Solomon Islands

Flag of Solomon Islands

Country Solomon Islands
Capital city Honiara
Population 581,344 (2013)
Total area 28,896 km2
Formation 7. 7. 1978
Highest point Mount Popomanaseu (2,335 m)
GDP $ 3,288 (IMF, 2012)
Currency solomon islands dollar (SBD)
Code SB (SLB)
Calling code +677
Internet TLD .sb

Geography

The Solomon Islands comprises a double chain of high continental islands formed from the exposed peaks of the submerged mountain chain that extends from Bougainville to northern Vanuatu. The total area is 28,450 sq km (10,985 sq mi), and the total coastline is 5,313 km (3,300 mi).

The largest island in the group is Guadalcanal, the fabled site of one of the fiercest battles in World War II; its area is 6,475 sq km (2,500 sq mi). Only five other islands are large enough to be named on most maps: Choiseul, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Malaita, and San Cristobal.

Almost all of the larger islands are volcanic in origin and are covered with steaming jungles and mountain ranges intersected by narrow valleys. The highest peak is the 2,447 m (8,026 ft) Mount Makarakomburu. Guadalcanal also contains the nation’s only extensive alluvial plains. Most rivers are short and narrow and nonnavigable except by canoe. Most of the smaller islands are raised coral or low atolls.

Solomon Islands Map

Climate and Weather

The Solomon Islands lies wholly within the tropics, such that the country’s climate is uniformly hot and humid, as tempered by continual sea breezes. Temperatures rarely exceed 29.4°C (85°F) or drop below 21.1°C (70°F); the typical variation may be only a degree or two all year long. There are no true changes of season; rather, the year is divided into seasons of greater and lesser rainfall, the former occurring between November and March and the latter from April to November. During the drier season the islands are cooled by southwesterly trade winds. The annual mean rainfall is about 3,050 mm (120 in), although the city of Honiara receives only 2,290 mm (90 in). During the rainy season the islands are subject to typhoons with the capacity for much destruction.

Plants and Animals

There are about 4,500 species of plants in the archipelago, including 230 types of orchids and the poisonous nalato plant. The Solomons are covered with rain forests; about 10 percent of these forests have been cut down by the timber industry, but the government has introduced a reforestation program in an effort to prevent total deforestation. There are coconut trees, mangroves, and scrubby bushes.

The islands are full of animal life, including many species of insects, lizards, snakes, turtles, and crocodiles. Mammal species are fairly small; the largest mammals are the wild pigs. The waters surrounding the Solomons contain some of the most beautiful underwater scenery and marine life in the world, including many types of tropical fish, sharks, whales, and dugongs.

Ethnic Composition

Melanesians constitute 93 percent of the population. Minority groups include Polynesians (4 percent), Micronesians (1.5 percent), Caucasians (0.8 percent), Chinese (0.3 percent), and others (0.4 percent). Generally, the inhabitants of the high islands are Melanesians, while those on the outliers are predominantly Polynesian.

Languages

The official language of the Solomon Islands is English, but the lingua franca of the marketplace is a Melanesian pidgin; only about 2 percent of the people can speak standard English. The various islanders speak over 120 Melanesian languages and dialects, all of which are derived from the Austronesian linguistic family. In the interior regions the Melanesian languages give way to earlier and more primitive Papuan languages.

Religions

Fully 95 percent of the population is Christian, with the Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist, and Baptist churches dominant. In certain parts, particularly in the interiors, people have retained varying degrees of adherence to traditional religions.

Because Christian missionaries were responsible for introducing literacy, medicine, crafts, technology, and other aspects of Western civilization to the islands, the Christian influence is pervasive and deeply interwoven into every facet of national life.

History

There is archaeological evidence that inhabitants first arrived on the Solomon Islands nearly 30,000 years ago. Organized agricultural settlements date back more than 6,000 years. For more than 5,000 years the islands were settled by a vast array of peoples, including Polynesians, Lapitas, and Melanesians. The settlements were also subject to frequent attacks by Tongan and Tokelauan peoples. In 1568 the Spanish explorer Don Alvaro de Mendaña y Neyra sighted a large island and called it Santa Isabel. He fought with the locals for food and gold and eventually returned to Peru. By 1570 the islands were being referred to as Yslas de Salomon, in reference to the biblical king Solomon. In 1595 Mendaña finally raised enough funds for another voyage to the islands, where he established a short-lived colony.

