Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Observations on Climate Change ‘Development’ - Part 1

After a few months working away in the Solomon Islands for the UNDP I arrived back in New Zealand. It wasn’t how I anticipated to come back, but due to various stuff ups, mostly not of my own making, I ended back here sooner than expected.
It was a rapid fire six months. Sometimes in the Solomon Islands it’s hard to know what has been achieved after you step away from the environment you have been working in. Progress is certainly hard won. I know from an earlier volunteer role lasting two years in which tangible outputs were hard to identify, I couldn’t claim I assisted with developing new roads or help design new wharves. Sadly this is how success is measured. It’s about how many kilometres of road had you developed, how many people had had been at the receiving end of power point presentations. Given my understanding of development practice and the context I had been working in of the Solomon Islands, these quantitative measures based on simply sheer numbers, more of something being better now seems like a quaint measures of development. We should have care about qualitative rather than quantitative measures of success. What was the quality of what was done, did it result in meaningful change for those involved should be asked, when quality is used as a measure it often has no basis in the actually realties of quality outcomes for that cultural context. What I found is that quality was determined by what others thought was quality based on worldviews formed from experience in other countries or the country in which they resided (Australia, Europe or United States of America).             

What I did achieve in my recent work and my earlier volunteer assignment was engaging people in discussions, demonstrating new skills, exposing them to new literature and concepts and helping to develop critical thinking. What I was sought to do was build the capacity of individuals so they had the confidence to be effective public servants and if needed, confront the culture they live and work in.    
Clearly we are using the wrong measure for successful development. We need measure the capacity of individuals. It is these individuals that will create the change in their own country. A friend and I discuss this a lot, both of us agree that in the Solomon Islands the approach of donors is often wrong, often by significant margins. Climate Change is an area where donors are still exploring what it is they should be doing. Observing this first hand in the Solomon Islands has been an eye opener in many ways.       

With Climate Change programmes a phenomenal amount of money is being spent on what are commonly called Climate Change and Disaster Risk (CCDRM) related projects. What was formally sustainable land management is now called ecosystem based adaptation, water and sanitation projects are now Climate Change adaptation. Construction of infrastructure has variously been called service delivery and now appears in many cases also claims to be Climate Change adaptation. As a friend once said to me service delivery is when the actual quality of services improve, meaning when the capacity of individuals to personally contribute to the delivery of high quality services improves, built infrastructure is only a part of this, the individual is the larger part.  
From what I have learnt Climate Change will not be overcome in the Solomon Islands without institutions with the capacity to adequately respond. It sounds pretty straight forward right!
One of the biggest problems I encountered is that strengthening of governance processes is not cheap, certainly it’s not considered sexy. It’s far more appealing to invest money in infrastructure, agricultural extension programmes are also much easier for donors to market. A large Climate Change programme in Choiseul Province had a significant component that involved agricultural programmes but requests by the Provincial Government to support strengthening of governance processes and structures was dismissed early in the ‘consultation’ phase.

Donors are often more concerned ensuring brand distinction than they are with actual outcomes. I suggested over the course of my recent work that we work together with other donors, essentially pooling resources. The response back was somewhat stunning, apparently this couldn’t be, partly this was expressed that we had to maintain our own profile and distinctiveness of our activities, working in with others may have resulted in these being obscured. As a kiwi I still believe we need creative solutions for what appear insurmountable problems, we have to do things different; the recent past in Climate Change work in the Solomon Islands is littered with examples of programmes that did alright, nothing spectacular, just alright. I don’t accept mediocrity is adequate when significant resources are available to achieve inspirational outcomes. From what transpired working together only meant shared meetings or workshops, possibly a bit of sharing ideas (but not too much of course). What needs to happen is a completely open approach whereby funds are pooled and intellectual property built and owned collectively. We still have a lot of work to be done.     


Saturday, March 7, 2015

March of Destruction

The pressure on finite resources in the Solomon Islands is unrelenting. Solomon Islands are succumbing to the pressure of the dominant economic development paradigm that all economic growth is good, that it must occur and that it is more important than social, environmental, cultural considerations. The Solomon Island story is really that of humanities relationship with the natural world spread over hundreds of kilometres and nine provinces. 
The lads (Phil, Andrew and Nial) arrived from New Zealand on the 24th of February for our trip, which had initially been proposed in September 2014 in New Zealand, just before I departed for the current contract.

