The densely forested and remote mountains of Malaita are a unique place. As one of six major islands in the equatorial Solomon Island chain, the region is endowed with a remarkable richness of endemic flora and fauna. A relatively isolated group of communities, known as the Kwaio people, live in these highlands. Many people in these communities are conservation focused and continue to practice strong pre-European customs and religions.
Not only is the region geographically remote, but it also remained secluded from western-style development for decades following a massacre of the Kwaio people by foreign armed forces in 1927. This isolation facilitated the prolonged preservation of the unique ecosystems in the area.
The journey up to these highlands can be gruelling. The track is steep, often wet and muddy, and the air is heavy with heat. There is little rhythm to the walking as rivers and obstacles repeatedly block the route. The trek takes approximately eight hours and as one approaches the highlands in the late afternoon, the air begins to mercifully cool. The journey ends (or perhaps it begins) with a ‘welcome to country’. All present dress in kapolato, traditional attire consisting of a banana leaf, and the evening is replete with hospitable speeches and customary dances.
Several years ago, the Kwaio established the Kwainaa’isi Cultural Centre, which has provided a platform upon which the partnership between the AM and the Kwaio has flourished. This relationship was significantly facilitated by Professor David McLaren of James Cook University, who continues to work with the Kwaio on public health matters. Together, with community leaders Chief Esau Kekeubata and Tommy Esau, the Kwaio Conservation Alliance was established in March of this year. This alliance, now known as the Baru Conservation Alliance, has been integral in shaping the region’s future-focused community-led conservation efforts. “The aim of the alliance is to build research capacity at Kwainaa’isi, to document traditional knowledge, to preserve culture and to strengthen approaches to conservation in Malaita’s highland rainforests” describes Tommy. A reconciliation ceremony took place in July 2018 after decades of tension following the 1927 massacre. This ceremony opened the door for the foundation and growth of the alliance.
Jim Phillipson, an involved benefactor, has worked closely with Chief Esau and Tommy in developing the alliance. Jim explains “the development of the Conservation Alliance provides recognition of the value of the environment to the Kwaio community. It also prevents destructive open-scale development, allowing people to cultivate conservation related skills as well as to provide income”.
There is a deep commitment within the local communities to protect the primary forest. Many Kwaio people have extensive knowledge about plants and animals and have resisted logging and large-scale agriculture. The Kwaio community are also heavily involved in hands-on conservation efforts, having visited the AM for a cultural and information exchange workshop in 2016. Current scientific methods for surveying and traditional local knowledge were discussed, and Kwaio community members returned to Malaita with a range of conservation gear. Camera traps and scientific survey kits allow local community members to independently carry out conservation-related surveys.
As the alliance grows, local family groups are seeing evidence that it can provide income through conservation support services. For example, with each AM expedition an abundance of local people are employed to carry equipment and provide accommodation and food. Over time, more and more Kwaio family groups have committed to joining the alliance. This has resulted in connected networks of preserved forests from the coasts to the mountains, essentially providing an invaluable nature corridor.
In the next several years it is hoped the alliance will aid in the expansion of conservation areas and the continual building of alliance networks locally and internationally. In order to strengthen cultural heritage and values within the community, the construction of more cultural centres and schools will take place. Upcoming efforts will also be focused on improving infrastructure within the village, such as accommodation, as well as to improve tracks in and between villages. This will aid future collaborative scientific expeditions undertaken by the AM, as well as other museums and universities across the world. Surplus funds from these expeditions will allow for ongoing ranger training and employment, as well as continued education and study trips for the Kwaio people.
Tommy makes clear the significant role the AM plays in the conservation alliance; “the Australian Museum is our key partner in supporting the alliance for expeditions. Biodiversity surveys give support for the Cultural Centre, schools, conservation activities, livelihood projects, cultural exchange programs, reconciliation processes and international recognition. We are looking forward to retaining this important relationship well into the future”.
The development of the Baru Conservation Alliance will ensure that in years to come the remarkable ecosystems of Malaita and the unique culture of the Kwaio people are preserved, and that conservation efforts continue to flourish.
Communications Administrator- Solomon Islands Conservation Alliance