For nearly 150 years the islands were free from further European influence because of poor mapping. In 1767 the British captain Philip Cartaret rediscovered the Solomons, and they were subsequently used as whaling and trading stops for Europeans and Americans. Conflict grew between islanders and traders; the islands gained a reputation for being inhospitable, as whites were often killed on sight.

The northern Solomon Islands became a German protectorate in 1885, while the southern Solomon Islands came under the hegemony of the United Kingdom in 1893. Germany ceded most of its possessions in this region to the United Kingdom between 1898 and 1900, and the whole territory, called the British Solomon Islands Protectorate, was placed under the jurisdiction of the Western Pacific High Commission, which had its headquarters at Fiji and was represented locally by a resident commissioner. World War II brought the islands into contact with both Japan and the United States, who became locked in mortal combat on Guadalcanal. The widespread destruction caused by the war fostered strong anti-European sentiments, which led to the development of pro-independence political movements, such as the “Marching Rule” in Malaita.

The territory’s first step toward self-government was the establishment of executive and legislative councils in 1960. A new constitution was promulgated in 1970, and the nation’s first general elections were held that year. A second constitution, adopted in 1974, created a single legislative assembly of 24 members, who chose a chief minister with the right to appoint his own council of ministers. In 1975 the country’s name was officially changed from the British Solomon Islands Protectorate to the Solomon Islands. A year later the country achieved internal selfgovernment, as followed by full independence in 1978.

At independence, Peter Kenilorea, the chief minister, was designated prime minister. The national parliament overwhelmingly reelected him in 1980. In 1981, however, parliament approved a motion of no confidence and chose Solomon Mamaloni as prime minister. Kenilorea was reinstated after the general elections in 1984 resulted in the formation of a coalition government. He was forced to resign in 1986 amid accusations of misappropriating typhoon relief funds. The national assembly then chose Deputy Prime Minister Ezekial Alebua to replace him. Following the 1989 elections, the legislature reinstated Mamaloni as prime minister.

Mamaloni formed his third government in 1994, when Francis Billy Hilly was forced to resign after one year in office. In 1997 Bartholomew Ulufa’alu was elected prime minister. Six months of ethnic tension led the government to declare a state of emergency in 1999; the Isatabu Freedom Fighters (IFF) had been leading a campaign to drive settlers from Malaita Island, off the main island of Guadalcanal. Ulufa’alu was forced to resign, and in June 2000 Manasseh Sogavare was elected prime minister. In February 2001 the Mauru peace agreement, aimed at ending years of fighting, was signed by both the IFF and the Malaita Eagle Force. However, the peace agreement was threatened in September 2001 when the IFF leader Selwyn Sake was murdered. In 2001 Allan Kemakeza was elected prime minister.

International donors urged Kemakeza to restore law and order to the nation, but in 2002 the situation descended into anarchy. International peace monitors left the country, and the tribal warlord Harold Keke, leader of the Isatabu Freedom Movement, ordered the murder of member of parliament Father Augustine Geve. The nation was in shambles by June 2003, when Kemakeza asked Australia and New Zealand for military help.

The next month Australian soldiers arrived on the islands. They captured Harold Keke, quelled widespread violence, collected weapons, and arrested numerous rebel commanders; in November, Australia declared the islands back in order. Nevertheless, as of 2005 the Solomon Islands faced a difficult future. Timber, the nation’s main export, remained vulnerable to price fluctuations and sustained deforestation, and the country lacked the finances needed to develop the infrastructure and attract tourists. The security situation, meanwhile, remained unstable.

Constitution

Under the constitution of 1978, which took effect upon independence, the Solomon Islands is a constitutional monarchy, with the British sovereign as titular head of state, represented on the islands by a governor-general, who is required to be a citizen of the country. The governor-general is appointed for a term of five years on the advice of the national parliament. The governor-general appoints the 20 members of the cabinet, choosing them from members of parliament on the advice of the prime minister. The prime minister is the head of government; he or she is elected by parliament but is usually the leader of the majority party. Each ministry is headed by a cabinet member.

Suffrage is universal for all Solomon Islanders over age 18. An electoral commission oversees electoral rolls and ensures free elections. The constitution provides for the gradual devolution of power to proposed provincial governments and the incorporation of traditional leadership structures within the government. The details of such decentralization have not yet been worked out.

