Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Melanesian (about 80 languages), Polynesian (about 5 languages), Pijin, English
Main religions: Christianity (various), animism
Minority groups include Polynesians and i-Kiribati
The population is 515,870 (2009 census). Ninety-five per cent of the population is indigenous Melanesian, with smaller Chinese, European, Micronesian (1.2 per cent) and Polynesian groups (3.1 per cent) also resident.
The Solomon Islands are an archipelago of approximately 922 small islands. Ninety-five per cent of the population is indigenous Melanesian, with smaller Chinese, European, Micronesian and Polynesian groups also resident. Due to the relative isolation of its communities, there are many diverse languages, cultures and traditions. For this reason, local governance systems, including familial ties, are often more important than national political institutions.
The rapidly growing population is primarily Melanesian. While more than three quarters of the population still live in rural areas and relies on a semi-subsistence agricultural economy, the country is urbanizing rapidly. The central chain of high islands was historically occupied by Melanesians, while outlying islands, including coral atolls, were occupied by different Polynesian cultural communities. Many Polynesians have moved to the centre, and especially the capital Honiara.
The Micronesian Gilbertese (i-Kiribati) were resettled in the Solomon Islands from the 1950s, when both the Gilbert Islands (Kiribati) and Solomon Islands were British colonies, because of land shortages in the Gilbert Islands. By the 1970s about a thousand Gilbertese were established in the Solomon Islands, growing to around 4,000 by the 1990s, many living in Honiara.
In addition to i-Kiribati, there are small numbers of other migrant groups, mainly around Honiara, including Chinese and Europeans, but their numbers have fallen since independence.
Updated March 2018.
Despite its return to relative stability, the Solomon Islands continue to struggle with a range of issues, including land rights. While the Constitution makes limited direct reference to traditional land rights, these were previously implicitly respected. However, the drive for economic development in recent years has at times placed growing pressure on customary land rights. For instance, indigenous communities still face the risk of their land being appropriated without their consent by logging companies, both local and international, who frequently deforest large swathes of environmentally sensitive areas, in the process depriving communities of their livelihoods and cultural spaces.
These issues have at times contributed to increased inter-ethnic tensions, driven by the perception that foreigners enjoy disproportionate control of the country’s wealth and resources. In February 2017, for example, the leader of the Parliamentary Independent Group, Derek Sikua, called in parliament for the government to address the increasing presence of foreign investors at the expense of the local indigenous population. Resentment of non-indigenous communities, particularly Asians, and their perceived affluence has been responsible for triggering periodic outbreaks of violence – for example, the looting of Chinese businesses in the capital of Honiara in 2006 and 2012. Initiatives such as the Indigenous Chambers of Commerce, Trade and Industries for Solomon Islands (ICCTISI), launched in April 2016, have been established with the stated aim of creating more opportunities for the indigenous population.
The Solomon Islands is also struggling to cope with rapid urban growth, particularly in the capital of Honiara, as a result of large-scale migration from rural areas. Honiara has experienced a doubling of its population in less than 17 years, and the city’s annual urban growth rate of 4.7 per cent is one of the highest in the Pacific. This is putting immense pressure on urban service delivery, already in short supply, and leading to local tensions. Honiara also faces the challenge of informal urban settlements, where up to 35 per cent of Honiara’s residents – the majority of whom are indigenous islanders – now reside. While population growth and increasing rural–urban migration are significant factors contributing to the growth of these informal settlements, a lack of usable land for low- and middle income earners also drives the trend. Besides poor living conditions and limited or no access to basic services such as sanitation, inhabitants are at increased risk of natural disasters. Over 65 per cent of housing in informal settlements lacks durability, meaning that it would likely not withstand strong winds or earthquakes. The settlements, some of which are located on steep slopes, are therefore at high risk of collapsing in the event of a natural disaster, leaving residents in a situation of extreme vulnerability.
These issues are exacerbated by the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters such as earthquakes, including some of the worst in recent history in December 2016, near the island of Makira. As the effects of climate change intensify, a number of islands have already been submerged, with others rapidly shrinking, in the process displacing indigenous families from their homes. As the local environment is inextricably tied to everything from income generation and nutrition to spirituality and cultural expression, the impacts on the rights and wellbeing of indigenous communities are likely to be devastating if unaddressed.
Updated March 2018.
The Solomon Islands are one of the largest Pacific island states. The islands are an archipelago of approximately 922 small islands. Most islands are high, mountainous and of volcanic origin alongside some coral atoll outliers. More than sixty islands are populated.
While archaeological evidence suggests that the Solomon Islands have been inhabited since at least 1000 BC, narratives on the origins of the indigenous population vary between tribes and islands. Though the first European contact took place in 1568, for a long time after the presence of Europeans was limited. However, from the 19th century extensive trade and missionary networks developed, culminating in its establishment as a British Protectorate in 1893.
