U.S. Department of State Background Note
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The Solomon Islands form an archipelago in the Southwest Pacific about 1,900 kilometers (1,200 mi.) northeast of Australia. With terrain ranging from ruggedly mountainous islands to low-lying coral atolls, the Solomon Islands stretch in a 1,450-kilometer (900 mi.) chain southeast from Papua New Guinea across the Coral Sea to Vanuatu.
The main islands of Choiseul, New Georgia, Santa Isabel, Guadalcanal, Malaita, and Makira have rainforested mountain ranges of mainly volcanic origin, deep narrow valleys, and coastal belts lined with coconut palms and ringed by reefs. The smaller islands are atolls and raised coral reefs, often spectacularly beautiful. The Solomon Islands region is geologically active, and earth tremors are frequent.
The islands' ocean-equatorial climate is extremely humid throughout the year, with a mean temperature of 27° C (80° F) and few extremes of temperature or weather. June through August is the cooler period. Though seasons are not pronounced, the northwesterly winds of November through April bring more frequent rainfall and occasional squalls or cyclones. The annual rainfall is about 305 centimeters (120 in.).
More than 90% of the islands traditionally were forested, but this has come under severe pressure from current logging operations. The coastal strips are sheltered by mangrove and coconut trees. Luxuriant rainforest covers the interiors of the large islands. Soil quality ranges from extremely rich volcanic to relatively infertile limestone. More than 230 varieties of orchids and other tropical flowers brighten the landscape.
The Solomon Islanders comprise diverse cultures, languages, and customs. Ninety-three percent are Melanesian, 4% Polynesian, and 1.5% Micronesian. In addition, small numbers of Europeans and Chinese are registered. About 120 vernacular languages are spoken.
Most people reside in small, widely dispersed settlements along the coasts. Sixty percent live in localities with fewer than 200 persons, and only 17% reside in urban areas.
The capital city of Honiara, situated on Guadalcanal, the largest island, has 54,600 inhabitants. The other principal towns are Gizo, Auki, and Kirakira.
Most Solomon Islanders are Christian, with the Anglican, Roman Catholic, South Seas Evangelical, and Seventh-day Adventist faiths predominating. About 5% of the population maintains traditional beliefs.
The chief characteristics of the traditional Melanesian social structure are:
Although little prehistory of the Solomon Islands is known, material excavated on Santa Ana, Guadalcanal, and Gawa indicates that a hunter-gatherer people lived on the larger islands as early as 1000 B.C. Some Solomon Islanders are descendants of Neolithic Austronesian-speaking peoples who migrated from Southeast Asia.
The European discoverer of the Solomons was the Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendana Y Neyra, who set out from Peru in 1567 to seek the legendary Isles of Solomon. British mariner Philip Carteret entered Solomon waters in 1767. In the years that followed, visits by explorers were more frequent.
Missionaries began visiting the Solomons in the mid-1800s. They made little progress at first, because "blackbirding"--the often brutal recruitment of laborers for the sugar plantations in Queensland and Fiji--led to a series of reprisals and massacres. The evils of the labor trade prompted the United Kingdom to declare a protectorate over the southern Solomons in 1893. In 1898 and 1899, more outlying islands were added to the protectorate; in 1900 the remainder of the archipelago, an area previously under German jurisdiction, was transferred to British administration. Under the protectorate, missionaries settled in the Solomons, converting most of the population to Christianity.
In the early 20th century, several British and Australian firms began large-scale coconut planting. Economic growth was slow, however, and the islanders benefited little. With the outbreak of World War II, most planters and traders were evacuated to Australia, and most cultivation ceased.
From May 1942, when the Battle of the Coral Sea was fought, until December 1943, the Solomons were almost constantly a scene of combat. Although U.S. forces landed on Guadalcanal virtually unopposed in August 1942, they were soon engaged in a bloody fight for control of the islands' airstrip, which the U.S. forces named Henderson Field. One of the most furious sea battles ever fought took place off Savo Island, near Guadalcanal, also in August 1942. Before the Japanese completely withdrew from Guadalcanal in February 1943, over 7,000 Americans and 21,000 Japanese died. By December 1943, the Allies were in command of the entire Solomon chain. The large-scale American presence toward the end of the war, which dwarfed anything seen before in the islands, triggered various millennial movements and left a lasting legacy of friendship.