After a short pause on the first with a short visit to Betikama wetlands, our destination for the next day was Mount Austin due to its reputation as having good vegetation and good forest birds in close proximity to Honiara. Mount Austin is a good short introduction to bush birds in the area, although once you get to the end of the road at the Lunga River and have scoured the hillsides there isn’t much else to see. The next day was supposed to be an early start but weather dictated that we had to wait till late in the day before the boat could come safely across from Central Province. Once we reached Central Province what surprised me was the beauty of Central Province, I simply never expected it would be such an attractive place. The only things I knew previously was that it had strong links with world war two being one of the key bases for the Japanese, didn’t have much of its original vegetation and is generally by-passed by birders for that reason.

I was pleasantly surprised that the population is still not huge (although there seems a higher population than Temotu and Choiseul) and currently there are no signs of major developments such as mining. The shoreline of the passage that we passed through still had reasonably extensive fringing mangrove. Near the end of the passage close to Siota Provincial Secondary School just before the passage enters open sea, we approached our first destination for shorebirds, a section of rocky reef and low coral banks that have probably been created due to the fringing reefs and ocean currents working together to allow material to build up and form a slightly higher landmass. At this location we discovered a number of shorebirds roosting with scattered Grey plover, Pacific golden plover, Whimbrel, Turnstone, Grey tailed and Siberian tattler and the odd Common sandpiper.
The next day we went to a small site that on the map suggested an intertidal wetland. When we reached Lake Kolaoka we were all elated to find that the site was full with waders, there were Common Greenshank, Eastern Curlew, Terek Sandpiper, Lesser Sandplover, Greater Sandplover, Whimbrel, Pacific Golden Plover. As far as I could tell it had a fuller range of migratory shorebirds than has been recorded anywhere else in the Solomon Islands.

On the third day we visited a small Islands about 6-7km offshore. Approaching the Island was a bit tricky as the swell was coming from all directions and it required a bit of calculation to assess the best way to approach the Island. Once we were onshore at the Island it was clear that it had been well visited and there were some camps from people who had stopped over after fishing trips. A significant amount of understory vegetation had been removed, it was because people had cleared the vegetation by hand as well as the occasional uncontrolled cooking fire burning more than it should have. Jerry our host also mentioned that children often will disturb nesting seagulls (terns) and take chicks and eggs when they are nesting. Thankfully it does not appear that there are dogs or cats on the Islands.   
All of these sites, although each a fantastic location with either a lot of birdlife present or used regularly by birdlife at different times of the year, are faced with pressures that will see them alter significantly in a very short time if there is no active management.

The reef at the entrance to the passage is close to a large school site which will be faced with increasing disturbance as people walk out to the reef to look for shellfish or fish. Sea level rise will also impact how often the site is exposed and available to be used.
Lake Kolaoka, which brought such enjoyment and is probably one of the more important shorebird sites in the Solomon Islands is close to an area local people told us prospecting for Bauxite is taking place. The edges of the site are used for gardens so there is also a disturbance element and sediment from gardens entering the wetland.

The offshore island is a story in itself. It is shared by two communities, which makes the possibility of it becoming a successful marine protected area pretty slim, but with it being used as a nesting site for terns means that it’s important as there are few sites recognised as breeding areas for seabirds in the Solomon Islands. If disturbance increases then the nesting terns are likely to desert the Island for a better spot. The only issue being is that there are fewer and fewer places that terns can nest without being disturbed.
Another story highlighted to me the plight of wildlife here as the population expands. According to Jerry a Solomon Sea Eagle had nested on a remote point not far from his village. Apparently some children saw the nest with a chick and decided they wanted it as a pet. Linking their arms they made a human chain to the nest. The chick was secured by the children and then taken away. I could picture the mother being pretty stressed, calling out and even the defence of the nest must have been pretty vigorous. I have heard Solomon Sea Eagles being kept as pets elsewhere and remember a situation where a bird was being kept in a small cage in western province. In that Instance the bird had apparently caught a fish and was struggling to fly, either it was a young bird or the weight of the fish impeded its flight, either way it ended up in a cage with an uncertain future.

