Solomon Islands country brief
Solomon Islands is an archipelagic state situated in the south-west Pacific Ocean, approximately 2,000 kms to the north-east of Australia. Its land mass of 28,400 km² extends over nearly one thousand islands comprising nine main island groups. The capital, Honiara, is located on Guadalcanal, the largest island.
The population of Solomon Islands, estimated to be over 550,000 in 2011, is predominantly Melanesian (about 95%) although there are also small Polynesian, Micronesian, Chinese and European communities. There are 63 distinct languages in the country, with numerous local dialects. English is the official language but Solomons Pijin is the lingua franca for the majority of people.
Solomon Islands' first contact with Europeans was in 1568, when the Spanish explorer Mendana visited the region. Whaling boats and traders began to visit the archipelago during the nineteenth century, followed closely by Christian missionaries.
In 1893, the UK Government established a protectorate over the eastern group of islands; Germany controlling most of the west. As the result of an Anglo-German agreement of 1899, the UK protectorate was extended to all nine main island groups now part of Solomon Islands, while Buka and Bougainville became part of German New Guinea (later incorporated into Papua New Guinea).
The UK granted Solomon Islands internal self-government in 1976, followed by independence on 7 July 1978. At independence, Solomon Islands joined the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State, represented by a Governor-General.
The unicameral national Parliament comprises 50 members elected for a four-year term under a first-past-the-post voting system. The Prime Minister is elected by a simple majority of members of Parliament. Party structures in Solomon Islands are fluid, with extensive coalition-building usually required to form government. In addition to the national Government there are nine provincial assemblies, each led by a Premier.
In December 1998, existing ethnic tensions on Guadalcanal rapidly escalated. Many Guadalcanal people resented the influence of settlers from other islands and their occupation of undeveloped land in and around Honiara. The settlers, mostly from nearby Malaita, were drawn to Honiara and its environs by comparatively greater economic opportunities. Violent clashes involving rival militant groups erupted, destabilising Solomon Islands and undermining national institutions and coherence. This situation persisted for more than four years.
Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI)
In April 2003, then Solomon Islands Prime Minister Sir Allan Kemakeza wrote to request Australian assistance in addressing the violence. Following consultations between the governments of Solomon Islands, Australia and New Zealand, a comprehensive package of strengthened assistance to support the Solomon Islands Government — the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) — was proposed and unanimously endorsed by a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Pacific Islands Forum. RAMSI was debated and unanimously endorsed by the Solomon Islands Parliament, welcomed by the President of the UN Security Council, commended by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and supported by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group and then Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon.
RAMSI is a long-term commitment aimed at helping create the conditions necessary for a return to stability, peace and a growing economy. In 2009, RAMSI and the Solomon Islands Government signed a joint Partnership Framework, which sets out shared objectives and timelines for RAMSI's work, so that RAMSI activities can gradually draw down as Solomon Islands' capacity grows.
Further information is available on the RAMSI website.
The most recent national elections were held peacefully on 4 August 2010. On 25 August 2010, Danny Philip was elected Prime Minister by the newly-constituted Solomon Islands Parliament. Prime Minister Philip's party joined a number of others to form the National Coalition for Reform and Advancement (NCRA) Government.
On 11 November 2011, Philip resigned to avoid facing a motion of no confidence brought by Opposition Leader Sikua. On 16 November 2011, MPs voted for a new Prime Minister, electing former Finance Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo. Lilo was sworn in on the same day and retained much of the NCRA Government’s policies.
Solomon Islands experienced severe economic contraction and stagnation over the period of the ethnic conflict (1998-2003). Since RAMSI deployed in 2003, economic growth has averaged 6.3 per cent, despite a contraction of 1.25 per cent in 2009 during the global economic downturn. In 2011, economic growth was a record 10.7 per cent.
But Solomon Islands remains relatively poor and continues to face serious economic challenges. The majority of the population (growing at over two per cent per annum) is involved in subsistence/cash crop agriculture, with less than a quarter involved in paid work. According to the Solomon Islands Ministry of Finance and Treasury, the logging industry accounted for around 47 per cent of export earnings in 2011, and is a significant source of government revenue. But the logging industry is expected to decline as stocks are exhausted. The mining sector is growing, and the Gold Ridge gold mine near Honiara restarted production in March 2011.
Australia has a deep and longstanding relationship with Solomon Islands. During the Second World War Australians were involved in the struggle to liberate the islands from Japanese occupation. In the post-war period, people-to-people and business links grew steadily and there are now estimated to be around 1,500 Australians in Solomon Islands, mainly in Honiara. In January 2009, then Prime Ministers Rudd and Sikua signed the Australia Solomon Islands Partnership for Development. The Partnership guides Australia's bilateral aid program, giving practical impetus to the principles of mutual respect and responsibility. In 2012-13, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) will provide an estimated $70.3 million in bilateral aid to Solomon Islands. Other Australian assistance provided through RAMSI, AusAID's regional and global programs and other Australian Government agencies brings total estimated development assistance in 2012-13 to $239.4 million. Further information on Australia's development assistance in Solomon Islands can be found on the AusAID website.
Australia maintains close business relations with Solomon Islands. Shipping and air services directly connect Solomon Islands with Australia and two Australian commercial banks (ANZ and Westpac) operate in Solomon Islands. A number of Australian legal and accounting firms are represented directly or in association with local firms.
Australia and Solomon Islands signed a memorandum of understanding for Solomon Islands’ participation in the Pacific Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme in December 2011. The Pilot was replaced by the permanent Seasonal Worker Program in July 2012. Under the Program, seasonal horticultural workers from Pacific countries are recruited by horticultural enterprises in Australia to meet their seasonal harvest needs.
Australians travelling to Solomon Islands are advised to consult the Smartraveller website advice and to register their details.
Updated October 2012