eJournal of the Australian Association for the Advancement of Pacific Studies
Issues 1.2 and 2.1, April 2010

Women and Natural Resource Development in Solomon Islands: An Insider View


  1. Solomon Island women like many across the Pacific are seen to bear a disproportionate burden of poverty in terms of material deprivation, discrimination, and denial of their basic human rights (SIG & UNDP
    Ruth Maetala
    Pacific Center, 2008). Women's earnings are measured as under the poverty line (SIG 1999, CCC 2004). They are represented in writings as having little opportunity to influence the processes, systems and institutions in which they live. Solomon Islands is rated one of twelve countries globally with no women in parliament (IPU 2009, Whittington et.al. 2006). The under-representation of women's voices in decision-making and politics ring loud and clear but no solutions have been found to improve women's representation since Solomon Islands independence in 1978. Women are an integral part of decision-making in most rural areas. So the move to the public sphere will bring new challenges to people's perceptions of Solomon Islands women. With continuous efforts made by government, civil society, churches and development partners to improve the conditions of women, very little attention has been paid to cultural frameworks of decision-making, in particular, the exploitation of land and natural resources.

    Push and pull concept
  2. This paper uses the 'push and pull' concept to describe the fact that women want change yet, simultaneously, they want to maintain their traditional roles. In the past the role of women was focused on their domestic and community roles which required no money. In contemporary times, the need to embrace change is inevitable. Women's roles, whether they live in a village or in sub-urban towns is either consciously or unconsciously changing. Women are drawn to modernisation but at the same time practise their traditional roles. Many have been stirred by the ethnic tensions in 1998–2000.

    Women and natural resources
  3. Research found that land in Solomon Islands to be 87 per cent to be under customary land tenure (AusAID 2006) rather than publicly owned (Lands and Titles Act 1969). On the other hand while there is a strong recommendation for land reform (SSGM 2008), the infrastructure for reform of customary land is not present. Nor is the desire for people to simply give up their land. Collectively, tribes consisted of several clans which owned land categorised by the division of rivers, ocean and trees (Maetala 2008, Asker 2009). In this context, many people in rural Solomon Islands communities still rely on small-scale subsistence; cash based agriculture and small scale forestry and fishing. Colonisation contributed much to migration to plantations especially in Guadalcanal, Russell Islands and Western Province. Primarily Malaitan people were brought to these project sites as labourers. As a result, their practices migrated with them. Development of natural resources for example, impacted on people's movement to the project site. Attitudes towards resource benefit sharing became an issue of contention between Guadalcanal people and Malaitans in the 1999–2003 crisis (AusAID, 2006, 10). In fact, the patrilineal background of Malaitans brought to Guadalcanal influenced the matrilineal descent patterns of their hosts, who are the resource owners, through intermarriage (Maetala 2008).
  4. A study of fourteen Pacific Island countries identified eight threats to the environment. These are threats to fresh water, degradation of marine and coastal environment, degradation of land and forests, urbanisation and waste management issues, depletion of biological diversity, energy-related environmental concerns, adaptation to climate change and weak environmental governance ((ADB 2007, 71). However, international impact assessments of resource development often overlook the distributional consequences of revenues earned, the social impact of such development and women's roles and authority in relation to development. For instance, logging earns 80 per cent of government revenue (AusAID 2006), and in Makira alone, there are ten different Asian logging companies operating on the island (Interview, Forestry Officer Makira Province, September 2009) but only 5 per cent of their revenue is paid to the Makira Provincial Government (Interview, Undersecretary Makira Province, 2009). Additionally, logging sites are becoming commonly plagued by youth crime while teenage pregnancy is on the rise (CCC, 2004). Despite the high demand for employment, the government continues to freeze its recruitment forcing many school leavers and graduates onto the streets of Honiara.
  5. My paper discusses the traditional role of women in natural resource management and how these roles are changing when large development projects are introduced. Further, it examines two types of exploitation – large-scale development and conservation. The issues affecting women in both contexts are identified and discussed from a personal point of view. Examples are drawn from two case studies: the development of the Guadalcanal Plain Palm Oil Ltd (GPPOL) and its impact on women's roles and the Rural Development and Community-Based Resource Management Project which birthed the Baraulu Women's Sewing Project in Western Province.
  6. In the former case, individuals who join the out-growers program are currently benefiting through the work that Greenta Tavake is doing. Trained in community development by the South Pacific Communities (SPC) women's program, coupled with her vast development experience as a government officer and Community Peace and Restorative Fund (CPRF AusAID) Officer in the post-conflict era, Greenta drives the association and assures its recognition by GPPOL. The association's aim is to improve the livelihoods of palm oil plot owners. The second case study I focus on is the Baraulu women's sewing project, initiated by Shanker Aswani, a scientist from the University of California who established these conservation sites from 1999–2003 (Aswani, 2003). Like the out-growers program, the sewing project was established as an income-generating project. This paper will discuss these two case studies in depth at a later stage. Further, examples from these case studies will demonstrate the impact of resource development on the changing role of women.