Following the end of World War II, when the island was occupied by Japanese forces, popular demands for independence grew. In the ensuing decades power was devolved and by January 1976 the Solomon Islands became self-governing, followed by independence two years later in 1978. Its ties with the United Kingdom remain close, however, and its legal and parliamentary systems are strongly informed by the British model. The population has grown quickly. The economy is dominated by subsistence agriculture. The principal exports have been timber, fish, oil palm and gold, but the export economy was disrupted following economic and ethnic violence that began in 1999. Despite apparent contemporary stability some elements of the pre-violence economy, such as a promising gold mine, have yet to be re-established.
The Solomon Islands has a national parliament of fifty seats and there are nine very weak provincial governments. Economic development problems, and high unemployment, compounded by corruption, a rapidly growing population and substantial migration from other islands to the fringes of the capital, Honiara, resulted in tensions over access to land and employment and an outbreak of violence in 1999, notably between Malaitans – the bulk of the migrants to Honiara and the main island of Guadalcanal, and indigenous Guadalcanese.
There was considerable violence between the Isatabu Freedom Movement, representing dissident Guadalcanese, and the Malaita Eagle Force. Clashes between the rival militias, the overthrow of the government and the collapse of policing led to tens of thousands made homeless, with many fleeing from the main island Guadalcanal for their home islands – an estimated 15,000–20,000 people evacuated in 1999 (mainly to Malaita), and at least 3,000 more were hiding away from their villages by July 2000. The crisis, often presented simply as an ethnic clash, took place in a broader context of economic change affected by globalisation, corruption and the failure of a development model based on exploitation of natural resources such as logging and fisheries.
The Townsville Peace Agreement was signed in 2000, but failed to quell the violence. Perhaps as many as 200 people were killed over a four year period until international intervention in 2003 by Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Islander police and military forces under the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI); the military presence transitioned to a police-focused mission in 2013. While Solomon Islanders largely welcomed RAMSI’s work to end violence, criminal activity and restore an effective government and government services, the Solomon Islands is moving to the difficult stage of economic reform. Indigenous landowners and church leaders have challenged proposals for privatization of public utilities and for land registration. Prior to the April 2006 general election major riots broke out in Honiara in which much of Chinatown was burned down and destroyed and many Chinese residents were repatriated. The April 2006 elections led to one Prime Minister lasting just 14 days before a new one was sworn in, with unresolved questions about corruption and the link between some prominent politicians and civil unrest, indicating the continued existence of political instability.
Efforts were made in the ensuing year to resolve the root causes of conflict and instability in the country, with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission officially established in April 2009 – the first of its kind in the Pacific Islands. Established to investigate the causes of ethnic violence and to address people’s traumatic experiences during the violence that ravaged the country between 1997 and 2003, the Commission’s goals were to promote national unity and reconciliation. Its final report, which was based on first-hand interviews with over 4,000 people and which records an estimated 200 deaths thought to have occurred during the conflict, elicited some controversy as it was released by its editor without the formal approval of the President. Ultimately, however, the government officially acknowledged the report and committed to implementing its recommendations.
This has been viewed as an important step towards improving ethnic relations, particularly in the lead-up to national elections in November 2014 that saw Independent candidates secure 32 seats in the 50-seat parliament. This led to the formation of a ruling coalition known as the Solomon Islands People’s Democratic Coalition (SIPDC) and the election of Manasseh Sogavare as the country’s prime minister. Sogavare had served as prime minister from 2000 to 2001 and again from 2006 to 2007. The election was the country’s first since RAMSI transitioned to a policing presence in 2013 following the violence. Though RAMSI is scheduled to withdraw in 2017, there is a possibility – currently under negotiation – that an Australian Federal Police presence would be stationed permanently in Solomon Islands.
Updated March 2018.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Solomon Islands Development Trust (SIDT)
Sources and further reading
Amnesty International, Solomon Islands – a forgotten conflict, ASA 43/005/2000, 7 September 2000.
Connell, John, ‘Saving the Solomons’. A New Geopolitics in the Arc of Instability?, Geographical Research, 44 (2), June 2006, 111–122.
Fraenkel, Jon, The Manipulation of Custom. From Uprising to Intervention in the Solomon Islands, Pandanus Books, Canberra, 2004.
Moore, Clive, Happy Isles in Crisis. The historical causes for a failing state in Solomon Islands, 1998–2004, Asia-Pacific Press, Canberra.
Oxfam, Bridging the Gap Between State and Society. New Directions for the Solomon Islands, Oxfam Auckland, 2006.
Weingartner, G., The Pacific: Nuclear Testing and Minorities, London, MRG report, 1991.