3 July 2014
A CELEBRATION IN SOLOMON ISLANDS
The small plane broke through the clouds, and I saw a short runway apparently floating on the surface of the lagoon. To one side, the line of breakers and turquoise waters signalled a barrier reef, dotted with small palm fringed islands, while on the other side lay a larger island, its hilly slopes draped in forest and clouds, with a smattering of houses clustered along the shoreline. This was my first time in Solomon Islands and we were flying to Gizo in the Western Province to spend time with the WWF-Solomon Islands team and to help celebrate a women’s microfinance project that we set up, with the help of partners John West and Australian Aid.
What does a women’s microfinance project have to do with conservation? For me the link is clear. In countries like Solomon Islands, successful conservation is one and the same as sustainable development. It’s only through poverty reduction, improved quality of life, sustainable livelihoods, and raised awareness, that communities will be able to effectively manage their use of the reefs and fish populations and ensure they stay within sustainable limits. Empowering women is the most fundamental way of enabling development and reducing poverty. It is in recognition of the importance of women and their economic empowerment that WWF and partners have explicitly built a women’s microfinance project into our conservation work.
That Friday morning, Gizo’s main street was abuzz with excitement and women were arriving by boat and by truck, for the celebration and launch event. Banners were hanging in the main street and all around me, women were walking with flowers in their hair and coloured t-shirts, with different colours representing different zones. The way the microfinance project has been set up is that the women of Gizo and the Nusatuva communities have been organised into seven different zones with each zone already trained in money management and starting a savings club. The project encourages a new way of saving and provides economic empowerment to the rural women of the Gizo community. The training workshops also included banking skills, loan schemes and business development. Initially when Dr Alice Pollard asked local women to participate in the training workshops, we expected about 40 or so women. We got over 500!
Taking the lessons learned from the workshops, the women worked so hard to save money for the project and after six months the saving clubs earned almost 85,000 Solomon Island dollars. That’s a lot of money in Solomon Islands – and cause for celebration. The festivities were due to start at 8:30am but as is often the case in the Pacific, events were conspiring against an on-time start. There had been heavy rain the afternoon before, and a note delivered to the WWF office informing us that there would be rolling power-outages across Gizo until a fault with the electric system was fixed. Not what we want to hear when launching an event! Salome, our WWF Solomon’s project co-ordinator, and her team quickly mobilised to find a generator and fuel for the stadium and worked on ensuring there was enough shelter as ominous dark clouds were rolling in. And they made it just in time! Headed by a core of police women, the women lined up in zone order, each group in their coloured shirt and banner – with big smiles on their faces.
Then the performances began. The first performance was the garlanding ceremony, where I, along with other guests, had two strands of orchid garlands put around my neck and a beautiful headdress on my head.
Then there was a bamboo band performance, which is a great example of when recycling and innovation meets. It was amazing! It’s like a drum band, where sets of large pan-pipes are made out of bamboo or PVC pipe, and pieces of rubber that look suspiciously like old thongs are used to whack the top of the drum with great energy. This particular band had a bass drum that was constructed out of two tyres with a type of bassoon device. The music is a cross between country and western and reggae and has a foot-tapping quality that makes you want to dance, particularly the kids.
Pretty soon it also became apparent that there was a degree of competition going on, especially between the blue and yellow team. The women were having a lot of fun and were not afraid to play to the crowd, resulting in peals of laughter from the audience. We then settled into the speeches and the real highlight for me was Dr Alice Pollard, who talked about the amazing effort of the women and the progress they have made. It’s truly her desire to see these groups become self-sufficient. And from the spirit, the innovation and desire that I saw that day, I have no doubt these women will get there.
Because to me the women are the heroes of the day. They are the reason we are celebrating. While WWF, John West Australia and the Australian Government’s Australian Aid program provided the foundations for the women to launch from, these women have passionately embraced this project. They have given it their all – and that’s why I am confident this project will be a success.
So I was very happy to launch the next phase of the project - a revolving loan program, which will provide a cushion so that the women can start developing business opportunities with small loans. The speeches and performances were interspersed with feasting, and we had a great spread of local foods, including fish, chicken, seafood, cassava, seaweed, rice, cassava leaves. I noticed that everyone seemed to pile their plates high and take a second plate which is apparently customary in the Pacific. The occasional rain and power outages did little to dampen the spirits – and there was more than one occasion where everyone came out on the dance floor, laughing and dancing. Finally the ceremony closed and the various groups of women climbed back into the trucks or into the boats, the bamboo band packed away their pipes, and we sadly said goodbye to Dr Alice. It was truly one of the best days of my life and a privilege to be around some incredible women.