks, dodging the breaking waves and nearby reef – and emotionally.   With a huge respect for these people, who tackle these hazardous boat-rides as though jumping in a cab to the supermarket, it had been a privilege for me to share their life-style in this, one of the most remote corners of the globe I had ever visited.   And now I felt sad to leave this place where nature both provides and is respected, where deadlines are non-existent and the pace of daily-life allows time for people to be nice to each other!   As their chief, remarkable 74 year-old Green Jino, who has systematically resisted economically-attractive offers from loggers to sell his people’s land and future, says:

“Our children, our children’s children, where will they go if we destroy the land?  I will never sell the land because people are important and land is important for the future.”

See “21st Century” feature from the Solomon Islands – “The Wood for the Trees”.