Indigenous conservation efforts through Community-Based Resource Management in the Solomon Islands: a matter of human rights?

By Christian Manepolo

Christian has conducted his research under the UN Nippon Fellowship on the law of the sea, as part of the Hub’s continued partnership with the UN Division on the Law of the Sea (UNDOALOS), at Strathclyde University Law School. In this blog post, Christian reflects on his research findings on Indigenous conservation through community-based resource management in the Solomon Islands as a matter of human rights law.

The journey: from community-based resource management to human rights in the Solomon Islands

Beyond the lurid glare of the white sand beach, is a bay of mangroves, welcoming you to my community, Nagoibo, on Santa Isabel Province, in the Solomon Islands. An instant rush of fresh aroma from the rugged mountain ridges combined with the wistful pungent mangroves gives one a taste of the simplicity of Indigenous life. A simple life so close to nature, embracing nature’s values and supporting nature’s regeneration. It is a life, our ancestors borrowed from us, and now, we are borrowing it from our future generations. A relationship that is unified, bounded, and rendered distinct by virtue of a shared, inherent connection. These values and norms have kept the community together for centuries. But has this unified and inherent connection been utilized and acknowledged as a means of managing natural resources and as a matter of recognising human rights in the Solomon Islands?

In the Solomon Islands, 80 percent of the resources are customarily owned (controlled) with 95 percent of the population being Indigenous.

Indigenous Peoples deeply connect with the land, sea, and resources through their traditional beliefs, cultural practices, and rituals. Indigenous Peoples’ vast connections and traditional knowledge have enabled them to manage the ocean resources for centuries. Sadly, influences from colonization, religion and globalisation, combined with weak institutional and legal frameworks, have created an environment ripe for enmity within our Indigenous communities.

Regardless, I believe that community-based resource management (CBRM) has the potential to promote effective management and protection of natural resources. Given the context of the social, political, and economic realms in which it operates, CBRM has the potential to not only promote in situ conservation but also recognizes and promotes the valuable conservation efforts and traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples as part of the ecosystem approach. In other words, CBRM can be a powerful tool for integrating Indigenous practices and traditional knowledge with the ecosystem approach; fostering the recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights in the Solomon Islands.

The CBRM has gained wide recognition as a strategy for sustainable use of resources and conservation in the Pacific Region. CBRM in the Solomon Islands context is described as an integrated conservation and development approach supporting biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation, food security and rural development. The approach stemmed from the critical rationale that at the heart of CBRM is the “community” and the “people”.

Asserting human rights through CBRM in the Solomon Islands

My research, which I undertook at Strathclyde University as a UN Nippon Fellow, under the supervision of Prof. Elisa Morgera, has supported the view that CBRM aims at protecting the environment and Indigenous knowledge as a matter of human rights in the Solomon Islands. However, what conditions must be met to achieve this goal?

The Solomon Islands are facing formidable challenges in terms of mounting pressures on finite natural resources development, market forces from the commoditization of natural resources, burgeoning populations, and adaptation to the far-reaching impacts of climate change.

My research shows that a likely and feasible approach to adopt viable strategies to overcome these challenges, achieve sustainable development, and acknowledge human rights is the CBRM. Furthermore, my research underscores that CBRM emphasizes integration, collaboration, and participatory approaches. Characterised by giving autonomous decision-making power to Indigenous Peoples, CBRM is an insistence seen as a resource management initiative built upon customary forms of governance integrating management principles that closely adapts to or based on Indigenous Peoples needs and aspirations through the participatory approach. This is in line with the worldwide realization that local aspirations, livelihoods, conservation efforts, and resource management must be integrated. This encompasses the ecosystem approach.

In the Solomon Islands where enforcement, compliance and regulatory mechanisms are weak or not effectively enforced by relevant stakeholders, my study indicates that CBRM can potentially improve enforcement and compliance.

Aligning Indigenous Peoples’ aspirations and priorities, which include sustainable development and preserving culture, and supporting and recognising their rights, including their human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, CBRM provides a solid basis to reach informed decisions, achieve equitable, efficient utilization and management of the resources. In the absence of full scientific certainty, the use of social and cultural practices that embody traditional lifestyles is of great importance to natural resource management.

