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Field Report Solomon
Welkam to Solomon Islands!

Ret Talbot's Field Report

Solomon Islands are an island chain extending in a southeasterly direction from Bougainville Island off Papua New Guinea’s Bismark Archipelago for nearly 1670 kilometers into the South Pacific. The third largest South Pacific archipelago, Solomon Islands is home to stunning geography and contrasts. Here one will find everything from soaring volcanic peaks and lush rainforest to sandy atolls and some of the world’s most pristine and diverse reef systems.

The Wantok System

Village life in Solomon Islands adheres to the wantok system—literally “one talk”—where villagers feel a duty to those who speak the same language. Kastom, or traditional ways, is strong, and no individual member of a family or clan goes without anywhere in the world if their fellow clans people are about. While the wantok system has traditionally made village life a sort of tropical Utopia, there are those who say the wantok system is “the greatest disincentive to enterprise” in an ever-shrinking, globalized world.

In rural coastal villages of Solomon Islands, life may appear far from the twenty-first century to many visitors from the developed world. Subsistence farming, hunting and fishing dominate a lifestyle where cash income is still a novelty. Electricity, telephone and transportation infrastructure are often entirely lacking. While these remote villagers may not be actively seeking connections with the rest of the world, in many places throughout Solomon Islands, the rest of the world has sought out and found them.

From the first European dreams of colonization of the Solomons in the sixteenth century, foreigners have looked at unexplored and uncharted parts of the globe as potential gold mines—both literally and figuratively. When the Spaniard Don Alvaro de Mendana y Neyra set out from Peru to find the “Great Southern Land” in 1567, he was seeking a place already legendary for gold and free labor (read slaves). In February 1568, he became the first known European to set eyes on an island he called Santa Isabel in an archipelago his expedition named Yslas de Solomon.

Today, various industries such as mining, logging and fishing have Solomon Islands firmly in their sites, and it is often multinationals who benefit the most, as opposed to locals. Timber is the Nation’s largest export behind food fish, the second-largest export earner, and over-exploitation is a serious problem (especially when it comes to logging). Unlike some other South Pacific islands where tourism is king, there is little tourist infrastructure in Solomon Islands.

The marine aquarium trade has existed in Solomon Islands since the 1980s, and today it is one industry that, while small, is having a direct and positive impact on rural villagers. Aquarium Arts, based in the Solomon Islands capital city on Guadalcanal, works with a fairly extensive network of coastal villages to buy fishes, coral and other invertebrates that are then exported for the marine aquarium trade. Some of these animals are farmed, while others are collected from the wild, and the local farmers or fishers are paid directly for their work. In a few cases, salaried, multinational divers collect animals, but the resource owners are paid for any animal collected in waters over which they have traditional customary rights.

Unlike some of the other developing island nations where I have traveled to write about the marine aquarium trade for Coral Magazine, the trade in Solomon Islands has been built almost exclusively with private sector funds. In a way, the trade here may be seen as a sort of social entrepreneurship, where market forces have driven the development and benefitted both the original investors and local villagers. Grant money, government subsidies and the like have influenced the trade in Solomon Islands very little, and this seems to have been good for the trade here. For example, in one specific instance, an area in the Solomon Islands where grant money has augmented the trade, fewer animals reach market than villages where the market alone has driven development.

Today I am off to one of those areas where market forces have shaped a profitable and, at times, prolific production of locally farmed corals and wild-caught fishes. I am looking forward to seeing first hand how the marine aquarium trade is bringing appropriate socio-economic development to remote coastal peoples in a place like the Solomon Islands. Stay tuned for my next field report from Marau Sound on the eastern tip of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands.

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