In 1960, an advisory council of Solomon Islanders was superseded by a legislative council, and an executive council was created as the protectorate's policymaking body. The council was given progressively more authority.
In 1974, a new constitution was adopted establishing a parliamentary democracy and ministerial system of government. In mid-1975, the name Solomon Islands officially replaced that of British Solomon Islands Protectorate. On January 2, 1976, the Solomons became self-governing, and independence followed on July 7, 1978.
The Solomon Islands is a parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth, with a unicameral Parliament and a ministerial system of government. The British monarch is represented by a governor general, chosen by the Parliament for a 5-year term. The national Parliament has 50 members, elected for 4-year terms. However, Parliament may be dissolved by majority vote of its members before the completion of its term. Parliamentary representation is based on single-member constituencies. Suffrage is universal for citizens over age 18. The prime minister, elected by Parliament, chooses the other members of the cabinet. Each ministry is headed by a cabinet member, who is assisted by a permanent secretary, a career public servant, who directs the staff of the ministry.
For local government, the country is divided into 10 administrative areas, of which nine are provinces administered by elected provincial assemblies, and the 10th is the town of Honiara, administered by the Honiara Town Council.
Land ownership is reserved for Solomon Islanders. At the time of independence, citizenship was granted to all persons whose parents are or were both British protected persons and members of a group, tribe, or line indigenous to the Solomon Islands. The law provides that resident expatriates, such as the Chinese and Kiribati, may obtain citizenship through naturalization. Land generally is still held on a family or village basis and may be handed down from mother or father according to local custom. The islanders are reluctant to provide land for nontraditional economic undertakings, and this has resulted in continual disputes over land ownership.
No military forces are maintained by the Solomon Islands, although the police force of nearly 500 includes a border protection element. The police also have responsibility for fire service, disaster relief, and maritime surveillance. The police force is headed by a commissioner, appointed by the Governor General and responsible to the prime minister. A new acting commissioner, Walter Kola (a Solomon Islands citizen), was appointed in March 2007. The Solomon Islands Government declared the prior commissioner, Shane Castles (an Australian citizen), an undesirable immigrant in December 2006.
Solomon Islands governments are characterized by weak political parties and highly unstable parliamentary coalitions. They are subject to frequent votes of no confidence, and government leadership changes frequently as a result. Cabinet changes are common.
The first post-independence government was elected in August 1980. Prime Minister Peter Kenilorea was head of government until September 1981, when he was succeeded by Solomon Mamaloni as the result of a realignment within the parliamentary coalitions. Following the November 1984 elections, Kenilorea was again elected Prime Minister, to be replaced in 1986 by his former deputy Ezekiel Alebua following shifts within the parliamentary coalitions. The next election, held in early 1989, returned Solomon Mamaloni as Prime Minister. Francis Billy Hilly was elected Prime Minister following the national elections in June 1993, and headed the government until November 1994 when a shift in parliamentary loyalties brought Solomon Mamaloni back to power.
The national election of August 6, 1997 resulted in Bartholomew Ulufa'alu’s election as Prime Minister, heading a coalition government, which christened itself the Solomon Islands Alliance for Change.
However, governance was slipping as the performance of the police and other government agencies deteriorated due to ethnic rivalries. The capital of Honiara on Guadalcanal was increasingly populated by migrants from the island of Malaita. In June 2000, an insurrection mounted by militants from the island of Malaita resulted in the brief detention of Ulufa’alu and his subsequent forced resignation. Manasseh Sogavare, leader of the People's Progressive Party, was chosen Prime Minister by a loose coalition of parties. Guadalcanal militants retaliated and sought to drive Malaitan settlers from Guadalcanal, resulting in the closure of a large oil-palm estate and gold mine which were vital to exports but whose workforce was largely Malaitan.
