Local photographer finds herself in the eye of a Pacific storm

It was a parking lot, but it resembled a wrecking yard. And, on the street lay more shattered hulks, many burned to the shell.

It was a parking lot, but it resembled a wrecking yard.

And, on the street lay more shattered hulks, many burned to the shell.

As Anna Crawford walked by the wreckage, broken glass and other debris crackled underfoot, remnants of a night of looting and arson.

And it wasn’t over yet.

Before a luxury hotel, an angry mob of 100 young men armed with sticks and knives had materialized, as if from air.

They threw rocks and Molotov cocktails through the hotel windows and charged inside.

Guests and workers ran for cover as the place was sacked.

By 4:30 p.m., less than five hours after the attack began, the entire hotel complex had burned to the ground.

“Nothing was spared,” said Crawford, a 25-year-old Whitehorse native. “The hotel, the casino, the tennis courts, the restaurant, the nightclub — everything was torched.”

It was April 18, and Crawford was nearing the end of a seven-month stay in the Solomon Islands, a South Pacific archipelago nation 1,200 kilometres off the northeast coast of Australia.

She was in Honiara, capital of the 998-island nation.

The mass riot was sparked by allegations the newly elected prime minister had bought votes with money from Chinese businessmen.

In two days, thousands of angry rioters had destroyed most of Chinatown, as well as many Chinese-owned shops around the city.

There were clashes with police, and an international task force was dispatched from the surrounding nations to quell the violence.

This wasn’t quite what Crawford imagined when she left the Yukon in September of 2005 with her 30-year-old boyfriend Matthew King, another Whitehorse native, to work for a local non-governmental organization on the Solomon island of Makira.

Crawford wanted to promote alternative development and protect biodiversity in the mountainous region.

It was falling prey to rapacious foreign logging companies, which had stripped many of less rugged islands of their first-growth ebony hardwood forests.

“I wanted to make a contribution to the country rather than just go as a tourist,” she said. “I never expected to see what I saw whatsoever. I had no idea all this was going to happen.”

Crawford and King had signed on with Canadian University Students Overseas, an agency that dispatches volunteers around the world to places needing development assistance.

The couple was assigned to work with the Makira Committee of Conservation Foundation, an organisation run by a local chief.

Its mandate is to help the island’s 38 different ethnic communities with land management and economic development.

The goal is for the communities to sustain themselves without selling out to foreign loggers.

The Yukoners stayed in a leaf hut without electricity on the east coast near the island’s largest town, Karikari.

Makira’s 40 hectares of land is communally owned, and traditionally controlled by the tribal women.

However, due to economic pressures and government corruption, large chunks of land along the island’s southwest coast were being leased out to Malaysian logging companies exporting to China without proper consultation with the local communities.

Once the companies receive a government logging licence, often by bribing officials, they lease land from individuals seeking to avoid the customary community consultations to make a quick buck.

The results have been disastrous.

Rivers used for drinking and bathing are polluted, forcing the women to walk several kilometres upstream in search of clean water.

The lack of law enforcement and an ineffective justice system has resulted in harmful violation of forestry regulations, allowing the companies to trespass, steal more than their authorized quota and bulldoze crops and coconut trees for their logging roads.

“The local tradition and rights of the communities are completely disregarded,” says Crawford.

The conservation foundation has worked to boost alternative industries, such as tourism, and the production of ngali nut oil, a product indigenous to the Solomons and used for creams that help soothe arthritis pain.

They also train locals to cut and sell their own timber, instead of paying foreign companies to take it away without getting any profit.

A photographer, Crawford took library and eco-tour brochure photos.

Makira’s problems are typical of those throughout the Solomon Islands.

Foreign companies pillage local communities without regard to the local people and culture.

“The Solomon people have developed a resentment towards the Chinese businessmen who they feel have a sense of cultural superiority,” says Crawford.

During the Honiara riots, 400 Chinese fled the country in fear.

Prime Minister Snyder Rini was forced to resign when members of his party crossed the floor to join the opposition.

A new election has been called for this Thursday.

The two main political parties are now jostling to get their respective candidates elected as the new leader.

The Solomon people saw this political upheaval as a victory resulting from the popular protests.

But the underlying problems still remain, the corruption and the meddling of foreign businesses trying to take advantage of what many consider a “failed state.”

Like the rest of the Islands, Makira has some very tough challenges ahead to preserve sovereignty and environment.

The elected official for the province of Makira Ulawa is known to be pro-logging, says Crawford

The Makira Committee of Conservation Foundation is currently working on mapping Makira’s land boundaries so locals can effectively manage it.

They are also working on buying a new press to bolster their sales of ngali nut oil to the surrounding countries, says Crawford.

In February, the prime minister of Fiji presented the conservation foundation with the prestigious Pacific Human Rights Award.

There is an increasing presence of international organizations on the island dedicated to helping its development, which allows Crawford to remain optimistic.

“As long as the communities learn how to manage foreign aid money, as well as their land, they should be able to find ways to protect themselves and eventually learn to strengthen their economy with alternative industries.

“The landowners have a lot of power, but they just lack the education,” says Crawford.

“They need to be in a position where they can make decisions that will have benefits for the entire community.”

Crawford has returned home, but King remains on the island to fulfill his two-year commitment to the Makira project.

He will be a big influence in getting the island back on track, says Crawford.

“Matthew is very dedicated and I know his contribution is essential to the success of the mission.”

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