Relentlessly there is growing pressure on wildlife and habitats and it seems to be at an accelerated rate, eventually this pressure will become so great that productivity of these environments will decline and species begin to disappear, in fact this has already happened in many places. What is important now is communities start implementing ways to address these issues. It will require a level of management of these resources that currently isn’t widely practiced and isn’t sustainably supported by donors or the government. It will also mean addressing the issue of the growing population through better access to birth control and reproductive education.                                     

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Paradise Lost

In Choiseul paradise has been lost.
While people have been talking; the place that captivated me in 2010 has been given up for dead. The caretakers have been too busy naval gazing to see that there isn’t an indefinite time available   in which to save the place that many hold in such high regard, the traditional name Lauru is often used to highlight its uniqueness. These so called caretakers to act to challenge the culture. The burden is on those that are meant to be elders and considered community leaders or chiefs. The burden is on the Lauru Land Conference to actually do something rather than just be a retirement home for former political leaders and identities who once had ideas of relevance. The burden is on those with good educations to leave the false luxury of Honiara and move to the provinces and do something rather than continue endless banter on social media. The burden is on the donors and NGOs to start realising that the most well intentioned efforts are failing as they have no link to address with economic needs of the province of its people. The burden is on people at the village level to stand up, have a voice and critique the mistakes being made, in a culture that does not encourage speaking out. To speak out before it’s too late if it isn’t already.
I keep getting told about culture, but a culture that turns a blind eye to the raping of its resources is a culture that is in trouble both spiritually and economically.  Equally no one can actually tell you what culture is in Choiseul.

People often say that logging is required for development, but you only need to look as far as Poroporo village to see the fallacy of this argument.  It’s a village that looks reasonably impoverished even though there has been a fair amount of money from logging and the income from the sale of land for the new Choiseul Bay township (SBD$10 million).  From what I could see Pororporo village had a high reproduction rate, pathways that turned muddy as soon as the slightest rain falls, houses that are in desperate need of completion or repair, limited water supply and poor sanitation. How can this village not have ‘developed’ with such a large amount of money available? 

So when people use the argument that they need the economic development that logging brings. I will continue to promote sustainable development and ask that they show me the evidence that they have moved ahead equivalent to the degradation that has occurred. Choiseul has many conditions that would suggest sustainable economic development is possible (good soils, adequate rainfall, beautiful standing forests, clean rivers, many strong healthy people to work in the jobs created, a number of people with higher degrees) to be the most sustainable and well-developed area in the pacific. It’s past time for concerned people to stand up to the ignorance and arrogance of people (and a few organisations) who pretend to be competent and effective. The vast majority of so called leaders are achieving only one thing and that’s the systematic tearing apart of this once beautiful and abundant province. 
I look at the tee shirts people are still wearing around pororporo  that were made for the Buturuturu Island Emerald Oil fuel depot that was opened in about 2012/2013and which now sits rusting away and returning back to nature as there wasn’t enough money to pay for the fuel to fill the large fuel tanks after the project was completed.  The tee shirt reads “Our people, Our environment, Our energy” Basically saying we choose this project, even though we know it’s not innovative or sustainable, so mind your own business. I think that the tee shirt should have included a fourth line the read “Our lost opportunity” for developing a project on an island that had massive eco-tourism potential.

One contributing factor to the reactionary development that has been occurring Choiseul is that there is absolutely no planning at a community level; no critiquing of development to determine what is suitable for the Province with a relatively small and sensitive land area. One way a solution can attained is through good planning, good planning for the future in which people think in advance of what they want to achieve, how they will get there and what it will require. It all comes down to good planning. I was told by a former colleague who I worked with in the Lauru Land Conference that it’s more important to have money to implement projects, planning is nothing without money to implement. While this is true I would argue that before you even make the decision on what business option of the various options available that is going to be pursued is a planning decision in itself. It’s an example that shows the difficulty of building the most fundamental understanding of planning in Choiseul Province              

