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On Rennell Island, a wild and windswept point in the Pacific Ocean, the water unites everything from its lush tropical forest to its steep limestone boulders.
It is the soul of the poor people of the island, their source of income and their sustenance. However, a spill of hundreds of tons of heavy fuel oil from a freighter has now fouled the water of its southern coast. And residents have no choice but to keep eating from it.
“They told us there was poison in the sea,” said William Teikagei, a 60-year-old man who lives in a cabin he built on the beach. “But we do not have money, so we keep fishing.”
An environmental disaster happens here in Rennell, a coral atoll located 3200 kilometers northeast of Australia that houses a large lake surrounded by a thick forest that was declared a World Heritage Site. It all started almost three months ago, when a ship transporting metallic minerals to China hit a reef during one of the violent storms that hit this island with less than two thousand inhabitants.
The ship continues to spill fuel, staining the white sand beaches and endangering a delicate marine ecosystem. It is a reminder of the scope and cost of humanity’s operations to extract resources from the planet.
The Polynesian population of Rennell does not have telephones, televisions or radio service. Medical care is a flight away, in Honiara, the capital of Solomon Islands, among which is Rennell. The islanders have a few functional vehicles, and the airfield is little more than a grassy meadow that runs along a dirt road.
However, something that does exist in Rennell are mining operations and infrastructure and the foreign workers who come with them. The mining trucks run through the towns day and night; they move from the forest to the port and leave a trail of dust behind them.
The oil spill is not the first mining-related calamity at Rennell: operations have dug red pits in the coastline and left huge holes in the forest.
The stranded ship was carrying bauxite, a mineral that is used to make aluminum. The extraction of bauxite at the western end of Rennell has been tainted by allegations of rampant corruption, deception of landowners and regulatory violations.
However, with few revenue prospects, and little capacity, or perhaps little desire, to keep corporate interests under control, the government of Solomon Islands has allowed mining and logging to reach an unsustainable pace.
Solomon Islands is a nation of hundreds of islands in the western Pacific region and one of the poorest on Earth, with an unstable parliament that often changes hands. Honiara is in Guadalcanal, the place the United States and Japan fought during the Second World War. Until the end of the seventies, the country was a British protectorate.
Bauxite mining began in 2014. All of Rennell’s ore goes to China, by far the largest producer of aluminum in the world. The felling of the Chinese also threatens to annihilate the country’s tropical forest. However, the inhabitants of the island have almost received nothing in return.
“Western Rennell was mined because they deceived and confused people,” said George Tauika, president of the World Heritage Site Association of Lake Tegano. “You can see the damage at a glance.”
“People are desperate and believe that mining and logging are the only alternatives,” he added.
In March, Rick Hou, the prime minister of the Solomon Islands, said that in essence the country was not benefiting from the Rennell mining operation, which was approved by the previous government.
The operator is an Indonesian company, Bintan Mining, whose managers are from China and Hong Kong. Last month, Hou, on the eve of an election held on April 3, announced an investigation to find out how the allotment for bauxite mining had been issued.
“My government considers that exporting our resources to obtain almost no economic performance is immoral and unacceptable,” he said.
Hou mentioned that the oil spill – now estimated at 300 tons, much more than originally forecast – had caused irreversible damage. Furthermore, it is not just about the environment: among the inhabitants of Rennell, it has only deepened a feeling that they are forgotten people. Rennell, the largest elevated coral atoll in the world, is the most isolated of the Solomon, in geographic terms.
After running aground on February 5, a cyclone pushed deeper into the reef to the 213-meter-long ship, the Hong Kong-flagged Solomon Trader. The ship had been loading bauxite in Kangava Bay, which is at the mercy of cyclones from November to April.
The owner of the ship, King Trader, from whom Bintan rented the vessel, and his insurer, Korea Protection and Indemnity Club, were slow to react, allowing oil to spill out of control for weeks, according to Australian officials.
Shortly after the accident, officials declared that the oil had spilled more than 4.8 kilometers from the coast. They said he was approaching the World Heritage site, called Rennell Oriental, which includes the largest lake in the insular Pacific, as well as many endemic marine lands and species.
In the midst of the fights to see who is responsible, and due to international pressure, the parties involved finally brought equipment and cleaning equipment.
On March 7, Hou, the prime minister, announced that his government was considering temporarily halting loading activities at the port Bintan runs. He did not talk about the suspension of mining operations.
However, in a surprise maneuver, Hou said he had instructed his officials to investigate how a company called Asia Pacific Investment Development obtained a mining concession. Bintan extracts the bauxite thanks to a contract with that company.
A report by the nation’s attorney general has already found that the concession was granted without a recommendation from the country’s Minerals and Mines Board – a breach of the law.
However, although Hou has acquired a harder tone after the fuel spill, it is not that he has taken strong measures against Bintan. His government issued licenses for the company to explore the nearby islands a day after he said his activities were immoral.
When asked to comment for this article, Bintan sent videos of a newspaper article about his lawsuit against the owner of the ship.
It was assumed that the sites where Bintan operates would be exploited in phases and be rehabilitated progressively, according to an environmental impact assessment. However, that never happened.
People depend on the minimum profits from mining. However, not everyone benefits from royalties, employment or basic facilities offered by the company, which has left the island divided.
“They work in our land,” said Obed Saueha, chief of the Tenuginuku tribe. “But we do not have any kind of power.”
However, the inhabitants want to stop seeing the ship stranded. The words scrawled in red paint on the Solomon Trader made it clear. “Sorry, but it was time to leave,” reads the painting.