Parliament

The unicameral national parliament is a 50-member body elected by popular vote from single-member constituencies to four-year terms. The parliament may be dissolved by majority vote among its members before the end of a term. Parliament selects the governor-general, who serves a five-year term.

Only Solomon Islanders can own land. When the Solomon Islands became independent, citizenship was granted to all members of native tribes. Resident expatriates, such as the Chinese and Kiribatians, may become naturalized citizens.

Political Parties

Political party membership in the Solomon Islands is fluid, with large numbers belonging to nondescript independent parties. The two largest organizations are the People’s Alliance Party (PAP), founded in 1977, which advocates the establishment of a federal republic, and the Solomon Islands Alliance for Change Coalition (SIACC). Other parties include the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) and the Solomon Islands Labor Party (SILP).

Local Government

For purposes of local government the country is divided into nine provinces—Central, Choiseul, Guadalcanal, Isabel, Makira, Malaita, Temotu, Western, and Rennell and Bellona—and one capital territory, Honiara.

The provinces are divided into area councils, which are governed by elected councils. Honiara is governed by the Honiara Town Council. All areas except Tikopia, Anuta, and the small outlying Reef Islands are under the authority of their own local councils. Choiseul, Santa Isabel, Malaita, San Cristobal, and Guadalcanal have islandwide councils, while others administer subdistricts. Members of these councils are elected by universal adult suffrage. Malaita and Honiara have town councils with wider ranges of powers and responsibilities.

Legal System

The judicial system is three tiered, with the High Court at the top. Magistrate courts have both civil and criminal jurisdiction. Local courts, each comprising a president and a panel of judges drawn from the village or subdistrict, deal with indigenous customs and litigation concerning customary rights to land.

The chief of police is also the superintendent of prisons and in this capacity runs the islands’ four penitentiaries. The largest is the central prison at Honiara; smaller prisons, called district prisons, are established at the headquarters of the other police divisions. Penal policies are oriented toward rehabilitation rather than punishment and emphasize adult and vocational training. The average prison population rarely exceeds a few hundred.

Human Rights

In terms of civil and political rights, the Solomon Islands is classified as a free country. For the most part the government respects the human rights of citizens, although there is some violence and discrimination against women.

Until the eruption of armed conflict between Guadalcanalese and Malaitan militants, no violations of human rights had been reported in the country. Democratic institutions and practices seem to have struck firm roots, and there are no restrictions on the freedoms of speech, press, religion, and assembly. Preventive detention does not exist, and habeas corpus is honored in practice.

The armed conflict between Malaitan and Guadalcanalese militants led to a serious deterioration of the human rights situation. Many current and former police officers, many believed to be from two national police units dominated by Malaitans, sided with armed Malaitan political groups, and police and militants from both sides committed numerous human rights abuses, including killings, abductions, torture, rape, forced displacement, looting, and the burning of homes. Militants prevented Red Cross officials and volunteers from taking food and medical supplies to rural clinics, leaving 60,000 persons without access to medical care, nutritional supplements, and fuel.

Foreign Policy

The Solomon Islands retains close links with Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Regionally, Honiara has been a strong supporter of the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone and an opponent of “French imperialism.” The United States and the Solomon Islands have had diplomatic relations since 1978. Both nations are members of the South Pacific Commission and the South Pacific Regional Environmental Program. The United States grants $18 million per year to the tuna fishing industry.

Since 1990 one of the principal concerns of the Solomon Islands has been the insurrection in Papua New Guinea’s province of Bougainville, whose people are ethnically akin to Solomon Islanders. Papua New Guinea had accused Bougainvillean rebels of using the Solomon Islands as a conduit for arms and as a safe haven. In 1992 the Solomon Islands protested when Papua New Guinean military units crossed into Solomon territory on search-and-destroy missions and abducted villagers. Tensions eased in 1996 with the signing of a border treaty, and in 2004 the two nations regularized border operations.

Defense and Military

The Solomon Islands has no defense force, as the nation is under the protection of UK military guarantees. There is a small civilian police force responsible for domestic security and law enforcement. The United States carries out regular exercises in the Solomons and provides military training to national security officials.

