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January 23, 2001

By Russell Howorth SOPAC Program Manager E-mail: 

SUMMARY: The Pacific to me is all about people. Being a scientist, geo is the science dealing with the Earth, and logic is the science dealing with the principles of valid reasoning and argument.

The end of year 2000 has come and gone. With it of course, on the 31st December, came the real end of the twentieth century, and the real end of the second millennium. It is a time to be reflective, and perhaps more so on this occasion, given its timely significance.

Being reflective tends to be personal, hence I arrive at the title of this article Pacific Geo-Logic. The "Pacific" to me is all about people. Being a scientist, "geo" is the science dealing with the Earth, and "logic" is the science dealing with the principles of valid reasoning and argument. So my reflective theme is all about the value of a better scientific understanding of the Earth to Pacific people. Whilst this is a personal view, nonetheless at least in part it addresses the very relevance to the people of the region of the South Pacific Applied Geoscience Commission.

Value can be perceived in many ways, but let’s stick to two: traditional value and economic value. Likewise the Earth can be perceived in many ways, and let’s take land, rather than the ocean, as the part of the Earth we are interested in.

The deeply enshrined traditional or cultural value of the land, and land ownership, is what drives to a large extent the communities of Pacific people. At this milestone in time, it is painfully apparent that the economic value of the land is now a major driving force within the communities of the Pacific. Whether at the individual, village, island or government level, the exploitation of land resources is at the heart of the struggle towards economic development, which can be broadly translated, to equate to a better quality of life.

In my mind we must keep separate these two crucial elements of expressing the value of land, whether traditional or economic. To confuse them is the root of the recent events in the Solomon Islands and Fiji where regrettably national and regional security has been threatened. This new element to regional security, or more correctly increasing insecurity, arises where an individual (or group of individuals) attempt to gain access to the economic resources of the land, whilst arguing that traditional land values (especially land ownership) are at risk.

If this is true, or even partially true, a critical lesson learnt is the need to ensure the people of the Pacific, the landowners, understand all about their land and its resources. A huge, daunting, but essential need to be addressed within the context of Pacific Geo-Logic. Why such a big task? The answer is because as an earth scientist I am fully aware that we do not have all the information we need, and if we did have, we do not have it in a form which is readily accessible to the people.

The information base on the land resources of our islands must be recognized to include for example information on the minerals, soils (hence forestry and agricultural resources), and water both within the ground and above it.

Information on the location and shape of the land are also important as these influence important elements of economic development such as accessibility, and climate.

Copper on Bougainville, nickel in New Caledonia, sugar and mahogany in Fiji, location of infrastructure generally (roads, airports, ports, water reservoirs for consumption and/or electricity generation to name a few), are each examples of where the economic value of the land has been exploited without the traditional landowners apparently getting their fair share.

The daunting task outlined above is, I am pleased to report, not going to be as daunting as it would have been only a few years ago. The close of the twentieth century has seen an explosion in information technology which will facilitate information gathering storage, dissemination and ultimately knowledge sharing. Geographic Information Systems on computers, or GIS as they are commonly referred to, are a way of doing business now and for the future. What we need are the tools to take this information, knowledge and understanding to the grass roots of our society.

One of those tools in my mind is "Island System Management" a paradigm shift in thinking about how we do business on small islands. We must not continue to keep the minerals, agriculture, forestry, public works, etc. sectors of our administrations separate. This approach has led them to do business separately, being seen to be competitive for dwindling resources in national budgets, and as a result often ignoring the people who matter including the private sector and the village communities. Generally the information and knowledge has remained in the hands of a few. These administrative elements must be more closely linked in order to better serve the community at large.

As reported by the Permanent Representative of Samoa to the United Nations, Ambassador Slade, when addressing the Commission for Sustainable Development earlier this year on the theme of improved management and planning of land resources, island system management is a management framework that takes into consideration the intricate interactions and linkages of the environments of small islands in such a way as to become multi-sectoral in focus.

Maybe the relevance, indeed strategic importance of pursuing (i) island systems management, and (ii) the issue of the role of the earth sciences, in helping to combat growing regional insecurity is hard to grasp. If so, then at this time at the turn of the century, let me close with an anecdote from the Pacific history books about an event that took place at the time of the last turn of the century.

In Sydney in 1899, a piece of rock was being used to keep open a door in the offices of the Pacific Islands Company. Guano, bird-droppings collected from around the islands for phosphate was an important trading commodity, though the phosphate content was usually only around 5 percent by weight. Curiously when the "doorstop" rock was submitted for chemical analysis it returned a phosphate content close to eighty percent by weight. This of course raised the speculation of the existence of islands made entirely of bonanza grade phosphate.

The island in question was Nauru, then under German administration, thus presenting a difficulty for the British-owned Pacific Islands Company.

Fortunately a company employee recalled a similar small island close to Nauru, namely Ocean Island. Neither Germany, nor Britain, indeed no one of influence appeared to know where it was, and hence had annexed it in the colonial sense. Therein began a rush by Britain to claim ownership before the Germans who at that time were the other major colonial power in the central Pacific found out and appreciated the value of the discovery.

A hurried agreement signed on 3rd May, 1900 marked the beginning of mining on Ocean Island (Banaba). Ironically the agreement was valid for a millennium (999 years!!). This was followed a few years later by the commencement of mining on Nauru.

I hope you had a happy New Year, New Century, and New Millennium celebration.

Russell Howorth SOPAC Program Manager E-mail: 

Ocean Island May 3rd 1900

An agreement made this day between the Pacific Islands Company, Limited of London, England, and of Sydney, hereinafter called the "said Company" of the one part, and the undersigned king and natives of Ocean Island (Paanopa) for and on behalf of the entire population of Ocean Island, hereinafter called the "said natives" of the other part

1. The said natives concede to the said Company the sole right to raise and ship all the rock and alluvial phosphate on Ocean Island for and on account of the said Company.

2. The said natives agree that the said Company shall have the right to erect buildings, lay tram lines, make roads, build jetties and shipping places, or make any other arrangements necessary for the working of the phosphate deposits, also to bring labourers from other countries for the purpose of carrying on the aforesaid work.

3. The said Company agrees not to remove any alluvial phosphate from where coconut or other fruit trees or plants cultivated by the said natives are growing, but to have the right to remove any non-fruit-bearing trees which may interfere with the working of the phosphate deposits.

4. The said Company agrees to keep a store or stores on Ocean Island where the said natives may buy goods at prices current in the Gilbert Group and shall purchase from the said natives coconuts, fruits, vegetables, fish, etc., at prices current in the Gilbert Group, the said natives agreeing that the said Company shall have the sole right to keep stores or trading stations on Ocean Island.

5. In consideration of the foregoing privileges, the said Company agrees to pay the said natives at a rate of fifty pounds (oe50) per annum, or trade to that value, at prices current in the Gilbert Group, payable half-yearly.

6. This agreement to be in force for a term of nine hundred and nine-nine (999) years.

Witness to all signatures: J. MAKINSON.


TEMATI King of Ocean Island His X Mark. Witness E Riakim

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