Half way through my stay we went out to a logging ship ‘Sea Hero’ to drop off the pilot who would pilot the ship as close as possible to the log point so the ship could fill up from a logging barge. The person that was to pilot the ship in was also a land holder and chief, according to him though he had opposed the logging but it ‘was hard’ to go against others who wanted it, although the question has to be asked if he opposed it so much why was he guiding the ship in, assisting the process of destruction. With Choiseul you often never know can follow the logic why certain decisions are made.
We approached the ship and it was immense, four high cranes, and already a deck half full of logs from other logging sites. Dead sentinels, testimony to a future the ‘leaders’ here are helping to create, in which future adults will probably look back and ask ‘why’?; ‘Why did you leave us with nothing’  
I felt a sense of shock, of being overwhelmed. How can any society combat this well resourced mechanised machine of destruction, of certain death. How can the few true leaders who are  educated, smart and interested in what the future may involve, actually fight this onslaught. It was nothing but a cold, calculating machine of death, not just of the trees themselves but death of hope for the future. Death of hope in the human spirit.   
When we approached the logging camp, I was blown away with the area that had been cleared for the siting of the camp. It was large and will remain a scar for a long long time. The amount of dust and disturbance that has been created will no doubt become sediment in that smothers the reef. How many animals that may have been nesting or living in the logs that have been felled is unknown, but it would have been significant habitat. The bordering coastal vegetation that has been removed would have been diverse as well and now there is only an exposed eroding shoreline. I hadn’t felt this despondent about the future of the planet for a long time.   

The only solution may come in the form of sustainable development. This development needs to be far more co-ordinated and far more aggressively pushed, so that there is a sure fire way of saying to people that there are alternatives. These options need to consist of eco-tourism, eco-timber and sustainable agriculture that produces high value products such as Cocoa and sold to directly to chocolate manufacturers for the highest returns.     
But another is committing my own time, energy, skills directly to the frontline. This would mean living in Choiseul and providing working examples that show sustainable solutions to the dominant global direction towards imminent natural capital degradation. This holiday has been an experience.  It may just have changed my direction for 2015 and the path I now need to follow. Maybe I need to be here, the fight is never over until the white flag has gone up and declaration of submission has been given. I am still some way from that. Stupidity and greed need to be fought, even if there is possible personal risk. It could be that the leaf house currently being built on Mamaleana becomes the basis for a new challenge and a new chapter.                 




Friday, October 24, 2014

Thoughts on Dad

Saturday the 18th of October was a significant day although in practice it was much like any other day in Honiara. A year ago to the day Dad passed away from a brain tumour that took him away from us in a way I can only describe as cruel. I will remember that day forever, when we all said a last final word to dad in order, mum, me and mark. It was our final send off to a guy that had no plans to depart and we had no expectation that of all of us he would be the first to go. The effects of that day have put everything into perspective although sometimes the changes that you believe the death of a loved one will have seem hardly noticeable as we rush about in our day-to-day lives.

What it changes is everything and what it changes is nothing. It changes everything in that I approach every day with Dad in mind. When it comes to dealing with inter personal dynamics I think to myself what would dad do in this situation, how would he deal with it? One of the many things he taught me was that you should treat everyone as an individual and with empathy. The Dalai Lama may say compassion rather than empathy, but the point is the same. Everyone has a personal worth and the smartest thing we can do for the human spirit is to notice it. Occasionally while talking to people they may show disinterest in a conversation in any of a number of ways. It makes me think, what of the small cost we incur for giving our time to others, but what of the significant benefits?
Dad would probably scratch his head in wonderment and would move on with a funny sideways comment. His course always seemed heading forward, looking out for those that need support and those who shined with life, letting those drift away who were destined to orbit in their own universes.
Three memories come to mind when I think about Dads impact on people.

