24 December 2021

Trouble in paradise with climate increasing the stress: Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands is presently in the middle of civil unrest. Violence erupted over concerns that the government is increasingly operating under the unwarranted political influence of China. The impacts of climate change can be considered an underlying driver of the tensions. Shifting weather patterns, reduced fishing grounds and the threat of sea-level rise place considerable strain on island populations. Environmental peacebuilding centred around building resilience and a reconsideration of traditional views on land ownership and migration might help to bring back stability in paradise.

To love or to hate China?

On 24 November 2021, the residents of Malaita, the most popular province in Solomon Islands, gathered outside the National Parliament. They opposed Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare's 2019 decision to formally recognize China instead of Taiwan. After Sogavare refused to address the demonstration, violence erupted in the capital city of Honiara as protestors set ablaze the National Parliament, police station, high school and looted and destroyed shops in the Chinatown market of Honiara. As of present day, Honiara has been placed under curfew and contingent troops from Australia and Papua New Guinea are deployed to bring restraint to the situation.

Historically, both islands Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is located, and Malaita have been rivals for decades. From 1998 to 2003, internal ethnic conflicts between militants from both islands became infamously known as, "the tensions". Nearly five years of violence, lawlessness and corruption brought the country to its knees. With Guadalcanal more recently receiving major financial support from China, the capital has pledged allegiance towards Beijing. On the contrary, the provincial government of Malatia receives financial aid from Washington and Taipei leaving Solomon Islands with a foot in both camps and growing internal disharmony.  

A geopolitical proxy conflict underpinned by climate impacts

Although, at first impression, the ensuing conflict might suggest that it is a proxy theatre involving a geopolitical tussle between big powers, the motivations behind the dissatisfaction and frustration of protestors are grounded in concerns over growing inequality, high levels of corruption and poor living conditions.  Climate change has contributed to these harsh conditions. The Solomon Islands are confronted with sea level rise, fluctuations in rainfall and frequent occurrences of El Nino weather patterns threaten community capacities. Local communities face loss of freshwater and land. Early estimates indicate, the Islands expect to observe between 4-15 centimetres in sea-level rise by 2050, which poses an urgent threat to lifestyles and livelihoods of the population.

On a micro-economic level, household's dependent on trading fisheries and other aquaculture products are facing declining output. Climate-impacts in the form of ocean acidification and rising sea surface temperatures are making it increasingly difficult to utilize declining ocean resources. Economic hardships linked to livelihood sustenance in such forms are intensified by the impacts of climate change and are further pushing local communities deeper into the vicious cycle of poverty-unemployment-low income.

As a result, inter-ethnic island divisions become more pronounced – especially when certain islands, namely Guadalcanal receive considerable amounts of financial capital (from China), but the redistribution of that capital is limited to existing islander divides. Certain provincial-island areas such as Malatia receive uneven developmental aid from the Central Government, thus also spelling out the reasons behind ongoing protests. In a country that already struggles to provide essential public services, and where development efforts are extremely politicized, the situation is made worse by climate change.

Climate bringing troubles to paradise

There is a growing realization that the impacts of climate change are exacerbating existing conflict drivers in Solomon Islands and in many other small island development states (SIDS). These existing conflict drivers include the management of land and relations, resource management, changes in population and demographic make-up, state-community relations, and conflict legacies and intergenerational trauma.

The physical environment plays a critical role in the maintenance of social harmony in Solomon Islands. For instance, local understanding of ‘land’ extends beyond mere economic or physical features of it, rather for atoll communities, land becomes an association or representation of islander identities – upon which understandings of peace and stability are constructed. Land, therefore underpins stability as entire social structures of rural societies are based on customary land arrangements. With the physical environment rapidly changing as a consequence of climate change, the potential loss of land and other resources is generating conditions for conflict.

Moreover, populations from low-lying islands and atolls have adopted migration as a last-resort adaptation strategy to rising sea-level and other climate change events. Since atoll communities depend entirely on island ecosystems for their livelihoods, climate change poses serious socio-economic and environmental challenges for them making it very difficult for atoll dwellers to sustain their livelihoods. Such an adaptation measure has the potential to pose a  conflict risk between islander populations. For example, the rising pattern of climate-induced migration from Malaita to Guadalcanal, is causing significant inter-ethnic conflict in Solomon Islands. Also, considering how migration will result in community-led reallocation, issues over land rights for settlements and food cultivation are likely to occur for future generations. Local-level conflict between host and settler communities could intensify in the future as land-negotiation agreements might not carry the same legitimacy few decades down the line.

Environmental peacebuilding as a way out?

Despite climate change posing serious conflict risks, it also offers opportunities for peacebuilding. A thorough understanding of how climate change links to peace and conflict issues in the Solomon Islands from an anthropological and policy-making lens, can attribute to building long-term stability. Encouragement of environmental conservation and increasing the participation of local institutions such as the Church, youth representatives, village elders and other forms of customary leadership to partake in indigenous and other adaptation capacities could help appease conflict risks.

Also, a better understanding and prediction of migratory or displacement patterns can ameliorate host-settler relations. The growing trend of migration from Malaita to Guadalcanal is often climate-induced, but the prospect of greater economic opportunities and the higher likelihood of local populations achieving the basic standard of living in Guadalcanal is the major driving force. Sustainability-oriented developmental efforts in Malaita could target the fundamental concerns of Malaitan residents and be a practical step in trying to ease tensions and facilitate a recalibration of relations.

By Harman Singh 

For more insights, read our policy brief "Fighting an existential threat: small island states bringing climate change to the UN Security Council"

Photo credit: Jenney Scote/Flickr