Economy

The Solomon Islands has very few sources of income and a per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of $1,700. Three-quarters of the workforce are engaged in agriculture and fishing, mostly at the subsistence level, effectively earning no income at all. Until 1998 the nation’s largest source of income was tropical timber, which grows wild, but timber prices have dropped in recent years, and forests are becoming overexploited. Other cash crops are copra and palm oil. Fisheries have great potential for growth, although a Japanese fish cannery operating in the Solomons closed in 2000 due to fears of ethnic violence. The plant reopened under local management but had not resumed tuna exports as of 2005. Possible alternative sources of income include mined gold; other mineral resources, such as lead, zinc, and nickel; and tourism. The scuba diving industry brings in substantial income, but growth in tourism has been hampered by the lack of infrastructure and transportation.

In general, severe ethnic violence, the closing of key business enterprises, and an empty government treasury have led to a continuing economic downslide. Deliveries of crucial fuel supplies (including those for electrical generation) by tankers have become sporadic because of the government’s inability to complete payments and also because of attacks against ships. Telecommunications are threatened by the lack of technical and maintenance staff, many of whom have left the country. The Asian economic crisis of the early 2000s hit the nation hard, particularly devastating the timber industry. The government was insolvent in 2002, and by mid-2003 the disintegration of law and order had nearly destroyed the entire economy. In the summer of 2003 Australian soldiers entered the country as part of an effort to restore order and resume basic services. The government reassessed its budget and priorities so as to put the nation’s economy back on track. The Solomon Islands receives economic aid from Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, Japan, and China.

Environment

The Solomon Islands lacks a coherent system of protected areas and has poorly enforced environmental legislation. Chief among concerns is the rate of deforestation caused by the logging industry; the government is attempting to reform timber-harvesting policies to allow for the sustainable harvesting of trees. The nearly 1,000 islands that make up the country are home to a wide variety of species that are threatened by an increasing population and the exploitation of natural resources. The United States has been supporting the nation’s efforts to protect biodiversity by establishing local conservation areas and protecting reefs as part of the International Coral Reef Initiative.

Living Conditions

The Solomon Islands is a very poor nation; most people still live in primitive conditions. They cut down trees to build their houses, grow their own food in gardens, and make their own clothing from plants. Some houses are basic huts with leaf walls. Many people still travel by canoe or dugout. There are very few roads on the islands, and most of them are unpaved. Water supplies can be contaminated, and people must boil water to be sure it is safe to drink.

Health

Despite the poverty of the nation, health conditions are fairly good. Life expectancy is quite high, at almost 73 years, and infant mortality is relatively low, at 21 deaths per 1,000 live births. The average woman gives birth to more than four children. Endemic tropical diseases include malaria, yellow fever, tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis A, and polio. Some strains of malaria are resistant to chloroquine. Solomon Islanders still use local plants as medicines.

Food and Cuisine

People eat a great deal of fish, along with fresh fruit and vegetables. Common starches are sweet potato, taro, cassava, and rice. Poi is fermented taro root, eaten as porridge or as a starch with fish. Mud crab is a local delicacy. Meat is rare and expensive, though people do raise pigs. Coconut milk straight from the coconut is a popular beverage. Imported canned food is available but expensive.

Women

Women suffer from low social status as a result of centuries of subjugative tribal traditions. Nominally, women have equal legal rights, but traditional culture has hampered their moving into leadership roles. There are no women in senior governmental positions or in the national parliament, although women are involved in politics and have run for national office. Violence against women is a major problem that is still often ignored or considered a family matter; women rarely bring accusations of violence to court because their male relatives refuse to allow it. Women have begun organizing themselves into groups to speak out against mistreatment.

The Solomon Islands has one of the highest rates of population growth in the world. The government is committed to the promotion of family planning and the gradual reduction of the rate of population growth. A voluntary planned parenthood association has been funded, with government approval.

Work

Three-quarters of Solomon Islanders are farmers and fishermen. They mostly grow, hunt, and gather their own food and do not use money very often. About 5 percent of workers are employed in industry. Some islanders work in forestry, although this industry has been suffering in recent years. Others process tuna fish or work in mines. About 20 percent of the workforce is employed in services, including the tourist industry. Unemployment is high, and young people have difficulty finding jobs that provide decent income.

Education

Education is not compulsory, and most schools charge nominal fees. Schooling lasts for 11 years, as divided into six years of primary, three years of middle, and two years of secondary education. Primary education is mostly provided by state schools but was pioneered by Christian missions; churches play a more significant role in secondary education. Provincial secondary schools (formerly new secondary schools) provide practical education, mainly in agriculture. The school year runs from January through December. The language of instruction is English.