    My interest in this subject
  7. There are three main influences in my choice of the subject at hand. Foremost, I am a Solomon Islander woman, and have the strong belief that I have the right and responsibility to explore traditional and cultural frameworks and the knowledge of how my people lived in the past. The language name for this aspect of my Malaitan culture is referred to in Gula'ala language (my maternal side) as ainimae in Kwara'ae (my paternal lineage) as isufuta'a. Both concepts translate as 'tell me about your lineage.' In Guadalcanal, it is called tutungu 'your story' (Matanara Women's Association, Land Workshop, May 2009). My strong desire to develop my cultural knowledge of women met with the need to further research the traditional roles of women and their natural resources.
  8. Secondly, during 2001–2003, I was involved in rehabilitation work with CPRF AusAID which took me to many remote villages throughout the country. Living with women and their communities during this time, I gained invaluable insight from elderly women like my grandmother Ruth, Lisa Harue of Choiseul and others. These women have power and authority to speak about issues and pass down knowledge which I found fascinating. In those times, I also came across women who strongly feel that their natural resources are depleting. The story of the North Vela women, Western Province convinced me that something needs to be done about natural resource management. The women of Makira, like those in Vela, experienced violence when speaking out for their matrilineal rights to land (Maetala 2008). To these women, I believe I can offer a contribution to developing their knowledge about government legal structures and systems. Finally, since 2001 I have been involved in project consultancies, reviews, project designs and policy development, and even more so in the last two years. These gave me the opportunity to establish new friendships and strengthen my network across the country. The two case studies discussed in this paper result from such opportunities.