One situation was with a guy named Bill who was slightly impaired mentally. Dad worked with Bill at the Market, a part time job he had outside the fire service. Bill was a long time employee who assisted Dad washing the crates that fruit and vegies came in before they were sent out again. While working at this organisation he supported Bill with guidance and empathy. After Dad finished working at the Market he visiting Bill at his house in Linwood and would often ring him. On a number of occasions he would supply him with clothes and they would also go out for short trips. I distinctly remember the regret that Dad expressed that he had spent more time and supported him more after Bill was pronounced dead, apparently in the bath of a heart attack.
Dad also got involved with teaching fire safety to recent refugees to New Zealand. One thing I remember about this is how it made him think about the differences between us being much less than the similarities binding us together. Its work he enjoyed and I think its work that he would have done a lot more of in time. It was also one of the catalysts that made him read and read about the world around us. The recent development in world media about the Muslim world or another ethnic minority (refugees in Australia) being the root of all evil ones something Dad didn’t buy into. I think he accepted more than anyone that for our current unsustainable economic system to survive, there need to be winners and losers.  There needs to someone always trying to steal our prosperity or who was less than us so we can exploit resources they may have.  He understood this better than most and he understood it to the point that he started to realise that we needed better government around the world and I think his personal contribution to this was voting, which in the end was for both Labour and the Green Party. 
Thirdly was Dads biggest act of compassion and it may have been what eventually lead to his demise. On the 22 February 2011, Dad arrived at the CTV building site after it had collapsed in the earthquakes that hit Christchurch that day. I remember him saying that they arrived and were at the site for one and a half hours before received any support by other fire crews. When he retold the story what was clear was how deeply this event had influenced him. I think more than anything he couldn’t accept that at the end of the day there didn’t appear much support to those who went through those events. He couldn’t understand how he could perform at his best and be questioned about his performance at a coronial enquiry. Every day he had gone to work as a firefighter he had given his all and questions were being asked about his personal integrity, “how could these people think that I had given anything less than my best”? He must have continually asked himself that question.  One day when I went to pick him up from the fire station he exited out the back door looking tired and haggard, the tumour must have already started growing and was taking its toll, but there was another element of self-doubt there as well.
That final heroic gesture was what eventually led to his demise; I believe it was the trigger that set off a chain of events that resulted in his death. He had accumulated toxins through his work that only needed a trigger of stress that ignited a cancerous glioblastoma tumour eventually leading to this magnificent man’s death. What lessons more could have been learnt from him I will never know. But what I have learnt is invaluable and what I can teach to others will be Dads legacy.                                                      





Saturday, November 17, 2012

Three Weeks Left

It’s as though endings are never meant to be a neat cut off. Due to the end of the contract being close to Christmas it means by nature it’s going to be a rushed and chaotic finish, many people are away on workshops and trainings, other will be heading off for holidays before or at the time I end. It would be nice to say that everyone who has been part of the experience will be there at the finish, but I suspect the final bash will be a mix of those stragglers who still haven't headed home and those that need to be on Taro for work reasons. It has that end of year feel to things right now; I can almost see the last two years roll out before me when I stop to think about it, it’s a mix of satisfaction at the scale of the experience and sadness at it finishing.    
Three weeks out I am still in the dark as to what I will do next year there has been talk about various things; a position we developed to support the Provincial Government has been sent out to many NGO’s and agencies, oddly one group has come back offering to support a senior planner and another a town planner, both of which were never requested and I guess it also shows how much these groups are really paying attention to the needs of the Provincial Government. We are still wondering if the position will get eventually get supported....we will see. Another agency has mentioned coming back for a few weeks work as a consultant in January and early February to help with some planning work in Choiseul, It would be as a consultant and it would look good on the CV, but still needs to be confirmed. Thirdly, there is masters degree option. This may be a good option as it would assist me in working overseas and I have developed quite an interest in strengthening community planning as a way to improve environmental management. 
So for the next three weeks until I fly away it’s going to be busy old time. I have a number of reports my volunteer agency wants me to complete and I have a few small jobs to finish as part of my assignment, including some reporting templates so that the technical Planning Unit can better monitor implementation of the Medium Term Development Plan. I’m at a stage where I know I need to get really organised and get things done, for some reason I’m not in that headspace yet and I needed to be at least a couple of weeks ago.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Countdown

