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.

Earthquake, possible tsunami threat

There was been a 7.8 earthquake of the Solomon Islands an hour ago (followed by 5.5 and 5.2 aftershocks so far).

There is a potential tsunami risk to New Zealand, but no known imminent threat

It would be wise to be cautious about going anywhere near sea level at the top of the North Island until more is known.

How do you know if and when it’s safe? I don’t really know, apart from listening to news and checking Civil Defence.

Their national website says:


All of New Zealand is at risk of earthquakes and all of our coastline is at risk of tsunami. We can’t predict when one will happen, but we can protect ourselves and our family.

But also

No declared emergencies

Friday 9 Dec7:53 am

Three hours earlier there was a 6.5 earthquake off the coast of California.


BAD SPYING…and justified spying

It’s the Herald’s turn to publish Hager claims on Pacific spying from the Snowden files.

This time spying on the Solomon Islands is revealed, but you have to read way past the shock horror headlines and lead paragraphs…

Surveillance on Pacific ‘betrayal by a friend’

New Zealand spies targeted the emails and other electronic communications of the aides and confidants of the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, a top-secret document says.

…to find belated acknowledgement that  “The main category on the target list where New Zealand officials had clear justification for monitoring”.

The Herald on Sunday today reveals the first insight into the GCSB’s precise surveillance targets in the Pacific. The document was obtained by the investigative journalist Nicky Hager and The Intercept, a US news site specialising in stories about the intelligence community’s surveillance.

New Zealand spies targeted the emails and other electronic communications of the aides and confidants of the Prime Minister of the Solomon Islands, a top-secret document says.

The document shows the Government Communications Security Bureau programmed a powerful electronic surveillance system to scoop up documents from the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who has spoken of his outrage at the intrusion into Solomon Islands affairs.

Another on the target list was anti-corruption campaigner Benjamin Afuga, who has expressed concern over the identity of his confidential sources.

Afuga reacted with horror at the prospect of sources who had acted as whistleblowers having their identities known to anyone other than himself.

“People who trust me and have confidence in me reporting unethical practices. They usually send these through email.”

There’s some irony in that with both Afuga and Hager being happy to publicise confidential information but expressing concern over revealing the identity of their own confidential sources.

Dated early 2013, the document lists names that have been identified as the inner circle of the then-Solomon Islands government led by Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo.

Lilo’s Chief of Staff, Robert Iroga, – whose name is one of six on the targeting list – said the revelation would damage New Zealand’s image in the Solomon Islands.

“I’m shocked to hear about the intrusion of the New Zealand government into the sovereign affairs of a country like ours. I would like to condemn the [New Zealand] National Government for its actions. This creates a pretty bad image of New Zealand as a friendly government in the Pacific.”

He may be shocked but shouldn’t be surprised that other countries spy.

More details in:

Can’t take my eyes off of you, neighbour

Why did the GCSB intercept emails to and from Solomon Island officials? Nicky Hager and Ryan Gallagher report.

New Zealand spies programmed an internet mass surveillance system to intercept messages about senior public servants and a leading anti-corruption campaigner in the Solomon Islands, a top-secret document reveals.

They like using the term “mass surveillance” but it’s always unclear how ‘mass’ the surveillance is.

Mass surveillance is the intricate surveillance of an entire or a substantial fraction of a population.

While there are specific claims there are also typical Hager-type assumptions.

XKeyscore would have searched through the South Pacific communications intercepted by the GCSB and highlighted those containing the specified Solomon Islands target names and search terms.

In the case of the Solomon Islands, the government and civil society targets appear to be respectable people working in the best interests of their country.

The Solomon Islands have suffered from civil war in the last twenty years and the Solomons was described by some as a ‘failed state’. New Zealand and Australia were involved in sizable security mission there early this century and again in 2006.

The Government was insolvent in 2002.

So keeping an eye on them sounds like sensible foreign intelligence gathering, depending on the type and degree of surveillance used.

Targeting emails associated with these officials would have provided day-by-day monitoring of the internal operation of the Solomon Islands government, including its negotiations with the New Zealand, Australian and other Five Eyes governments.

Further through the article acknowledges possible justification for some surveillance.

The Solomon Islands went through a period of ethnic violence and unstable government in the late 1990s and early 2000s known as “The Tensions”. This led to the 2003 deployment to the Solomons of New Zealand, Australian and Pacific Island police and military peacekeepers. Most recently, in 2006, allegations of government corruption sparked riots in the capital, Honiara, with much of Chinatown destroyed.

This means some intelligence collection, relating to the violence and militant groups, is understandable. However, full monitoring of the government, public servants and even the anti-corruption campaigner, especially by 2013, appears disproportionate.

The main category on the target list where New Zealand officials had clear justification for monitoring, as part of the peacekeeping mission, was militant groups. The list includes “former tension militants”, “malaita eagle force” and “malaita ma’asina forum”.

This was in the last quarter of the article. “The main category on the target list” was far from the main focus of these revelations, it was only mentioned deep in their coverage, after all the shock horror headlines and lead paragraphs. This is unbalanced reporting.

Some holding to account of spying is important although it can be idealistic to expect spies to be able to only monitor justifiable targets and not see anything else.

Questions need to be asked about what purpose revealing this level of detail serves. New Zealand has been a significant contributor to helping the Solomon Islands in difficult times in the recent past.

If another civil war or uprising occurs security of the Solomon Islands may depend on good intelligence having already been gathered.

Spying bad, except when it does some good is a difficult balance to achieve.

And if the Solomons government doesn’t trust New Zealand and Australia due to revelations like this and rejects their help then their security situation could become much worse.

Surveillance and security do not have simple and clear boundaries.