My study thus highlighted how Indigenous communities in the Solomon Islands (Roviana, Western province, Lauru Tribal land, Chivoko, Tarevalata “kastom” conservation area, Choisuel province, the Are’Are Ruhahihanua, Mai-Maasina Green belt initiative, Malaita province and the Malaulalo marine protected area, Makira province) integrate their traditional knowledge and practices, in partnerships with relevant stakeholders, to collaboratively preserve and protect their land and resources from natural resource development.

The Challenges

Utilizing a participatory approach to decision-making, integrating cultural, social, and environmental goals while delegating power to local communities, is thus essential for the unequivocal empowerment, support, and engagement of Indigenous Peoples in managing natural resources.

In the Solomon Islands Constitution, however, traditional knowledge is not specifically defined. However, it is indirectly mentioned in the preamble, referring to it as the “wisdom and the worthy customs of our ancestors, mindful of our common and diverse heritage and conscious of our common destiny”. These are wisdom, customs, and consciousness of our ancestors that Indigenous Peoples inherit, learn through common experience, and continue to practice and use in decision-making, planning, and the management of resources, critical and beneficial to life in subsistence local communities in the Solomon Islands.

The Constitution preamble also states that the “state shall cherish and promote the various cultural traditions within the Solomon Islands”, recognizing customary law as part of formal law. The Constitution pledges to uphold the principles of equality, social justice, and equitable distribution of incomes, and ensure the participation of the people in the governance of their affairs.

The Constitution also states that natural resources are vested in the people and the government, and it provides for the protection of the environment. The protection of the environment, therefore, substantiates the recognition of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the people, arguably including the rights to customary ownership of the land and resources, and the right to a safe, clean, and healthy environment (A/HRC/RES/48/13).

Despite that, the Solomon Islands Protected Areas Act 2010, fails to explicitly recognize the rights and roles of customary owners or Indigenous Peoples. The Protected Areas Act does not recognize Indigenous Peoples’ conservation efforts or grant Indigenous Peoples the power to declare, govern and manage their own protected and conserved areas.

Furthermore, the contemporary CBRM approach being advocated and promoted in the Solomon Islands is influenced by “Western” perspectives.  The approach needs to work through critically the concept of “participation, empowerment, and partnership” in relation to the exercise of power. This includes recognizing, equally value, meaningfully engagement, collaboration, and genuine participation of Indigenous Peoples in a fair and inclusive decision-making process that is integrative. True and lasting conservation comes within, comes from believing, comes from belonging. Therefore, solutions must be created locally.

Summary of research findings

In summary, my study shows that CBRM can play a pivotal role in promoting and recognizing the significant conservation efforts and contributions of Indigenous Peoples in the Solomon Islands. A successful conservation strategy requires collaboration, meaningful partnership, and the recognition of Indigenous Peoples as human rights-holders, which includes acknowledging and recognizing their right to a clean, safe, healthy, and sustainable environment.

So, the state should ensure that legal framework mechanisms are amended to include provisions for the creation, recognition, and management of resources by Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous Peoples should be able to self-declare conservation areas within customary lands and have provisions that ensure fair and equitable benefits sharing from their conservation efforts.

Furthermore, institutions that can effectively mediate between Indigenous Peoples and other stakeholders interested in natural resource management are needed, to ensure the respect of the Constitution. This includes designing a clear mechanism that provides transparent, integrated and adaptative management and fair decision-making processes based on shared rules and joint planning. At the same time, it should allow flexibility and manage overlap in authority. Such an institution could support the legal recognition of communal tenure systems and exclusive resource rights to Indigenous Peoples, according to their voices.

My research concluded with the following recommendations to the Solomon Islands government, to:

  • ratify regional treaties related to the protection of the environment and of human rights;
  • recognize the conservation efforts of Indigenous Peoples as a matter of human rights in national legislation; and
  • provide education and public awareness on the crucial inter-relationship between human rights and the environment, with particular attention to the role of Indigenous Peoples and the impacts on the marginalized and vulnerable.

With the increasing threats to the environment, combined with the unprecedented impacts of climate change, people will have to adapt to the conditions beyond anything experienced in living memory. Achieving sustainable development requires a radical transformative change. A change that is integrative, participatory, inclusive and reflects and respects the voices of those who are affected the most, Indigenous Peoples. Failure to take this approach will only lead to further destruction of our planet and violations of human rights. We thus need to ensure that the CBRM potential to protect the environment and Indigenous Peoples’ human rights in the Solomon Islands is fully understood and realized in an inclusive and transparent manner.