New elections in December 2001 brought Sir Allan Kemakeza into the Prime Minister’s chair with the support of a coalition of parties.
Kemakeza attempted to address the deteriorating law and order situation in the country, but the prevailing atmosphere of lawlessness, widespread extortion, and ineffective police, prompted a formal request by the Solomon Islands Government for outside help. With the country bankrupt and the capital in chaos, the request was unanimously supported in Parliament. In July 2003, Australian and Pacific Island police and troops arrived in the Solomon Islands under the auspices of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI).
RAMSI is largely a policing effort with an important development component. It has restored order to virtually all parts of the nation and is now embarked on rebuilding government institutions, particularly the police, and reviving the economy, which fell by at least a third during the troubles. The effort promises to take many years and Solomon Islands will continue to require substantial donor support. Moreover, as militants, former police, and political leaders are brought to trial for their crimes during the unrest, some local resentment is likely to cut somewhat into the now-widespread support for the intervention.
The peace has proven to be fragile. Fierce rioting occurred soon after the April 2006 general election and the election of Snyder Rini as Prime Minister in mid-April. Most of the violence was directed against businesses owned by ethnic Chinese in Honiara, with the almost complete destruction of the Chinatown commercial district. Mr. Rini resigned shortly after the riots, and a parliamentary vote saw Manasseh Sogavare elected as the new Prime Minister in May 2006.
Principal Government Officials
The Solomon Islands mission to the United Nations is located at 800 Second Avenue, Suite 400L, New York, NY 10017 (tel: 212-599-6192/93; fax: 212-661-8925).
Its per capita GDP of $474 ranks Solomon Islands as a lesser developed nation, and more than 75% of its labor force is engaged in subsistence farming and fishing. Until 1998, when world prices for tropical timber fell steeply, timber was Solomon Islands main export product, and, in recent years, Solomon Islands forests were dangerously overexploited. Other important cash crops and exports include copra and palm oil. In 1998 Ross Mining of Australia began producing gold at Gold Ridge on Guadalcanal. Minerals exploration in other areas continued. However in the wake of the ethnic violence in June 2000, exports of palm oil and gold ceased while exports of timber fell. Exports are just now beginning to recover.
Exploitation of Solomon Islands' rich fisheries offers the best prospect for further export and domestic economic expansion. However, a Japanese joint venture, Solomon Taiyo Ltd., which operated the only fish cannery in the country, closed in mid-2000 as a result of the ethnic disturbances. Though the plant has reopened under local management, the export of tuna has not resumed. Negotiations are underway which may lead to the eventual reopening of the Gold Ridge mine and the major oil-palm plantation.
Tourism, particularly diving, is an important service industry for Solomon Islands. Growth in that industry is hampered, however, by political instability, security issues, lack of infrastructure, and transportation limitations.
Solomon Islands was particularly hard hit by the Asian economic crisis even before the ethnic violence of June 2000. The Asian Development Bank estimates that the crash of the market for tropical timber reduced Solomon Island's GDP by between 15%-25%. About one-half of all jobs in the timber industry were lost. The government has said it will reform timber harvesting policies with the aim of resuming logging on a more sustainable basis.
The Solomon Islands Government was insolvent by 2002. Since the RAMSI intervention in 2003, the government has recast its budget, and has taken a hard look at priorities. It has consolidated and renegotiated its domestic debt and with Australian backing, is now seeking to renegotiate its foreign obligations. Much work remains to be done. Ongoing political instability continues to negatively impact economic development.
Principal aid donors are Australia, New Zealand, the European Union, Japan, and the Republic of China.
Countries with diplomatic missions in the Solomon Islands are Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and Japan. The Solomon Islands also has diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, which has a resident representative in Honiara.
The U.S. Ambassador resident in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea is accredited to the Solomon Islands. The Solomon Islands' Permanent Representative to the United Nations also is accredited as its ambassador to the United States and Canada.
