Solomon Islands: Rural growth - setbacks and a possible option.
Most recently the Hon. Prime Minister, Manneseh Sogavara, spoke about his disappointment at the lack of developments in the country since independence was attained in 1978 and his comments focused my thoughts on rural growth.
I recall, perhaps 10 years ago, reading a government paper saying rural growth in the short to medium term would have to come from the rural economy.
The same paper mentioned the country’s size, fragmentation, and relative isolation from world markets and the low level of industrial skills of the workforce would make it unlikely that export-oriented manufacturing could be the mainstay of growth in incomes for the rural population.
It was mentioned the country had a potential in agricultural production for the domestic and export markets and for some downstream processing.
Over the next few years I then read of what were termed ‘Urban Growth Centres’ and later ‘Free Economic Zones,’ polices that promised to generate jobs, income and an improvement in the livelihoods of rural people, but the promise of such develops has not materialized.
I have to ask myself how have things changed for rural people and the “potential in agricultural production,” since the onset of climate change and a perceived lack of private sector investment in agriculture? I suspect little.
Actually, I was a little surprised when the concept of ‘Free Economic Zones’ was introduced bearing in mind what had been said about the unlikelihood of export-oriented manufacturing could be the mainstay of growth but wanted such developments to succeed.
The rural economy is based upon the production and marketing of a small number of commodities—food crops and fresh fruit, coconut, cocoa, timber, fish, marine products and oil palm.
Log exports are finite and already the forest reserves almost depleted from over-logging and the latest huge export of round logs from Malaita will have done nothing to help the dwindling forests.
The widespread damage to coconut trees and plantations by the rhinoceros beetle must have resulted in depleted coconut exports.
There is concern, too, over depleting fishing stocks heightened by over-fishing, warming seas and pollution.
In 2002, there was talk of possible large scale export of cassava to the Canadian market, but there were then certain barriers to overcome in terms of quality control before gaining access to the lucrative Canadian market.
It was proposed that the government set up its own testing facilities to ensure that cassava and other root crops would meet the requirements and qualify for Canada and other markets.
Did anything eventuate?
Two letters I wrote recently referred to the establishment of a business economic zone being pursued by the Vanuatu government on the island of Santo and intended to provide local employment for up to 8000 people.
The other letter, referred to a village in Samoa where the customary land owners had opted to lease some of their land for a fruit farming business and were reaping the financial rewards as a monthly income.
Both these letters attracted some interest, both on Facebook, my website and on Linkedin.
It occurred to me that both ideas could have some merit, if only on a trial basis, an economic zone could be introduced with the cooperation of landowners, private enterprise, investors and with government backing.
If such a venture did take off and prove successful it could be the opening that is needed to see some positive improvement in rural growth.