Island in Solomons spurns China aid although dire roads make life tough
China’s money isn’t welcome in Malaita, a fiercely independent province of the Solomon Islands led by a politician who says it’s wrong to befriend “these people” who don’t believe in democracy.
But if any place needs money, it is Malaita.
The mountainous island’s roads are crumbling and its bridges rickety. Its hospital is dilapidated. One surgeon serves about 160,000 people.
Malaita is small – as big as six Singapores – but locals say that to sell their produce at the market in Auki, the provincial capital, they must leave at midnight to reach it by morning because of the treacherous potholes that slow every journey.
The state of the roads is to blame when islanders die on the way to the hospital, admits Daniel Suidani, the province’s anti-Beijing premier. He says the central government, with its control of the national budget, is responsible.
Malaita, the country’s most populous province, issued its Auki Communiqué banning China-funded projects after the Solomon Islands government abruptly switched its diplomatic recognition to Beijing from Taiwan in 2019.
The Pacific country has since become ground zero in the Sino-U.S. rivalry in the Pacific, experiencing both largesse and discord. China is bankrolling the 2023 Pacific Games, to be staged in the national capital Honiara.
“These people have a different mentality, they believe differently from people who are in the democratic countries,” Suidani told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated news service, in an interview in his office, a brightly decorated hut in a huddle of buildings that make up the provincial government’s administrative complex.
To be friends, he said, “with somebody who does not believe in what we believe in, is not something right.”
Suidani left a burly security detail behind as he walked to the interview from his nearby official residence.
The crimson building sits between the government offices and the lime-and-dark green provincial assembly, overlooking the town and a glistening harbor dotted with dwellings on stilts.
Malaita already knows the costs of having its resources extracted by outsiders and doesn’t want to repeat the experience, Suidani said, pointing to the companies owned by Chinese Malaysians that have controlled logging in the Solomon Islands for several decades.
“The interest is to get things that they want, they don’t care whether you get it correctly,” he said.
“As long as they get what they like, it’s all they want, so to me we need to be mindful about how this new friend [is] involved with provinces.”
The provincial assembly unanimously endorsed the Auki Communiqué, but some opposition has since stirred.
In October, Deputy Premier Glen Waneta criticized Malaita’s refusal to accept Huawei mobile towers that would help improve spotty communications on the island.
Malaita’s economy has begun to bounce back from the COVID-19 pandemic, but its people still face the same challenges as before.
They lack ways to add value to produce such as taro and coconut or get it to larger markets. And Malaita’s forests – its greatest natural-resource endowment – have been logged to the brink of extinction.
While China is out of favor with Malaita’s premier, USAID’s 5-year development program in the province stands out, but only because it has not filled the vacuum.
It initially produced excitement and high expectations, but has not produced tangible results after more than two years.
The program has been a “disappointment,” said Matthew Wale, leader of the Solomon Islands opposition.
“People see that China is way more efficient at responding to need and delivering on brick and mortar type assistance,” he said.
“[But] the issue is more the United Front work, it’s more China influence,” he said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign strategy. “Our capacity as a nation to protect our democracy is very very thin and in parts absent.”
People working in the U.S. program, known as SCALE, acknowledge the frustration with it.
They say they are taking a new approach and aiming for long-term impact. That includes working with Malaita’s tribes to protect remaining forests and to establish processing facilities for agricultural produce, to give it more value, and to find national and international markets for it.
“It’s the tribes themselves who are interested in seeing that their forests are protected, that their resources are utilized for their own benefit,” said Morgan Wairiu, who leads the natural resource management arm of the U.S. program.
“If we can demonstrate that our model is working then that will be a good reason to extend and expand to other provinces,” he said. “But we need to show some tangible outputs and outcomes in this current program of Malaita.”
China’s projects, though highly visible, don’t have any impact outside of Honiara, said Wairui. He also criticized the efforts of the largest donor, Australia, as “really ineffective.” The Australians, he said, “don’t listen to local context, they do whatever they want.”
China’s embassy in Honiara did not immediately respond to requests for an interview. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade declined a request to visit its aid projects in the Solomon Islands.
Suidani also acknowledges Malaitans have complained about the U.S. program, but insists people will eventually come to appreciate it.