Relations with Papua New Guinea, which had become strained because of an influx of refugees from the Bougainville rebellion and attacks on the northern islands of the Solomon Islands by elements pursuing Bougainvillean rebels, have been repaired. A peace accord on Bougainville confirmed in 1998 has removed the armed threat, and the two nations regularized border operations in a 2004 agreement.
Relations with Australia, which plays a major role in the RAMSI mission, have been strained. The Solomon Islands Government declared the former Australian High Commissioner persona non grata, and delayed the credentialing of his replacement for several weeks.
Membership in International Organizations
U.S.-SOLOMON ISLANDS RELATIONS
The United States and Solomon Islands established diplomatic relations following its independence on July 7, 1978. U.S. representation is handled by the United States Embassy at Port Moresby where the Ambassador is resident. In recognition of the close ties forged between the United States and the people of the Solomon Islands during World War II, the U.S. Congress financed the construction of the Solomon Islands Parliament building. There are approximately 95 American citizens residing permanently in Solomon Islands.
The two nations belong to a variety of regional organizations, including the Pacific Community and the Pacific Regional Environmental Program. The United States and Solomon Islands also cooperate under the U.S.-Pacific Islands multilateral Tuna Fisheries Treaty, under which the U.S. grants $18 million per year to Pacific island parties and the latter provide access to U.S. fishing vessels.
The U.S. coast guard provides training to Solomon Islands border protection officers, and the U.S. military also provides appropriate military education and training courses to national security officials.
The U.S. Peace Corps suspended its program in June 2000 due to the ethnic violence and breakdown in governance. More than 70 volunteers, serving throughout the country in rural community development, education, environmental management, and youth programs, were evacuated.
U.S. trade with Solomon Islands is very limited. In 2001 U.S. exports to Solomon Islands were less than 5% of all exports, while Solomon Islands exports to the United States in that year were negligible.
Following the April 2, 2007 earthquake and tsunami, the United States provided $250,000 in humanitarian assistance grants and deployed the USNS Stockham with helicopter support to the affected area.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
American Embassy Port Moresby is located on Douglas Street, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, P.O. Box 1492, Port Moresby (tel: (675) 321-1455; fax: (675) 321-3423). The Embassy maintains a web site dedicated to Solomon Islands at http://www.usvpp-solomonislands.org/
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
For the latest security information, Americans living and traveling abroad should regularly monitor the Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Internet web site at http://www.travel.state.gov, where the current Worldwide Caution, Public Announcements, and Travel Warnings can be found. Consular Affairs Publications, which contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe trip abroad, are also available at http://www.travel.state.gov. For additional information on international travel, see http://www.usa.gov/Citizen/Topics/Travel/International.shtml.
The Department of State encourages all U.S citizens traveling or residing abroad to register via the State Department's travel registration website or at the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate abroad. Registration will make your presence and whereabouts known in case it is necessary to contact you in an emergency and will enable you to receive up-to-date information on security conditions.
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may be obtained by calling 1-888-407-4747 toll free in the U.S. and Canada or the regular toll line 1-202-501-4444 for callers outside the U.S. and Canada.
The National Passport Information Center (NPIC) is the U.S. Department of State's single, centralized public contact center for U.S. passport information. Telephone: 1-877-4USA-PPT (1-877-487-2778). Customer service representatives and operators for TDD/TTY are available Monday-Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 midnight, Eastern Time, excluding federal holidays.
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia. A hotline at 877-FYI-TRIP (877-394-8747) and a web site at http://www.cdc.gov/travel/index.htm give the most recent health advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and countries. A booklet entitled "Health Information for International Travel" (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Further Electronic Information
Export.gov provides a portal to all export-related assistance and market information offered by the federal government and provides trade leads, free export counseling, help with the export process, and more.STAT-USA/Internet, a service of the U.S. Department of Commerce, provides authoritative economic, business, and international trade information from the Federal government. The site includes current and historical trade-related releases, international market research, trade opportunities, and country analysis and provides access to the National Trade Data Bank.
Revised: Oct. 2007