By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (AFP, Oct 24) - One day without warning a wantok or tribe in a pristine part of the Solomon Islands woke up to find an Asian logging gang had arrived, complete with legal paperwork from the distant capital, and was systematically cutting down the jungle.

Nothing much could be done and when the forest had gone the people of Duvaha on New Georgia Island got together and in around 20 minutes planted 2,000 tree seedlings.

"Over almost as quickly as it begins, this is a powerful lesson in what can be done when people work together," writes Auckland University economist Ross McDonald in a new book "Money Makes You Crazy: Custom and Change in the Solomon Islands" (University of Otago Press).

The 96-page book offers an alternative view of the South Pacific archipelago, recovering from ethnic unrest on its main island of Guadalcanal. An Australian-led Pacific intervention force of soldiers and police began occupying the Solomons in August.

Central to the action was a belief that the Solomons was a "failed state", a term that was widely used by the media and academics ahead of the intervention.

Scotland born McDonald told AFP that while the failed state label was a "dramatic term", its use was not justified.

"In very extensive parts of the Solomons things are quite stable and quite self-sufficient and quite well organized," he says.

"Once you get out of Honiara and into the more outlying parts…. you find people to be extremely happy, which is always one of the central indicators of a society’s health and potential. On a local level the place is thriving and has a huge quality of life. In those places where commercial exploitation has taken place you get the attendant misery."

In his book he notes that among some custom influenced religious groups, participants believe the Solomons "is the Paradise that has been lost by Adam".

McDonald says it was hard to finger the causes of the current unrest although he noted that the indigenous people of Guadalcanal viewed rival Malaita Islanders as having too much power and being arrogant.

The main issue was bored youth wandering the capital’s dusty streets.

"And what happens is that it doesn’t take many people to get hot under the collar to cause a little squabble… But it does not seem to me that it was major civil war; it was a skirmish with big implications, particularly economic ones. It was easy for us to blow it out of proportion."

The failed states term came with the implication that the people were inadequate.

"The larger picture is that for many countries, including the Solomons Islands… we don’t give them anything," he said.

"We forge relationships with them that are basically extractive relationships and we take as many of the resources as we possibly can and at a cheap as price as we can negotiate."

The Solomons offers the positive lesson of cooperation and shared values.

In Melanesia, he says, there is a complete lack of understanding as to why the rest of the world does not share with them.

Rural people would say to McDonald, "Why is it that white people don’t share?"

University of the South Pacific political science lecturer John Fraenkel, who, writing in the London Economist in February, was an early advocate of the failed state position, slammed those questioning the term, saying they had "shifted into a more politically correct gear and are embracing a more tranquil and wholesome image of Melanesia’s trouble-spots".

He said, "The claim that everything was hunky dory outside the capital does not stand up to scrutiny and the view that there never really was a real government is misleading."

Fraenkel points to a 14.1 percent slump in gross domestic product in 2000 to justify the failed state notion, along with the collapse of gold mining and fishing. The government was overthrown that year in a coup and a warlord, Harold Keke, held sway in a large no-go area of Guadalcanal. Rebels and the police were able to extort money from the government, reducing it to bankruptcy.

"The perception that the Solomon Islands was a ‘failed state’ had little do with the Australian intervention," Fraenkel argues in an unpublished paper. "If there was a state failure, it occurred back in 2000, after months of entreaties from beleaguered Prime Minister Bart Ulufala’lu that fell on deaf Australian ears.

He says the main trigger for Australian intervention was post-Iraq War eagerness to engage overseas to rehabilitate tarnished doctrines of humanitarian intervention.

"And it was precisely because most Solomon Islanders saw their own state as having failed that Mr John Howard could present Australian action as a grand humanitarian triumph."

October 28, 2003

Agence France-Presse/Michael Field:


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