    Past meets present: changing roles of Solomons women
  9. Women in Solomon Islands take pride in their natural resources. A typical household in the rural areas where people are surrounded by and live together with their natural resources would consist of an extended family of father, mother, their children and close relatives who live together in one house or several houses clustered together in one area ( AusAID 2006). People practise subsistence living and are largely self-sufficient. The roles of women and daughters are primarily focused on reproduction and family-oriented production. They are mostly responsible for, the clearing of land, growing food, food preparation and cooking, firewood collection, gathering nuts and vegetables, harvesting of marine resources, planting, hoeing and fetching water, amongst many other jobs, including reproduction and care of children and community roles in church and village life. These roles are immensely time-consuming. Everyday women spend most of a 24 hour day working for the survival of their family. In terms of natural resource management, women play a pivotal role in story telling, which legitimates claim to resources and transmits knowledge about looking after them. In the past, traditional oral histories were as important as Western books and documents Genealogies are still recounted by women to both young and old. Men and women contribute equally in transmitting their genealogies to future generations.
  10. Male and female children were taught distinct gender roles from an early start. As children mature they grow into specific gendered roles. These roles are reinforced over time. The division of labour is demonstrated in daily activities of women and men. For example, men living on coastal areas would fish, the women would clean the fish, cook or dry the fish, and either men or women would batter the fish with starch. The non-cash economy is supported by alliances within the extended family so that food security is not compromised. Natural resource management principles and practices, including conservation are passed down from one generation to the next. This also applies to practices in using and sustaining the land.
  11. Women educate young people in this way as well as training them to have respect for one another and build character. In this oral history is a resource. Stories are important. Throughout Melanesia, one would find that people with no stories have no connection to their tribe and thus to their land. You cannot claim ownership of resources unless you can trace your genealogies. Today, money and the cash economy is increasingly supplanting land and the subsistence lifestyle. Access to important tribal knowledge is often now limited to a few people, often men.
  12. The distinct gender roles of women and men in Solomon Islands provide a good case for gender analysis but the traditional role of women is often misunderstood by researchers. Gender analysts would point out the gender differences between men and women founded on their idea of inequality. However, many do not consider the specific role of women and men.
  13. Studies (Pollard 2000; AusAID 2006) have suggested that life for women in Solomon Islands has drastically changed over the years. Education was introduced in the 1800s (Akao 2008) resulting in the urbanisation of women as some moved into towns. Women's roles in the family changed as women are increasingly active participants in both public and private sectors. The introduction of Church roles came with conversions and introduced skills such as sewing, Western methods of cooking, knitting, Western craft making and leadership training (Pollard 2000).
  14. By the 1960s women's roles in the public sphere began as teachers and expanded steadily as girls were sent to girls' schools within Solomon Islands and overseas. Despite these changes and exposure, many barriers to women's participation in public life are still not overcome (Whittington et.al, 2006). Additionally, women's roles in society continue to hold on to the status quo (Maetala 2008). Women's total dependence on the land shifted.
  15. Now, modern education is appreciated. But at the local level, women struggle to pay for their children's education while still having to maintain subsistence living. A common scenario would be women in markets selling food to pay for kerosene for household lighting, soap for bathing and washing, clothing, sanitary needs, and school fees. Women who are illiterate and have no education now work in plantations to make copra or run fisheries or sewing projects but such projects need infrastructure support, financial support and leadership. The demand on women to improve their living conditions is good but it needs money. People want water supplies and toilet projects but are they sustainable. In Isabel, a woman told me: 'When standpipes are introduced in our village, our social time of going to the river and talking to other women is taken away. Our exercise walking to the river is taken away. The privacy of our bath time is taken away' (Interview in Maetala, 2008). Is this what we call development? If this is the impact of standpipes on women in rural communities then there a solution must be sought. Standpipes are not bathrooms. Women cannot just stand and wash when men in the village are watching.
  16. Moreover, women's roles now include carrying timber and gravel for school projects, attending diverse workshops on awareness and training, life skills and business, legal literacy, financial literacy, media and many other project-related activities. But at the same time, tradition and culture demands that women continue to play their family-oriented roles and responsibilities. Men too have advanced from their traditional roles. They have become decision-makers in government, committees, trustees of companies, beneficiaries of royalties and negotiators with companies. Before, decision-making was a shared process. In matrilineal societies men were the 'voice' of women, their spokesmen but this role has been reconfigured in contemporary systems and structures to mean something else. For example, when GPPOl signed the Memorandum of Understanding with the trustees, they took the men away to New Britain. On the agreements, there is no written space to accommodate the role of spokesman and land custodian simultaneously. Interpretations of traditional principles and practices are not accommodated in formal and legal institutions. Further, developers introduce project requirement on communities, for example in a classroom project it might constitute 20 per cent of the total project cost. These contributions come in kind. This means men and women in a village would contribute with their labour and with gravel, sand and timber. This is good because it counters the 'cargo cult' mentality and breaks the dependency cycle. But, women are the most vulnerable in such situations. They labour in such community projects but are expected to perform family duties too.
  17. How then can such change be managed? Sustainability and local ownership of projects are the 'in thing' for development partners but formal schooling is an introduced idea, and accepting women as integral to these processes should be primary. Women contribute their time to such projects only because they see a better future for their children. But what about them, there is little attention given to women's health and well-being This means achieving the Millennium Development Goals 3 and 5 will be a challenge.
  18. While women's roles are changing as they become advocates, training facilitators, community development facilitators, micro-financiers, group conveners, business women, educators and brokers of peace (Pollard 2000a, Tovosia 2000) in contemporary Solomon Islands, there is a lack of recognition of such roles (Leslie, 2000). Recognition of women's roles and needs is essential if there are to be opportunities for sustainable development. Attention to social relationships between men, women, companies and other stakeholders should be part of the consultation process.

