Law’s a beach: How trading top-tier law for Solomon Islands is more than pina coladas

By Dirk Heinz|08 October 2019

I recently returned from living and volunteering for 12 months as an environmental lawyer in the Solomon Islands; an amazing archipelago of over 900 tropical islands stretching from just below Bougainville in the north, almost all the way to Vanuatu in the south. If you’ve never visited, put it on your bucket list, writes Dirk Heinz.

You might wonder why I would leave my safe city corporate law job to volunteer in this remote part of the Pacific. Originally, I went there for a combination of reasons. I’d be lying if I said one reason wasn’t just the feeling of a need for a new adventure.

The thought of a Robinson Crusoe-style year on a remote tropical island didn’t sound all that bad, after all. But another was a sense of wanting to do something with my law degree that I thought would have a greater social impact. At that time I’d been a corporate lawyer for almost seven years. I’m sure positive change is there somewhere at the end when we provide legal advice to our corporate clients, but I just feel like it’s sometimes harder to see.

So when I got a call about the option of working in the Solomons from the Australian Volunteers Program – the organisation responsible for organising the role – I was immediately drawn to the opportunity being explained to me. The guy on the other end of the phone didn’t mince words when going through the scope of the role.

He explained that illegal and unregulated logging and mining in the Solomon Islands presented a whole lot of legal and environmental problems for customary landowners in the country. The local lawyers working at the publicly funded legal aid body in Honiara needed help dealing with the number of environmental and customary land-related cases coming through the door, and DFAT wanted to send a volunteer to help them.

But to be honest, it wouldn’t have mattered what he told me. Because after 12 months living there, the experience became so much more than I could ever have imagined.

What I expected to find out there and what I actually found turned out to be very different things. Eighty per cent of land in the Solomon Islands is customarily owned. Land ownership is steeped in centuries of tribal and familial tradition and, in many respects, land can’t be allocated using principles of common law. Covering that 80 per cent of island landmass are dense tropical forests, filled with valuable hardwood timber which sits atop a bed of mineral-rich volcanic rock.

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In a developing nation trying to secure the livelihood of a booming population with only limited export options currently available to it, timber exports make up over 20 per cent of the country’s GDP. With recent estimates suggesting that – based on current rates of logging – all loggable timber reserves in the country will be depleted by 2036, mining is seen as the obvious replacement industry once timber reserves are exhausted.

Against this backdrop, my job along with two other environmental lawyers at the Public Solicitors Office, was to (try to) protect the legal rights of customary landowners and, where we could, pursue logging and mining companies for breaches of law. I wish I could tell you all about the week-long island hopping environmental awareness sessions we conducted, or the turtle conservation areas my colleagues helped set up or the incredibly damaging aluminium bauxite mine they stopped, but I can’t do it in 600 words.

I guess what I can say is that unlike the way many people view it, life in the Pacific isn’t just all white sand beaches, palm trees and coconut cocktails by the pool.

The Pacific truly is a region which offers an experience like no other. But it’s also a region of the world which faces challenges like no other. People in the Pacific just want the same things as everyone else. Security and growth above sea level. Joining the PLN team at Macpherson Kelley to support companies and governments in the Pacific with that same vision seems like a pretty good next step for me.

By Dirk Heinz, senior associate, Pacific Legal Network

Law’s a beach: How trading top-tier law for Solomon Islands is more than pina coladas
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