Apr 10, 2021 Last Updated 4:12 AM, Apr 8, 2021

A murky mix of vested interests

  • Apr 11, 2021
  • Published in March

AN oil spill in Rennell, Solomon Islands is turning into a disaster of catastrophic proportions, threatening the world’s biggest raised coral atoll and prompting caretaker Prime Minister Rick Hou to call for a review of environmental and mining laws on the eve of the national elections.

The spill began when the ship, the MV Solomon Trader ran aground a reef whilst loading mined bauxite in the area on February 5. The vessel, which was carrying nearly 11,000 tonnes of bauxite at the time, is owned by Hong Kong company King Trader and was chartered by Indonesian-based Bintan Mining to ship bauxite from its mining operations to China. Bintan, which is mining under contract from Asia Pacific Investment Development (APID) the mining lease holder, has already distanced itself from any liability for the spill, and allegedly continued to load bauxite even as the oil spread.

In mid-March authorities were reporting 70 tonnes of oil had been spilt. Approximately 600 tonnes of oil remained inside the ship, although it is now being transferred to safe tanks on a tank barge which had been sent from Vanuatu. Now the ship’s insurer, Korea Protection and Indemnity Club, says the spilled load may be greater than original estimated.

The MV Solomon Trader spill is on the doorstep of the Rennell Islands UNESCO World Heritage site, a 37,000-ha land and marine area extending three nautical miles to sea. UNESCO calls the site a true natural laboratory for scientific study, but says it is vulnerable to threats including mining and logging. “The ability of the traditional owners to adequately protect and manage the natural values and resources of the property is limited by a lack of funding, capacity and resources,” UNESCO says.

The spill has not only affected the livelihood of more than 300 people living in communities and villages in the area  who cannot eat seafood, their main source of protein-but it has also threatened to destroy one of the country’s most important natural habitats.

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Will the decision by the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) to become the world’s first country to issue its own blockchain sovereign cryptocurrency (SOV) be a momentous game changer? Or is it just another pie in the sky project that jumped the gun?

Already, it has had its share of sceptics. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), in its latest Article IV consultation with RMI (report released in September last year), likened the move to issuing ‘helicopter money’, a term coined in the 1960s by American economist Milton Friedman to describe a hypothetical monetary policy that involves printing large sums of money and distributing it to the public to stimulate the economy.

The IMF concern stems from the RMI’s plans to distribute a portion of the SOV units free to Marshallese and to a number of RMI trust funds, once it is approved for distribution.

Devoting a significant section of its report specifically to the RMI’s SOV project, the IMF cautioned the U.S. compact country of the many risks associated with the planned issuance, among them monetary instability and macroeconomic challenges.

“Considering the significant risks, (IMF staff) recommends that the authorities seriously reconsider the issuance of the digital currency as legal tender,” IMF’s report noted. “The potential benefits from revenue gains appear considerably smaller than the potential costs arising from economic, reputational, AM/CFT, and governance risks. While technology may help to address some of these risks, others would need to be mitigated through institutional changes. Furthermore, the use of SOV as a means of exchange in transactions would require significant additional costs to upgrade RMI’s telecommunications infrastructure.”

Those who work with blockchain technology in the Pacific feel it may be a little too early, although they will be keeping a close watch on the initiative.

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The blockchain conversation has finally touched down in the Pacific. Not only is it a major buzz in tech circles here, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is about to take a technological leap in becoming the first country in the region to create a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for blockchain development.

Behind that initiative is PNG born but Silicon Valley based tech venture capitalist Shane Ninai with the backing of US billionaire Tim Draper.

They are bringing the blockchain fever to a country where more and more young IT professionals are exploring the technology, described as so revolutionary it is a potential game changer for emerging economies around the world.

Although the bill to set up the SEZ is the subject of controversy locally, the project no doubt adds to the growing interest from companies, organisations Blockchain finds a home in the Pacific and individuals in the Pacific to explore what’s on offer in the blockchain space.