    Facing the realities
  19. The challenges for women in the development of natural resources are revealed in two cases studies: the Guadalcanal Plains Palm Oil Limited in the plains of Guadalcanal and the Rural Development and Resources Management (Marine Protected Areas) Project in Roviana, Western Province. These both demonstrate the changing roles of women in natural resource management.
  20. My involvement with Guadalcanal women went way back to my high school days when I made friends with a number of Guadalcanal girls. Our friendships lasted even through the trying times of the ethnic crises from 1998 to 2000. During my years of rehabilitation work through the Community Peace and Restoration Fund (CPRF) new friendships with Guadalcanal women were formed and strengthened till today. Through these opportunities, I worked closely with women to revisit some of their matrilineal principles. One example was a workshop I held for Guadalcanal men and women in 2006 to rethink the traditional practices of land ownership in Guadalcanal. Many people, including the Premier for Guadalcanal at that time, attended in support. Some with background knowledge of Solomon Islands might ask: why was tok stori about Guadalcanal land facilitated by a Malaitan woman? This was possible through my friendship with Guadalcanal women and because part of the event was facilitated by the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat (PIFS) Gender and Land Study project (2006–2008).
  21. Part of the consultation process landed me in Kamau, East Guadalcanal where I stayed for some time. This is Greenta's village. Greenta initiated plans for the organisation of an Out-growers Association formed by the out-grower palm oil farmers at GPPOL. The Out-Growers Association was formed for individual owners of palm oil plots. It is based in the Guadalcanal Plain Palm Oil Limited (GPPOL), a company owned by New Britain Palm Oil. Research shows that the estimated revenue to Solomon Islands economy from palm oil was US$10 million in 2008 (ACIAR 2010). However, this company is 80 per cent owned by New Britain Palm Oil a company based in Papua New Guinea. Benefits are rarely received by land owners.
  22. One elderly lady commented, 'I am the land owner and my brother is my spokesman. When the company started in 2005, my brother and others went to New Britain to sign the agreement. Now that GPPOL is here, I am still waiting to see how my family and my nieces will benefit in the future.' This conversation added value to Greenta's knowledge which inspired Greenta to begin work with her people in the plains.
  23. Greenta's development model was simple. She organised and registered the group. Every land owner who owns a plot of palm oil is eligible to become a member. Greenta mediates between the company and the Ministry of Agriculture. With the help of others she registered the group, organised harvest days and the collection of palm fruits and the sale of produce. The group agreed that the company should make a 10 per cent deduction on their total sales. This money goes to the Association account which is reserved for small loans for school fees and income-generating projects. Later Greenta's role as a convener was important when the GPPOL head quarters were set alight by some youths. Greenta played a mediating and negotiation role between the youth and the company (Greenta September 2009).
  24. Despite this seeming success story, a focus group discussion with women in September 2009, found otherwise. Women raised a number of key issues in terms of the increasing demands on them in relation to the social impact of the GGPOL plantation.
  25. Unable to fully understand the reason for project consultations and women's participation at project design level, women questioned for what purpose they were required. They argued that if projects are genuinely interested in women they would come when women are in the village. They are concerned that government and other stakeholders do not consult them first to schedule meeting times suitable for them. Women also raised the question of the rationale for participation, whether their participation was really for their benefit or whether it was only to satisfy government's, NGOs' and development partners' project criteria. A senior lands officer (Interview September 2009) said, 'Guadalcanal women need to participate in project consultation because besides the GGPOL project, their lives are affected by the nearby Gold Ridge Mining and will be affected by the upcoming development of the Tina Hydro project.' Overlooking women's participation is easy. The non-inclusion of women in consultation processes can be undermined by the traditional role of their brothers as spokesmen, which can act to exclude women in contemporary contexts. Further, consultations done during the day when women do their work can also exclude women's voices. Therefore, a consultation process which is gender sensitive would enhance the role of women and men as equal partners in decision-making.
  26. Considerable effort is made by women in the Guudalcanal Plains to counter the social problems their children face on a daily basis: increased stealing, substance abuse, marijuana farming and brewing of kwaso – a local homebrew. In their monthly meetings women in the Plains pass on new skills, raise awareness and work on their savings clubs. Efforts to re-educate their children about their maternal rights are well on the way. As I (2008) found in my research, women in matrilineal societies (Guadalcanal, Makira and Isabel) are flexible in their practices of land and resource ownership and in many cases this flexibility is abused by male members of the family. The traditional role of men as spokespeople is further strengthened and transformed by the Western concept of property ownership. This introduced concept of ownership promotes individualism which conflicts with the Melanesian concept of ownership as shared and communal, a custodianship for future generations. This provokes conflicts within people's minds and with others. Whereas people did not put up fences before, fences now replace shrubs. Security is no longer present and trust is vanishing in many Solomon Islands villages.
  27. The second case study I discuss in this paper is the Baraulu Women's Project which was established as a result of a major conservation project in the Roviana Lagoon, Western Province. The Roviana and Vonavona Lagoons Marine Resource Management Project was initiated by Shanker Aswani with various villages and communities in the Western Province, and particularly in Baraulu village from 1999 to 2007. According to Aswani et. al. (2003) this project established permanent community-based Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and spatio-temporal refuges (seasonal 'notake' zones) under customary sea tenure in the Roviana and Vonavona Lagoons, Western Province, Solomon Islands. The aim of the project was to encourage an ongoing small scale development initiative designed to empower women financially.

