By John Beck
IGWA, Solomon Islands, April 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Jessica Jacinta was just a child when loggers first arrived in the forest a few miles from her Solomon Islands village of Igwa.
Soon, they had cleared large stretches of land so aggressively that it would take decades for trees to recover, and leave behind contaminated water sources and ruined agricultural ground, local residents said.
Every year, Jacinta saw there was a little less distance between her and the loggers, until in 2016 a logging company called Ngu Brothers began operating in an area that bordered forest belonging to the people of Igwa, she said.
This was where Jacinta, now 29, and her sisters had learnt bushcraft, her father had hunted, and her family had fled during periods of violence in the South Pacific island nation.
"I like it here, it's so beautiful," Jacinta said, making her way through the untouched slopes one morning. "My grandmother taught us how to eat the fruits and the leaves and to survive in the bush."
The Solomon Islands is one of the poorest countries in the Pacific and logging makes up a major portion of its national income.
Wood accounted for about 75% of its total exports in 2018, according to the World Bank's World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS) database.
The logging industry is loosely regulated in the Solomon Islands, and companies regularly encroach into areas without licenses to fell, said Chris Bone of New Zealand-based advocacy group OceansWatch.
Jacinta wanted to make sure that did not happen to her community, so she and half a dozen women became self-appointed rangers in the forest, monitoring their land and making sure the loggers knew they were doing so.
"I was really worried," she said. "If they came here, there'd be no wood left to build even a house."
The Thomson Reuters Foundation could not find any website for Ngu Brothers, but contacted a LinkedIn account listed as belonging to Derek Ngu, a New Zealand-based director for the company, who did not respond.
One of the company's security guards in Igwa said logging companies provided scarce job opportunities.
Martin, a security guard related to Jacinta who asked to only be identified by his first name, said he had recently returned to the Solomon Islands after dropping out of university in Fiji.
"This was the only job I could get," he said with a shrug, declining to comment on the firm's logging operations.
Not long after Ngu Brothers arrived, Jacinta and a group of local women secured the support of their village, where conservation was still a novel concept.
Every week, they ventured up into the trees to walk the boundaries of their land, picking their way barefoot through the mud, machetes in hand.
They soon confronted loggers who had attempted to fell there.
"They already tried to go into our land," said Monica Taafuni, 48, on one such walk. "But we stopped the logging company from coming to this bit."
Jacinta said local people who hoped to derive an income from logging firms opposed them, but the women built a relationship with some of the company's workers.
The women joined a coterie of small, community-led conservation initiatives that have sprung up in the Solomon Islands in recent years following growing awareness about climate change and deforestation.
Widespread logging began in the archipelago soon after its independence from Britain in 1976. Since then, forests have been devastated, wreaking a severe toll on wildlife and residents alike, local activists say.
The timber companies are usually Chinese or Malaysian, and most of the wood is exported as round logs to be processed in China, according to UK-based advocacy group Global Witness.
Commercially viable natural forests could be exhausted by 2036 if current trends continue, said a 2018 Global Witness report that referenced satellite imagery and Ministry of Finance trade data.
The Solomons government also described logging and log export trends as "highly unsustainable" in a 2018 paper.
Despite such concerns, there is little political will to tackle the problem, and corruption is endemic in the industry, according to Ruth Liloqula, executive director of watchdog Transparency Solomon Islands.
With few job alternatives, Liloqula added, some community leaders sign over rights to their land in exchange for a tiny fraction of its worth or in the hope of employment opportunities, but skilled positions are usually filled by foreign workers.
The ministries of finance and the environment did not reply to repeated requests for comment.
Women at Risk
In a still-strongly patriarchal society, women like Jacinta usually don't benefit from the logging industry or potential jobs, charity World Fish said in a 2018 report.
The arrival of foreign firms may also put younger women and girls at risk of trafficking and sexual exploitation, said Angelica Neville, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in the Solomon Islands.
"Logging projects tend to increase project-induced migration toward particular locations, bringing a predominantly male workforce and cash economies where they did not always used to exist," Neville said.
There are currently several logging operations near Igwa, locals said, and much of the forest along the bumpy road leading there from the provincial capital of Auki is already gone.
Logging roads cut up into the hills and piles of tree trunks labeled with spray paint lie in cleared ground by the sea where they will be loaded into barges bound for cargo ships anchored offshore.
Jacinta's father Timothy Kwaitaa, 62, has fond memories of picnicking under the trees by the water with family and friends.
Today, there is nothing but scarred red earth dotted with piles of rusted fuel drums and abandoned heavy machinery.
"It's too awful," Kwaitaa said, gesturing around at the damage. "We will never grow anything here again."
Initially sceptical, he and the rest of their family are now enthusiastic backers of Jacinta's group.
The group linked up with the Mai-Maasina Green Belt Initiative, a recently founded organisation on Malaita island designed to connect and organise communities that wish to be involved in similar projects.
Further down the coast, another small group of villagers has formed to look after endangered leatherback turtles and recently hosted Jacinta and the others at a conservation workshop.
The Igwa women have now built a hut a few miles inland from the village and close enough to the Ngu Brothers logging encampment that they are aware of its movements. They spend days and sometimes weeks there at a time.
Kwaitaa's brother Simon sometimes picks up rubbish around the camp in exchange for small sums of money.
The women say they have maintained relations with the firm, which employs a number of local men in unskilled positions.
They plan to remain there as long as the company does, and to ask the government to declare the land a formal conservation area, which requires extensive surveying, mapping, and paperwork.
"This was our ancestors' land," said Florence Arukwai, 42, another member of the group. "If we weren't here, the loggers would destroy it all."
Reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
(Reporting by John Beck @JM_Beck, editing by Astrid Zweynert and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)