The tyranny of distance: Corporate harm on the frontline in the Pacific

| May 23, 2018

The natural wealth of Pacific nations is disappearing overseas. Unseen and unheard, the voices of Pacific Island communities on the frontline of deforestation, irresponsible mining and seabed exploitation are being overlooked and human rights abuses are going unchecked in remote rural regions.

Voices from the Pacific need lifting to overcome the tyranny of distance and ensure that businesses operating in the region respect human rights.

The Pacific Ocean is a treasure trove of islands, hiding an abundance of precious resources. Cloaked in hardwood forests, rich veins of copper, bauxite and gold lie in its earth and rare mineral deposits sit buried in its sea floor.

Previously untouched, many Pacific Island countries are poised to experience escalating exploitation by foreign-owned companies headquartered in Australia, China, Malaysia and Indonesia. Without regard to international rules requiring respect for human rights in business, this threatens the sustainability of life in the Pacific for future generations.

Revenue streams from natural resources are a key source of actual, and potential, income for many Pacific nations. Cash flows from natural resource extraction can be directed to improving schools, infrastructure and health services, aiding development and relieving poverty and inequality. Many Pacific countries are well placed to fund fairer societies.

And yet, in much of the region, its people face seemingly insurmountable challenges to ensure they receive a fair share of sovereign wealth for themselves, and their children. Their inheritance is being chopped-down, dug-up and shipped-off at an alarming rate.

States keen to attract overseas investment often unwittingly welcome irresponsible companies with open arms, grateful for injections of foreign capital into struggling agrarian economies burdened by debt. Local laws may be conveniently forgotten. Those charged with protecting the local people and enforcing regulation repeatedly turn a blind eye, sometimes colluding directly with the very companies they are employed to control.

The activities of foreign-owned extractive companies can be hugely damaging to local communities, with few benefits flowing. Mining operators are shipping tonnes of earth wholesale, to be processed offshore. Logging, another high-risk sector, occurs both legally and illegally.

Licences, often obtained in highly questionable circumstances, have led to widespread deforestation in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Deforestation rates in both these nations are amongst the highest rates globally, fuelling an international trade in illegal timber. Corrupt practices further diminish the rule of law, impeding equitable profit-sharing between companies and customary landowners.

Local communities are inadequately equipped to counter these challenges. To access the internet, a villager in the Solomon Islands may spend six long hours in the back of a truck travelling along poor roads. Or a week by ferry to reach the capital on erratically scheduled passenger ferries to check the progress of a complaint at the police or Ministry of Forestry. This is no match for the satellite dishes and instant access to Honiara officials enjoyed in the logging camps.

Seabed mining, we are told, will happen many kilometres offshore, well away from local communities and fish stocks. Its impacts, say the mining companies, will harm neither the people, nor their food supplies. Those who depend upon the Pacific’s blue economy have a different perspective. They have seen the results of the exploratory testing and the clouded water it creates.

When the mining company divers come, they fear for their futures and those of their children. Once mining licences are granted, they believe the damage caused by exploratory drilling will be replicated on a grand scale, polluting Pacific waters, destroying fish stocks and harming life along the shoreline.

A bonanza of exploitation is underway in the Pacific. The voices of affected communities, often isolated by great distances and limited means of communication, are going unheard. They have been overlooked by the rest of the world and abuses are going unchecked.

A unique capacity-building program on Business, Human Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals held earlier this month in Suva, Fiji, aimed to challenge this reality.

Organised by the Pacific Islands Association of NGOs (PIANGO), Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF), the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, UNSW Institute for Global Development and the Diplomacy Training Program, the event brought together participants, representing civil society in eight Pacific countries.

The pilot training and research program was developed to equip Pacific communities with tools to address the challenges of unchecked economic encroachment into their lands and lives.

“Building awareness of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is an urgent priority in the Pacific given impacts of mining, logging, palm-oil and seasonal labour migration schemes,” said Sara Bulutani Mataitawakilai, Chief Executive Officer of the Citizens Constitutional Forum (CCF), one of the organisers.

It is a small drop in a wide ocean, but ideas, like ripples, can spread far and wide. As the human rights of communities are increasingly impacted by new and developing business activities across the Pacific, its people need supporting so that when they speak-out, their voices are heard far and wide, and reach the places where action can bring change.

With stakeholders working together – communities, governments, the UN and business itself – a fairer pattern of economic development can be achieved in the Pacific. International rules oblige companies to respect human rights. Governments should promote these rules and Pacific communities have a right to expect they will be implemented.

Local communities and their advocates need greater access to international frameworks and mechanisms such as UN and OECD complaints procedures, as well as to local, regional and international civil society networks.

Distances may be great, but Pacific voices deserve to be heard and need elevating to global platforms. In this way, communities can be supported in their efforts to achieve stable, sustainable growth that will protect the futures of those that follow.

As they say in Pacific, “We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we keep it for our children and return it without injuries.”

This article was published by New Matilda and is republished with the author’s permission.  New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet which survives through reader contributions.  Please support it if you can.

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Amy Sinclair

Amy is an international lawyer, researcher and adviser working in the non-profit sector to advance respect for human rights. She is a representative for Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an international NGO tracking the human rights impacts of companies worldwide.