    Map 1. MPA Project Area in Roviana and Vonavona Lagoons, Western Solomons
    Source: SPC Women in Fisheries Bulletin, vol. 12 (May 2003), p. 2.

  28. It was in May 2009, when I visited Baraulu village as part of the New Zealand Aid fisheries project design team. Baraulu was a special place to me because my husband formed a relationship with families of this village more than twenty years ago. My interest in the Sewing Project was linked to this family tie. What interests me was the development approach which gave birth to this project.
  29. The consultation phase of the MPA project was done from 1999–2003 (Nick, RCN, Munda, Interview, 2009). There was some capacity building in terms of the scientific concerns about environmental degradation and endangered species of corals and marine life. However, when women were given the sewing machines and materials, a community hall was also built to house the sewing project and other activities including a malaria testing lab. This hall was still incomplete at the time of my field work.
  30. The Baraulu women have fine sewing skills, using imported cloth with needle and thread. They are also weavers of indigenous textiles. Their source of food security resides in the land and the sea. Their main concern was the fact that nearby fishing grounds be permanently protected. They were also concerned with the extensive soil erosion from the nearby logging camp at Enogae. However, their frustrations could not be channeled to the provincial government level or the national government level. Women at Baraulu, travel in dug out canoes to the nearby market in Munda which is an arduous journey of one night to be able to sell root crops, fish or shells.
  31. The sewing project failed for several reasons. First, sewing projects are foreign ideas and as such need infrastructure to sustain them. Women in Baraulu were not trained in sewing machine maintenance. The half-built community hall is incapable of providing security for the women's equipment. Moreover, materials must be bought in Munda, Gizo or Honiara which requires money for transportation. The cost of transportation is often more than what women are earning from their sales of the finished, sewn cloths. Further, women felt that the Marine Protected Areas have literally taken over their lives, dictating where and when they can fish. Thus, coordinated efforts from government and other stakeholders are needed to ensure solutions are found.