“It teaches a lot of Malaitans to have a mindset that we need to work very hard and work with a system,” he said. “Most of the funding that comes from the national government, people just get the money and the national government even doesn’t send a taskforce to oversight the whole project.”
Just a two-hour ferry trip from Auki’s dusty streets, traffic on the equally dusty roads of Honiara is snarled to a crawl while a Japanese construction company reseals kilometers of potholed highway between the airport and the city.
Along the route, Chinese construction companies are raising a stadium and other sporting facilities for next year’s Pacific Games.
A new international airport terminal, also built by Japan, waits to be opened next to the old terminal that is overcrowded when one flight is being checked in. One will function as the arrivals building and the other for departures.
Honiara is a melting pot of the diversity of the Solomon Islands, a country of more than 900 islands and many languages and dialects.
Aside from Pijin, an English-based creole, one thing most in the capital have in common is that they shop at stores owned by Chinese immigrants who have come to dominate retailing and other businesses in the capital. Honiara also has a Chinatown, which was torched in November last year in an anti-China, anti-government riot.
“U.S. and Australia should be here and should be doing more so they prevent China coming in,” said Honiara resident Delmah Nori. “One thing I’m not really happy about, because the Chinese people, they own every business and we Solomon Islanders, we struggle.”
“In the nineties, eighties, Chinatown was their place. And everywhere here in Honiara and to the airport, the indigenous people owned shops. Now it’s different,” she said.
Eager to show its commitment to the Pacific, Beijing is bankrolling more than half of the 1.85 billion Solomon Islands dollars (U.S. $224 million) cost for the 2023 Games.
Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare told a one-year-to-go countdown event in November that the construction work had rescued the economy during the pandemic.
Nori also welcomes the Games. A former head of the country’s netball federation, she believes it will bring visitors, boost the economy and also develop the country’s sporting talent.
The government has ambitious goals for the Games including 40 gold medals for the Solomon Islands (it got four golds at the 2019 games) and raising its sports to international standards.
Some say the event won’t have any impact outside Honiara.
“It’s only a two-week event. It doesn’t mean anything to Solomon Islanders–we are there in the village, we don’t know what’s happening in Honiara,” said Wairiu, the development worker.
“It will be gone and past. Nobody will give a damn about it. And all this infrastructure that they are building,” he said, “nobody will maintain them.”
At the Kilu’ufi Hospital near Auki, nursing director Richard Maegerea questions the wisdom of a Honiara-driven national campaign to target scabies, an intensely itchy skin condition caused by burrowing mites.
He says it’s not such a big problem and reflects the priorities of donors rather than local needs.
The incidence of scabies in the Solomon Islands overall could be about 15 percent, according to research data.
The country also is suffering an increase in deaths from noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes as highly processed cheap foods flood into the country.
A dozen people sat on the grass at the hospital as some waited for a visiting national health team to treat cataracts, a condition that causes blindness and can be accelerated by diabetes.
Its buildings in a rundown condition, the hospital grapples with low water pressure and lack of accommodation for staff who come from other areas. It’s also home to the psychiatric unit for the Solomon Islands.
Getting there from the north of the island can take three to four hours, a journey that could be halved if the roads were better, said Maegerea.
Outlying clinics also face big problems. A list pinned to the wall of Maegerea’s office spells out their difficulties: rundown buildings, no proper lighting, no nurses at some health posts, radio communication difficulties.
Despite the province’s ban on Chinese projects, some of its aid has leaked in via the central government.
At the hospital, a recently arrived white Toyota pickup truck has been earmarked for the community mental health team. Its red China Aid logo was removed to avoid any backlash.
China’s embassy also has reportedly approached some members of the provincial assembly about assistance that could be provided in their districts.
Joel Ramo, who runs an Auki motel, said political developments such as the Auki Communiqué have not made any difference on the island and Malaitans are “tired of hearing too much talking.”
The inadequate roads and bridges that make it difficult to travel to Auki for business and basic services are the most critical thing to fix, he said.
The Solomon Islands government in August said several “feeder” roads it built in East Malaita since 2014, and ranging in length from three to eight kilometers, had been an improvement for people in the area’s highlands as it enabled local travel by truck instead of foot.
“The government and the provincial government should collaborate,” Ramo said.
“The people here want development because development in this country is only centralized in Honiara and does not really come down to the provinces.”
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.