Ship lodged on reef off Rennell, Solomon islands

A story that isn’t getting much attention here apart from via RNZ:  Fears mount as ship still lodged on Solomons reef

A ship that’s leaking oil into the sea off Rennell, in Solomon Islands, could be the largest man-made environmental disaster the country’s faced the chair of the country’s disaster office said on Thursday.

The MV Solomon Trader was servicing a bauxite mine when it hit a reef a week ago.

Bad weather since has hampered efforts to get the ship off the reef, while the ship’s owners and the government had squabbled about whether the ship was leaking oil as locals demanded action.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister asked Australia and other partners to be on standby to help, acknowledging the country’s lack of capacity to deal with a major environmental disaster, should one eventuate.

The MV Solomon Trader on the reef

Bulk carriers similar to that are frequent visitors to New Zealand, delivering phosphate for fertiliser, and picking up logs for export mainly to China.

RNZ: Hull of stranded Solomons ship breached

Water has breached the hull of a ship which ran aground off the southern coast of the Solomon Islands.

However, the director of the National Disaster Management Office (NDMO), Loti Yates, said the vessel was not listing and there was no oil spill.

The bulk carrier, MV Solomon Trader, hit a reef off Rennell Island two weeks ago.

“The boat is still on the reef and that water is coming into the engine room, which means that the hull of the ship has been breached,” he said.

“But there is no sign of oil spillage which means the tanks have not been breached.”

This is the first time the NDMO has led a salvage operation for a stranded ship, Mr Yates said.

Details from Scott Hamilton @SikotiHamiltonR via twitter:

A ship loaded with bauxite has been wrecked for weeks on the reef of Rennell Island. Rennellese are threatening to blow the vessel up, & create an environmental disaster, if they are not compensated by the Solomon Islands government. How has this crisis come to pass?

Rennell is a huge uplifted coral island, in the remote south of the Solomons. Its people are Polynesians, unlike most Solomon Islanders. They were almost isolated from the world, except for their neighbour-island of Bellona, until 1938, when they converted to Christianity.

Rennell’s soil is poor; it cannot support sheep & cattle. Its high cliffs & narrow fringing reef make fishing difficult. It boasts a large lake, Teguna, which locals rely on for much of their food. Boats call only about 6 times a year, & items like flour & sugar often run out.

At first glance, the threat issued by Rennellese seems bizarre. Why would they contemplate blowing up the stranded ship, & contaminating their coastal waters & beaches with oil & bauxite? But the island’s modern history helps explain the warning Rennellese have given.

Bauxite mining has created pits & drains on the northwestern side of Tegano, the roughly lake that dominates Rennell’s interior. The mining has coincided with the logging of the west’s forests. The southeast of the island, by contrast, is a UNESCO world heritage zone.

East Rennell won UNESCO protected status because of the endemic species in its waters & forests. UNESCO status helps protect the region from miners & loggers. But it has created bitterness amongst the inhabitant’s of East Rennell’s villages.

When UNESCO was considering granting special status to East Rennell in the ’90s, NZ diplomats & advisers encouraged the region’s people to accept such status, telling them that a UNESCO rating would attract ecotourists, & prove as lucrative as logging or mining.

But two decades after East Rennell secured UNESCO world heritage status, the region gets almost no visitors. The very high cost of an air ticket from Honiara & an absence of local infrastructure keep all but the most adventurous foreigners away.

Aid specialist Luke Kidder, who spent time on Rennell, argues that the East Rennellese believed they had made a two-way deal with NZ & with UNESCO in the ’90s. They would abstain from mining & logging; in return, they would receive a flow of well-heeled ecotourists.

The East Rennellese have watched their western neighbours reap royalties from mining & logging. Now, suddenly, a ship loaded with bauxite from the west has been wrecked on their eastern coast. It is not surprising that they are demanding compensation.

When it is seen from their perspective, the threat by East Rennellese to blow up the wrecked ship makes sense. By promising to damage a UNESCO site, they hope to secure some of the wealth they have been denied for two decades.

Rennell’s people have a single language & culture. But since 1938 east & west have been divided by religion. In the west, the South Sea Evangelical Church dominates; most easterners are Seventh Day Adventists. In recent decades economics has added to the divide.

Many Rennellese encounters with the outside world have been violent. In 1910 three missionaries landed & were slain. In ’38 the island converted en masse to Christianity after days mass hysteria & a series of murders. In WW2 both the Japanese & the US made the island a base.

There has been little interest from NZ politicians in the ecological catastrophe that threatens on Rennell, but NZ’s own policies in the Solomons form some of the context for this danger.

Where are the Greens? It’s time to honour promises to the East Rennellese.

There was no response from Marama Davidson to that. I can’t see an response to the risks of MV Solomon Trader leaking oil or breaking up on the reef off Rennell.