In 2017 the Solomon Star released a two-part article on the Waisisi Wairokai Palm Oil project.
The first article was published on June 30th, 2017, titled “Waisisi palm oil project is far from being real.” The other was on the front page of the Sunday Star, published on July 2nd, 2017, titled “Waisisi queries oil palm project, Landowners: We want the truth from gov’t.”
The articles, penned by Birau Wilson Saeni, questioned the roll out of the program and how it was being implemented in Waisisi. Senior tribal landowners sought clarification from the relevant ministry as to why the program was also being implemented in Wairokai after they had offered their land for the project.
The explanation given at the time was that because of land dispute in Waisisi the project was relocated to Wairokai. Senior officials at that time condemned the media report, labeling them “untruth” and should not be released to the public.
Seems strange? Waisisi land was formally registered purposely for the Palm Oil project – if there was a dispute, it should have occurred during the registration process. Waisisi landowners were ready, their land was ready, in fact it was registered.
The Waisisi Oil Palm Programme involved five tribal lands in West Are’are, namely Marapa, Suruniai, Ainapo, Torohane and Otenimae. Combined, the total registered land area was 2,395.1 hectare.
Sadly, the newspaper article was accused of being false and misleading and was left at that.
Fast forward three years, the project officer of the Waisisi Wairokai Palm Oil project has been arrested, charged with official corruption. It is alleged that between 2012 to 2017 more than SBD$4 million dollars earmarked for the Waisisi Wairokai Palm Oil project was unaccounted for.
It is also alleged that in 2018 he had attempted to bribe an auditor at the Ministry of Finance and Treasury to stop an audit into the Waisisi Wairokai Palm Oil Project. His bribery attempt failed, the matter was reported to senior officers within the Ministry, who reported it to the police.
This is not the first-time projects are being used by public officials to siphon money for private use, and it will not be the last.
Perhaps next time when the media attempts to shine the light on corrupt practices, let us not be too dismissive – particularly accounting officers or heads of ministries. It is probably better to talk to a journalist than face a judge in court.
And next time when we are being told by senior government officials that landowners are being difficult or blocking investment – we should be more skeptical. Why?