    Development challenges
  32. The cases discussed here present two different scenarios but both demonstrate the difficulties in the changing role of women in resource development. The social impact of palm oil development is severely felt by women in the Guadalcanal Plains while the impact of a marine resource conservation project is equally felt by women in Baraulu. The impact of these projects changes the perception of women in these communities about development. In the wake of the twenty-first century, government, NGOs and development partners should start by asking what already works on the ground. What are the alternatives we can offer when we exploit or conserve natural resources? In development, change is expected but how should that change be managed? When projects require community contributions are gender impact assessments part of the project design phase? If so, which tools or frameworks for gender analysis should be used?
  33. Resources are depleting quickly but people remain. One woman in Vela la Vela, Western Province in 2007, astutely observed: 'When our trees are wiped out we cannot eat money.' On the other hand, apropos conservation, women ask: 'Where do we earn the money now to support our children at school?' Such voices must be taken seriously by government and its stakeholders as well as companies and development agencies. Given the two contesting views, for both conservation and development, alternative development projects have to closely examine the situation now and into the future to ensure a holistic approach is applied.
  34. Infrastructure: Infrastructure should be in place to support initiatives such as women's sewing groups. The lack of infrastructure results in yet another failed project. This poses a challenge for local women at the community level as well as for the National Women's Machinery which is mandated to provide skills training and policies to promote the advancement of women. Although there is an existing network of women's organisations and development agencies in the country, the absence of women's development officers in all provinces remain a challenge. The Women in Development Division (WDD) of the government has a very limited budget to benefit women who constitute 48 per cent of the total population of the country. Funding for good projects by the WDD is very slim.
  35. Capacity scoping: This means developing natural resources through developing human resources. The need exists for government and development partners to develop people. The beneficiaries of projects should be trained to manage projects. Moreover, companies should offer programs to build the social capacities of people to manage change.
  36. Enabling the voices of women: This can be a challenge. The voices of 80 per cent of women who live in rural regions are heard by the national government but not loud enough to influence decisions and policies. With increased demands from government, NGOs and development partners to promote gender sensitive programs, women's participation is a key requirement. The voices of rural women must be channeled through all levels to the highest decision-making levels. One way to facilitate this is by increasing women's representation at the committee level, as in the MPA committees in Roviana or in community discussions and consultations like the Guadalcanal women in the GPPOL area, who hold monthly meetings to raise issues. This should not stop at the community level; it should also increase the participation of women in government and ultimately in parliament.
  37. Consultation and empowerment: Consultation times should not be rigid but flexible. Empowerment should be demonstrated not just in the self-confidence and leadership of women but in the attitudes towards women leaders, evinced by women as well as men. Barriers to women's participation in the development processes should be countered through education, policy development and legislative reform. Leslie (2002, 14) said: '[D]evelopment programs should, therefore, promote women's empowerment, while confronting the disempowerment that women experience, through projects that contribute to more equitable gender relations in society.'

  38. This paper concludes that in development practice 'one size does not fit all.' Women as mothers, educators and resources owners are often challenged by the presence of development projects on their land. With good natural resource management skills women thrived for many centuries within a subsistence economic framework. With the increasing pressure on women to earn money and participate in the economic development and civilisation of the country, women's needs and skills are often overlooked. Even if they are consulted, their voices are not heard in a way as to influence decisions. Thus a call for inclusion of women in the agenda of natural resource development is urgent. While women look back to tradition, they also look forward to the future of their children. Facilitating this in the development process may become a solution to save the next generation from much heartache which has been experienced elsewhere (MacIntire 2002; Kopusar 2002; Carino 2002; Banumathi 2002). Recognition of the changing roles of women in development is both feasible and beneficial for women and their families.


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    People Interviewed

    Nick and Jenny – Roviana Conservation Network (RCN), Munda, May 2009.

    Eric Garopava, Under Secretary, Ministry of Lands and Housing, September 2009.

    Forestry Officer, Makira Province, September 2009.

    Andrew Nanauoha, Under Secretary, Makira Provincial Government, September 2009.

    Greenta Tavake, Tetere, East Guadalcanal, Personal Interview, September, 2009.

    Women, Guadalcanal Plains, Assembly of God (AOG) Church, September 2009.


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