The Guardian • Issue #2038

Colonialism’s dead hand

Lilisiana village, Solomon Islands. Photo: Wade Fairley / WorldFish (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In 2000 the same issues of land ownership and forms of government were behind the conflict of the two opposing “freedom” fighter groups which erupted Pacific; in the Solomon Islands and in Fiji, which led to a coup in the latter.

Because the economic and political processes are similar in other Pacific Islands, as well as Papua New Guinea (PNG), similar conflicts can be expected in the future across the region which constitutes Australia’s near north.

The Solomon Islands was formerly a British colonial possession. It won its political (but not its economic) independence in 1978.

The island of Bougainville, where a long struggle for independence is taking place, forms a natural part of the Solomon Islands group. But Bougainville was thrown in as part of Papua New Guinea by the imperialist powers as they withdrew from direct rule.

Colonialism disrupted the former patterns of land ownership and forms of government. Land ownership resided in tribal groups passed down from generation to generation through the matrilineal (or in some cases patrilineal) line. The land was effectively communally owned and cultivated.

The colonial powers introduced a cash economy and imposed a Westminister style of bourgeois democracy, thereby contesting with the former system of chiefs which had administered tribal matters.


Another factor in the Solomon Islands was the movement of people from the island of Malaita to the nearby island of Guadalcanal during WW2 when US armed forces occupied the Solomon Islands during the war against Japan. The Malaitans began to take up residence in Guadalcanal and gradually took up land there.

Towns sprang up, together with shops, the provision of goods for sale. Some became workers in these shops and in the mines which were operated by big mining corporations.

Logging by foreign corporations in the Solomon Islands and in PNG also provided work but ripped out the natural wealth of the small and economically weak Island states.

The Solomon Islands has a gold mine which is now owned by Delta Gold. This mine could become a focal point of contest in the same manner that Bougainville Copper was closed by the Bougainville Revolutionary Army but this does not yet appear to have become an issue in the Solomon Islands.

The population of the Solomon Islands had grown to the point where the existing economy no longer provides a livelihood and work for all.

As far back as 1994 when Gordon Bilney was the Minister for Pacific Island Affairs in the then Labor government, he said: “The lack of economic development, when combined with high population growth rates, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and rapidly rising community expectations has led to a growing range of social and economic problems, including permanent environmental degradation.”

Having correctly presented the problems his solution was “public sector reform and private sector development.” He said: “We believe that a confident and growing private sector is one of the keys to the success of any trade and investment strategy.”

Disastrous consequences

It is this approach that Australian governments has been attempting to foist on all Pacific Island nations with disastrous consequences.

If Australian forces, in whatever guise, are sent to “keep the peace” in the Solomons or any other of the Pacific Islands, it is this policy that they would be charged with upholding.

The Pacific Islands are rich in natural resources of timber, fish, minerals and as tourist destinations. But the people of these islands cannot gain the benefits of these resources while they are ripped-off by Delta Gold, Bougainville Copper, BHP or other big corporations.

The same situation confronts Fiji, PNG, West Papua, Timor Leste and other small island states.

While it is not possible to return to the conditions which existed before colonialism, the struggle by the Indigenous people of these states is directed, at present, against the consequences of colonialism and the effects of private enterprise economic policies on their countries.

But within these struggles there are elements of a return to communal and collective ownership of land, grassroots democracy as against bourgeois democratic forms, and control over their natural resources.

The struggle to achieve real independence and the establishment of a social and economic system that will make them the owners of their land and its resources and in which all will be able to share collectively, rather than have the wealth of their states creamed off by largely foreign enterprises, will take many years.

The trade union movement and all progressive organisations must stand with their brothers and sisters to break the grip of colonialism’s dead hand.

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