Schools lack teachers and supplies, especially in remote areas. About 85 percent of children attend elementary school, but only 14 percent continue on to secondary school. Illiteracy is high. Scholarships are provided by the government for higher education overseas. In 1977 the University of the South Pacific opened a center in Honiara.

Science and Technology

The Solomon Islands is still fairly primitive technologically. Many areas have no electricity, and a fair proportion of people are illiterate, which makes computerization problematic. In 2002 there were only 6,600 telephone lines and 1,000 cellular telephones in use, and only about 2,200 people used the Internet. There are no telecommunications facilities in some areas, and international calls require the use of satellite services. Violence and disorder in the early 2000s only worsened the telecommunications infrastructure, as services were discontinued due to lack of staff and the nonpayment of bills.

Media

Radio is the most important form of media in the Solomon Islands, due both to widespread illiteracy and the remoteness of many habitations. The Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC) provides a public radio service, mainly in pidgin English, with some broadcasts in standard English. The Australian government has given some equipment to the SIBC and has sponsored programming promoting peace and an end to ethnic violence. There is no television service based within the islands, though some satellite channels reach them. The Solomon Star is the only daily newspaper. There are a few other weekly and monthly publications.

Freedom of the press improved in the early 2000s, due partly to Australia’s efforts to restore peace to the country. Militia leaders had been known to threaten journalists, but they have recently been punished by imprisonment, which has led to better working conditions for journalists.

Culture

Solomon Islanders maintain many cultural traditions and have not been excessively influenced by outside sources. Local musicians play traditional music on bamboo pipes, which are either tied together in sets or played alone as flutes. Musicians also use bamboo as a percussion instrument, hitting it with a piece of rubber to produce interesting sounds. Custom dancing, the traditional folk dance form, is still performed frequently at festivals, with dancers attired in the full regalia of grass skirts and shell jewelry. Wood carving is a common craft; carvers produce a variety of objects, such as miniature canoes and bowls.

Folklore and Mythology

Though Christianity is the predominant religion, most Solomon Islanders still follow traditional beliefs as well; many believe in magic. Most people believe that dead people’s spirits live on in sharks, birds, or reptiles, and living relatives will not eat whatever kind of animal houses a known spirit for a specified period of time. Many people worship sharks, and the people in the Laulasi and Busu islands used to hand-feed them; such hand-feeding no longer occurs, but local boys still ride sharks around as part of a ritual. Islanders living in villages hold regular festivals, with dancing, songs, and stories about hunting, war, agriculture, or nature.

Islands usually come to scuba dive or snorkel; beautiful coral reefs and World War II wrecks make for some of the best diving in the world. There are many outdoor activities to do on land, too, such as hiking, mountain climbing, caving, and mountain biking.

Public holidays are occasions for parades, sporting events, and custom dancing, the local folk dance form. Whitmonday, the Queen’s birthday, and Independence Day are major national celebrations. Each province has its own provincial holiday.

Etiquette

The Solomon Islanders observe a complex assortment of taboos. Property rights are extremely important; most land and the plants on it belong to someone, and so it is usually inappropriate to simply pick fruit that appears to be growing wild. Property rights can apply to the ocean as well. It is considered improper for a woman to stand higher than a man or for a man to place himself below a woman. In some areas it is taboo to wear certain colors. Most locals understand that visitors do not know the social rules and will usually forgive unwitting breaches of etiquette. Tipping is not done because the recipient of the tip would feel obligated to return a favor to the tipper. Bargaining is not customary.

Family Life

Every island and clan has its own rules regulating marriage, children, and land ownership. Ancestors exert influence over the living even after death, and families continue to acknowledge the presence of their dead relatives. Generally, a tribe owns land communally, and families within the tribe share its produce. Relatives live in neighboring houses and share all their possessions in addition to assisting one another with jobs such as raising children. Within families, women generally have lower status than men.

Personal Appearance

Many Solomon Islanders still wear traditional dress, especially for festivals. Garments include grass skirts and very brief loincloths, shell jewelry, and elaborate headdresses. Despite the fact that islanders sometimes wear very little clothing, visitors are expected to dress modestly, with their legs mostly covered.

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