Opening a diary that I bought earlier in the year with an advertisement in it with the heading Hello or Goodbye, has some resonance with where I find myself at the moment. I’m in some sort of transition limbo asking myself will it be goodbye to the Solomon’s for ever or will I be back. I don’t currently have the answer either way and the meter is running. Today is the 6th of November and I am due to fly from Choiseul (possibly my last flight out for a while, possibly ever) to Honiara on the 10th of December.
Walking around in the bush last week in south Choiseul got me thinking that there is still so much that I could do here and want to do here. Rolling through my mind was a quote that David Suzuki the Canadian environmentalist refers to in a documentary about his life, the person he quotes once said the two most powerful words a person can say are “I’m staying”, meaning once you decide to stay in a place it means that you have committed to that community and the people in it.
There are Internet forums which where people discuss the issues faced by the Province (to the point of being pretty repetitive), but corresponding action by people involved in these discussions moving with any real urgency out get out to the Province and their hands dirty seems to be somewhat non-existent. Somewhat oddly there are a number of trained lawyers and doctors from Choiseul, none of which appear to have any interest in working in Choiseul, yet there is a dire need for both of these. It appears these people are working in Honiara or overseas where I guess they consider the grass is greener. It’s a situation that’s pretty similar to what kiwis know of with continual migration of skilled people from New Zealand to Australia and other places overseas, in Choiseul though it’s substantially worse.
I guess this is where I feel that I have something more to offer, I want to stay, to help out and do what I can and yet there is no clear option to make the that decision myself. Staying or at least having the opportunity to return to Choiseul and the Solomon’s is what I would like to be able to do, but with NGO’s and donors moving glacially slow to provide any clear support for a proposed position put to them to support the Provincial Government and also no obvious leads on other jobs; knowing that I will be finishing as a volunteer at the end of this year is about the only certainty I have right now.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

On the Home Straight

April came went and it was all a bit of a blur really. There were trips to Simbo Island in Western Province as well as Gorabara and Sepa, both in South Choiseul.
There also seems to be a bit of a pattern happening to my visits to villages in Choiseul  I have started to notice. It’s based around a three day cycle and goes like this; Day 1 travel early from Taro, arrive and spend time with the people that are hosting you in village and then go fishing.  Day 2 is usually a full day of the activity that you actually came down for either a workshop/training event or walkabout in the bush and then in the evening its fishing some more. Day 3 is either finishing up with a workshop/training or just chatting with people who want your input on something, then it’s time to head back; more often  than not it’s with a whole lot of extra people as well as bundled up sago palm, cassava, taro or sweet potato, green coconuts for drinking and maybe the odd chicken. Once we have dropped off all the passengers with their various cargoes, I like to do a nice detour out into the ocean chasing schools of fish by following were the seabirds are going.
Cruising up and down Choiseul in an open boat is a privilege that few ex-pats have and I still even now just in awe of how beautiful this place is. There is nothing like coming up from the villages from along the coast of South or North Choiseul and approaching Taro as the sun is setting over the Shortland Islands and Bougainville, those sunsets are well and truly etched into my brain.      
Getting out into the communities and away from Taro (often referred to as Taro Station) is to experience the real Choiseul. The issues that come up in communities are generally universal for most communities around Choiseul; its sanitation, water supply issues, sea level rise, population growth, finding sustainable opportunities for using natural resources, infrastructure etc etc, but there is always a local twist on how these issues are related or prioritised.
After what feels like so long here you start to see very clear patterns in all things, especially with the work that I have been doing which is essentially trying to help out organisations strengthen their internal structure. You start to see why some organisations are clearly failing, while other NGO’s who are doing similar work are succeeding. You start to see where the aid industry and donors are creating dependency and where they are creating innovation. As I approach the end of my tenure here I feel that it’s important to communicate what I have witnessed in the hope that someone or some organisation will use it to improve things for the better of the people here. I think it’s reasonable enough to say that there are issues around people not directly confronting organisations and individuals head on that need to be held accountable if change is too occur within a short timeframe (I would argue that with Climate Change, time is short) . As time goes on and I come nearer to the end of my contract I feel it’s more and more appropriate to communicate these things. There is a quote from a book that covers stories of three UN volunteers working through various countries in the 90s that I keep coming back from the book Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures;
“Who has the authority to resolve the dilemma, to place it on the moral spectrum? Who makes the conscious decision to bear witness, to tell the story? We need a volunteer”
Although this comment was in relation to UN volunteers in vastly more dangerous situations than I find myself in here, I think the principle is the same for any volunteer.
I often wonder that with all the big statements from organisations and governments about helping those who need help such as the Solomon Islands, I think about what is really being committed to this province and realise that in many ways I’m it as far as help on the ground is concerned, when I make this connection, I’m blown away. Millions get pumped into supporting the Solomon’s and most goes through government agencies or NGO’s, a great deal of resources probably never make it out of Honiara, actual people helping out on the ground from other countries, basically me, priceless.