The Indigenous landowners of the last remaining lowland forest in Western Province are feeling ready.

They are in the process of establishing a legal protected area for 600+ hectares of Pacific rainforest. They’ve completed carbon education training and baseline surveys. They’ve formed a team of keen forest Rangers. And they’ve chosen a name for their future protected area: Sobehatunga, a name that originates from the ancestral owners of the land.

Located in Viru Harbour, on the south coast of North New Georgia Island in Solomon Islands’ Western Province, Sobehatunga Conservation Area is set against a backdrop of timber plantations and commercial logging operations. The newly formed conservation area itself was logged more than 40 years ago but is now a healthy and biodiverse secondary forest worth protecting.

And now for the first time, Viru Harbour’s customary landowners have the option of protecting their forest and still being able to support community development and livelihoods.

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Travelling towards Sobehatunga in Viru Harbour

Fred Tabepuda from NRDF is working closely with landowners at Viru Harbour. He says “setting up a carbon project with the customary landowners is new and interesting because they haven’t had any projects like this one in the past, and it is a logging hub where trees are chopped down and exported overseas. This project is seen as a new initiative, and a first for Viru Harbour."

NRDF (Natural Resources Development Foundation) and Nakau are both implementing partners in the project which is the first forest carbon project site announced as part of the Solomon Islands Threshold Program, endorsed by the Solomon Islands Government and funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation.

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Fred Tabepuda in the NRDF office

A green light for conservation

Sobehatunga Conservation Area is owned by four family lines – born from Kimi: Chacha Brian, Jacob Kimi, Dorcas Hivae and Job Kimi — who reside in two village communities in Viru Harbour, Tombe and Tetemara. These families are working together, and choosing conservation over logging symbolises a collective commitment from them to safeguard their land and their culture, and to support biodiversity.

“Quite a number of important activities have been done so far such as site scoping, community awareness, boundary mapping,” says Fred.

“It is quite interesting to observe community involvement. They are keen to cross over the line as quickly as possible. What really makes them so special is the commitment and effort demonstrated by the community.”

The 600+ hectares of forest is an important watershed site too. Rivers that traverse the forest connect to Viru Harbour. They provide clean water for more than 800 people and support a healthy marine ecosystem.

The forest is populated with important native trees sought after by logging companies — Brown terminalia (Terminalia brassii), Vitex (Vitex cofassus) and Pometia (Pometia pinnata) among other tree species. Without an official protected area in place and a conservation carbon project bringing income to the community, this forest is very likely to be logged again.

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Forest inside the Sobehatunga Conservation Area

Land surrounding Viru Harbour was removed from customary ownership and sold to the government in the 1960s, which in pre-Independence times was the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. It is one reason Viru has become a commercial logging hub.

But customary landowners campaigned to win a portion of that land back from the government in 1972, and it is this land that has formed the basis of the new forest carbon project today.

“Since it was once logged more than 40 years ago, the site has remained undisturbed,” says Fred. “Although the logging threat is very high and threats even bombarded [land] trustees on the eve of our first meeting with the Viru Harbour community.”

But the community chose to protect the forest and build a carbon project. Now, Fred and his team are working to ensure trust and collaboration is strong. He emphasises there are important principles to adhere to when working with the community including “respect of community rules or laws, wearing their shoes when with them in the community — [meaning understand their perspective] — and not making any unnecessary promises to the community that could jeopardise the project.”

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Landowners discussing the project during a recent workshop

“Carbon trading is a new type of ecosystem payment that was recently introduced in the Solomon Islands,” explains Fred. “There have been questions and queries often raised by the community (including the wider Solomon Islands public) about how carbon projects work. Many people assumed carbon project income was quickly available.”

Fred says the customary landowners at Viru Harbour understand there is much work to be done before forest carbon income starts flowing to the community. But when it does, it benefits everyone. And it is better for nature, culture and climate resilience.

"Viru is prone to logging activities and its negative impacts on the environment and community are enormous,” says Fred. “As said by [customary landowner] Mr Bruno Manele, having this project work closes the door for logging and negative impacts from logging on people and the environment."

“Forest carbon projects trigger various opportunities for customary landowners. They are receiving better information and are understanding more about the carbon trade and other associated information within the carbon project space. Spillover benefits like business and individual income through catering, accommodation and more are bringing new opportunities to landowners.”

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View across Viru Harbour

What’s next for Viru Harbour?

The NRDF team, Fred Tabepuda and his colleague Wheatly Teu Zinghite continue to collaborate closely with Viru Harbour’s customary landowners. While they wait for official legal Protected Area status which will safeguard Sobehatunga, they are turning their attention to training eleven new Rangers — which include two women — and conducting a forest inventory.

“The success of a project needs collective efforts from all of us involved, from stakeholders to the land and resources owners,” says Fred.
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NRDF presenting the carbon project

The Viru Harbour (Sobehatunga) Forest Carbon Activity is funded by the Millennium Challenge Corporation and is the first project to be announced in a suite of forest carbon activities supported by the Solomon Islands Threshold Program, and implemented by Nakau, Live & Learn Environmental Education and NRDF.