Solomons government wants to relaunch troubled RIPEL company
The Solomon Islands government wants to relaunch the troubled Russell Islands Plantation Estates Ltd, but it has to make some tough decisions.
The Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare says a revival of the Russell Islands Plantations Estate Limited is a priority for his government.
He says the government hopes to address some of the underlying issues at the troubled company by the end of this year.
RIPEL, which was once the biggest company in the Solomons, has been riven with disputes for more than ten years involving the foreign owners, the government, unions and workers.
Mr Sogavare says the government has already had talks with the general manager, John Whiteside, to try and find ways to re-commence operations.
He says there is now strong potential for downstream processing of coconut products and the vast RIPEL estate should be part of this.
Don Wiseman spoke with our Solomon Islands correspondent, Dorothy Wickham, who outlined the nature of the issue confronting the government.
DOROTHY WICKHAM: There is a lot of criminal and illegal activity that has been taking place in Russells, especially on RIPEL [Russell Islands Plantation Estates Ltd] property and I think because police have not been able to handle anything at all in relation to this - I think that has been one of the biggest problems. Very complicated this case. You have got cases upon cases pending in relation to RIPEL property - people stealing property, people misusing property, of criminal behaviour, damage - all sorts. It has been 10 years of court cases. I think the government has just got to decided if it is going to do this legally, then it has to deal with all the court rulings, make sure that all the court rulings in relation to RIPEL police enforce, and then they can start from there. Without that I don't think it is going to make any difference what the say and they do now. It has to come right down to the basics, and that is enforcing law and order and also ensuring that justice is being served in relation to whether it is RIPEL which is owed money or the workers who are owed money
DON WISEMAN: As you say there has been criminality there and that is due to former workers who are still resident on the estate?
DOROTHY WICKHAM: That's right. This are some of the issues that underpin issues on Guadalcanal too I think, that we in Solomon Islands need to get right. If it is not your land, it is not your land, whatever you say. If you legally own it, you are the legal owner of it. If you are the traditional owner of it then prove you are and then you own it. I think in the case of the former workers of RIPEL they pushed their boundaries too far in this regard. Yes they may be owed money by the former management or whatever they didn't agree with in their conditions. Yes all that has been addressed. It can be addressed again in court, but for them to sit there and decide that they are going to be permanent residents of that plantation, in any country in the world or under any circumstances the person who owns the land will not accept that. It is amazing that the government has allowed this to take place. We don't want the kind of issues to arise that we had on Guadalcanal.
DON WISEMAN: Why have successive governments, because these problems have been happening since before the troubles haven't they, yet successive governments have refused to take any police action or sanction any police action against these former workers or the people living on the estates - why?
DOROTHY WICKHAM: The Solomon Islands government, whether the past government or future governments to come must realise they can't go around the world promoting investment in Solomon Islands, talking about tourism, encouraging tourism, putting it in priority policies when it can't address issues like this. These people [RIPEL] are investors. We are not going to say they are right or wrong in the issue, what we are saying is deal with it properly and enforce the law. It is basic and simple - it is the law they need to enforce. You can't bring in investment, you can't develop if you can't enforce the law. It is just a simple matter of commonsense on this one.
DON WISEMAN: As it stands at the moment the courts have ruled in favour of the Estates that these workers or former workers are there illegally?
DOROTHY WICKHAM: That is the whole point. And if you look back over all the court cases that have been ruled on, even a special delegation sent down there headed by Andrew Nori, the late Andrew Nori who led a delegation down into the Russells to do a report for government, previous government that is not this government, and the report says very clearly that all activities on the island are illegal. There has to be some understanding of that and if this government is serious it has to enforce the law. It is that simple.
DON WISEMAN: And what are the chances of that happening do you think?
DOROTHY WICKHAM: I think if the police force is strong we can overcome this. They are dealing with families, people, children, everything. Now [there is a need for] an independent body to parliament, to assess the situation on what is legally correct to do in terms of how do we handle this situation with all these people, and how do we handle it, morally, in terms of the families and the children - where do they go after that. This has been a problem from colonial times. Plantations, not only in the Solomons but across the Pacific where people come and work on these plantations and reside and then you have 3 generations of families on this plantation who call this place home and forget that its a job to go to, and hardly get back to their islands of origin, and this is where it causes problems. And when something goes wrong this is what happens. This is what happened on Guadalcanal with SIPL [Solomon Islands Plantations Ltd], so this whole thing with plantations needs to be relooked at - how they actually rotate workers and how long you keep workers. And I think New Zealand and Australia understand this and that is one of the reasons the workers [RSE] scheme is on a short term basis, so you don't let people settle till a point when they think it is home and cannot go back to where they come from.
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