This is the technology that created what is known as cryptocurrency, the latest craze in the global technology world.

You would have a clue as to what cryptocurrency is if you’ve heard of something called bitcoin, which is described as ‘electronic cash’ used over the Internet to buy and sell.

When this edition went to press, one bitcoin was equivalent to Kina 20,880, F$13,763, AU$9060 and US$6416 to give you some idea of its value. What can you buy with bitcoin? 

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Cabling the Pacific

Fast, reliable and affordable Internet has quickly become such an essential part of our lives these days that to imagine a world without broadband Internet connection is almost as unimaginable as life without oxygen.

Indeed it wasn’t too long ago that only a few people in the Pacific knew what the Internet really was while a majority of us existed largely in ignorant bliss.

But the explosion of smart phone, laptop and tablet usage among the general population within just the last two decades – driven mainly by the evolution of the Internet into broadband, spawning a plethora of Internet applications suitable for general, everyday usage – has made those pre-Internet days a distant, foggy memory.

And in a lesser time than that, the rapid roll out of fiber-optic submarine telecom cables (Internet traffic are transported from one point to another through either fiber optic cables or satellite) in the Pacific has been an even more impressive phenomenon, prompting interest in tech circles.

“In 2007, only four Pacific Islands were connected to an international submarine cable: CNMI, Guam, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Since then, ten international cables have been constructed, bringing sub-sea fiber optic connectivity for the first time to a further eight Pacific islands. A further ten cables are currently in various stages of development that would provide inaugural connections for another nine Pacific islands,” said George Samisoni, CEO of Fiji’s international carrier FINTEL (Fiji International Telecommunications Limited).

FINTEL was one of the Pacific pioneers in linking to an international cable when it connected to the COMPAC (Commonwealth Pacific Cable) system in the 1960s, then later ANZCAN and then the SCCN (Southern Cross Cable Network) in 1999.

“If most of these proposals are carried through to fruition, then all Pacific islands, at least the main island of each of the Pacific island countries, will have direct access to fiber optic internet capacity. This is a remarkable development considering that for over a century, submarine cables were only ever landed on a Pacific island to regenerate the communications signal so that it could complete its trans-Pacific journey,” Samisoni told Islands Business. For all those interested in purchasing a great laptop , this can be one of the best options to look at when it comes to purchasing one.

The latest delivery of such a project was the successful landing of the Hawaiki Cable System in Taufuna, American Samoa in April this year. 

Owned by the New Zealand headquartered LP Hawaiki Submarine Cable LP, the system links Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Oregon on the US West Coast.

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AS the sun sets over Tuvalu, children shriek in the lagoon of the main atoll - Funafuti.

This is the way life has been in the Pacific for as long as people can remember.

But sea levels in the lagoon are rising and the waves have started to gnaw away at the coast – slowly, surely – in an inevitable march which may see the world’s and fourth smallest nation sink and disappear.

A modern-day Atlantis under siege from coastal erosion and salt water intrusion.

What happens if Tuvalu’s nine atolls descend into the blue Pacific, swamped by rising waves or washed away by deadly storms? Once uninhabitable or invisible, who will own the 900,000 square kilometres of ocean between Hawaii and Australia?

The United Nations estimates Tuvalu’s tuna to be worth an annual USD41million – that’s about 36,000 tonnes of Skipjack, Yellowfin and Bigeye Tuna.

Tuvalu operates a single vessel in conjunction with a South Korean company with most of the stocks being harvested by international fishing vessels.

Current laws governing the Exclusive Economic Zone and the borders of maritime nations refer to specific physical reference points from which to determine the area of sovereignty.

Those physical points are generally islands or atolls which can sustain life.

Sustainability of life on remote islets and atolls is becoming increasingly difficult on Tuvalu, Kiribati and other Pacific countries.

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