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Country profile - Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands

Overview

The Solomon Islands has yet to recover from the devastating ethnic violence of 1998-2003 which brought the economy to the brink of collapse, bankrupted the government, destroyed vital agricultural infrastructure, and caused thousands of people to flee their homes. According to FAO, one-fifth of the population is undernourished, and increasing pressure on natural resources means urgent solutions are needed.

Located east of Papua New Guinea, with a population of just over half-a-million people, the Solomon Islands is the third-largest archipelago in the South Pacific, comprising around 1,000 islands. The majority of people live on the six largest islands, the most populous of which are Malaita and Guadalcanal, where the capital Honiara is located. Largely rugged and mountainous, most agricultural activity is confined to the more favourable topography of the coastal areas where the climate is hot and wet, and vegetation is lowland forest.

A living from the land

Over 80 per cent of Solomon Islanders live in rural areas and depend on subsistence agriculture. The main subsistence crops are sweet potato, cassava, banana, taro, yam, beans, cabbage, watercress, and watermelon. Other important staples include breadfruit, nuts and edible leaves, such as Gnetum. Non-timber forest products provide food, medicine and building materials.

Banana is one of the most important subsistence crops (Graham Lyons)
Banana is one of the most important subsistence crops
Graham Lyons

The country's major cash crops are coconut (for copra and oil), betel nut, oil palm and cocoa beans. Other important crops include potato, onion, pineapple and Robusta coffee. Ngali nuts are a very popular seasonal food and these, together with various spices, offer opportunities for commercialisation, but marketing is often hindered by a lack of reliable, cost-effective transport between and beyond islands.

Timber accounts for 80 per cent of government export revenue. The country's logging boom in the 1990s was triggered by Malaysia and Indonesia banning round log exports, which saw world prices rocket. Exports from the Solomon Islands more than doubled in a decade. Although prices have subsequently fallen, logging continues at an unsustainable rate. Widespread deforestation has resulted in a host of environmental problems, including declining soil fertility and increasing frequency of flash floods.

Valuable and vulnerable industries

Nearly all households in the Solomon Islands keep pigs (Graham Lyons)
Nearly all households in the Solomon Islands keep pigs
Graham Lyons

Much of the commercial livestock infrastructure on Guadalcanal was destroyed during the civil unrest, including research institutions, a feed mill and the country's only abattoir. Valuable breeding herds of pigs and cattle were also killed or stolen. There are now only 5,000 cattle in the Solomon Islands, around one-fifth of pre-conflict numbers, and genetic quality is declining. The country imports 250-300 tonnes of beef each year.

Most villages are coastal and smallscale fishing is an important source of protein. Sea cucumber is plentiful and highly-prized, but stocks have been overexploited. Commodities such as trochus (sea snail) shells and shark fins are a major source of income for small commercial fisheries. Offshore fishing - primarily for yellowfin tuna - remains profitable but stocks are declining rapidly.

Around 90 per cent of households keep between one and five pigs, and scavenging chickens are ubiquitous. The country has some 500 beekeepers whose 200 hives - primarily on Malaita - produce 75 tonnes of honey a year, half of which is exported.

Current issues

Imported rice has become an expensive national staple, with recent world price rises resulting in a US$200 million import bill. The government, with financial assistance from Taiwan, has responded with the controversial National Rice Development Program, which aims to re-establish rice farming on Guadalcanal. Implementation has been hindered by land disputes and the wisdom of this initiative has been questioned by those keen to encourage production of indigenous crops.

The country is not immune from the effects of climate change either. Rising sea temperatures could kill many of its coral reefs and the marine life that depends on them. If local fisheries collapse, it could trigger mass migration of "climate refugees" from low-lying islands to urban areas - creating the same pressures believed to have triggered the civil disturbances.

Most villages are coastal and fishing is a vital source of food and income (Graham Lyons)
Most villages are coastal and fishing is a vital source of food and income
Graham Lyons

The year-round tropical climate provides the perfect conditions for pathogens to flourish and many crops suffer disease outbreaks. Taro beetle, leaf blight, nematodes and viral diseases regularly wreak havoc. Responding to these threats and providing comprehensive extension services to both commercial and subsistence farmers is a monumental task, given that less than one per cent of the government's budget is spent on agriculture. This situation has deteriorated due to the civil conflict, which prompted a "brain drain" of technical expertise, while also scaring-off investors. It is expected to take up to 25 years before GDP reaches pre-conflict levels; widespread rioting following elections in 2006 once again left Honiara in ruins and the country as-a-whole, a risky prospect for investors.

Politically unstable, and with an economy dependent on development aid and income from unsustainable commercial logging, the country is in a precarious position. Meanwhile, a high population growth rate (2.7 per cent) exerts increasing pressure on natural resources - something the chronically underfunded Ministry of Agriculture and Lands is not equipped to deal with. This, against a background of simmering ethnic tensions, means that the Solomon Islands almost certainly faces tough times ahead.

Statistical information
  • Country: Solomon Islands
  • Capital: Honiara
  • Area: 28,450 sq km
  • Population: 581, 318 (July 2008 est.)
  • Population growth rate: 2.47 % (2008 est.)
  • Life expectancy: 73.4 years
  • Ethnic groups: Melanesian 94.5%, Polynesian 3%, Micronesian 1.2%, other 1.1%, unspecified 0.2%
  • Languages: Melanesian pidgin in much of the country is lingua franca; English (official; but spoken by only 1-2% of the population); 120 indigenous languages
  • Inflation: 6.3% (2007 est.)
  • GDP purchasing power parity: US$948 million (2007 est.)
  • GDP per capita: US$1,900 (2007 est.)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture: 42%; industry: 11%; services: 47% (2000 est.)
  • Land use: arable land: 0.62%; permanent crops: 2.04%; other: 97.34% (2005)
  • Major industries: fish (tuna), mining, timber
  • Agricultural products: cocoa bean, coconut, palm kernel, rice, potato, vegetable, fruit; timber; cattle, pig; fish
  • Natural resources: fish, forests, gold, bauxite, phosphate, lead, zinc, nickel
  • Export commodities: timber, fish, copra, palm oil, cocoa
  • Export partners: China 50.7%, South Korea 8.5%, Thailand 6.5%, Japan 5.7% (2007)

Date published: November 2008

 

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