Standing on a tall grassy verge, sweat trickling down my back just seconds after emerging from the air conditioned comfort of our dusty 4x4, I lift a sunburnt hand to shield my eyes from the scorching midday sun, and gaze out at the vast reservoir sat before me. It almost looks good enough to drink, and under different circumstances I might have been sorely tempted. Sunlight twinkles off the calm surface, while a gentle breeze wafts through the surrounding vegetation. Somewhere in the distance, an unknown tropical bird cries out into the empty valley. It appears to be the idyllic South Pacific landscape – although, if reports are to be believed, this body of water holds a deadly secret.
‘We'll buy some gold, bring it down to town, and make profit!’ My tame-gold dealer, Peter, had been the very picture of optimism that morning as we had bundled ourselves into our rental car and taken off for the remote hills of central Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, a part of the world routinely best known as the setting for one of the final battles of World War II. Indeed, swinging past Tetere Beach revealed a gathering of 70-year-old American tanks, still sat in the same spots they were left when the Allies abandoned the island in the 1940s following their victory over the Japanese. Weeds weave their way through the machinery, vegetation now the only occupant of these historic memorials.
Reaching even further back into history, the first European ‘discoverer’ of the islands, Álvaro de Mendaña de Neyra, reportedly discovered pieces of gold scattered around when he first landed ashore in 1568. Reaching the logical conclusion that he had stumbled on the location where the legendary King Solomon had stashed his fortune, Mendaña declared them to be ‘Islas de Solomón’ – the precursor to their current name.
Regardless of the accuracy of such tales, gold has continued to play a central role in Guadalcanal’s life. Last year, in fact, Goldridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL), a collection of local landowners, formerly took ownership of the country’s only gold mine from St. Barbara, an Australian firm, based at a central location on the island appropriately known as Gold Ridge. Whilst currently in the process of signing a shareholder agreement with AXF Resources Pty Limited, another Australian company, GCIL has been attempting to re-open the mine which has been closed since being damaged by floodwaters in April 2014 with a loss of as many as 600 jobs.
Which is where Peter enters the story. A bright and enterprising 24-year-old, he has carved out a living as a middle man in the export of gold from Guadalcanal to the world market. Ever since ‘the white men’ first decided to mine the island for its golden treasures, they have been accompanied by an army of locals keen to profit from the waste material which is discarded into local waterways, but nevertheless still contains small amounts of gold which, with the required know-how and patience, can be panned out.
‘They put the bomb inside the mine and explode it,’ is how he had described the scene to me. ‘They take the gold out from the ground, and then take the waste and throw it into the river. So local panists come and pick up the ground. When they’re panning gold, they see big money.’ Peter estimates there to be around 2,000 people currently ‘employed’ in this practice, a select 30 of which supply the gold which passes through his hands on the way to his overseas buyers.
Sadly, the gold-panning operation is kept hidden from the prying eyes of camera-wielding journalists, meaning there is to be no gold passing through my hands today. Peter is visibly disappointed. ‘Every time the foreigners try to go here they always turn them back,’ he sighs. ‘They’re not allowed to go, I don't know why.’
We have been driving up into the hills towards Gold Ridge from our starting point in the capital Honiara for well over an hour now, I having surrendered the steering wheel to Peter’s far more experienced hands on the mud bath of a road which had emerged following the previous night’s torrential rainfall.
The humidity is intense, suddenly enveloping the interior of the car every time I foolishly ease off on the air con. The stunning landscape around us has a ‘lost world’ feel to it, almost entirely virgin rainforest, which occasionally drops away to reveal lush green panoramic views, and stomach-turning verticals below. ‘I know why white people love pictures of this,’ Peter grins, slowing the car at the latest jaw-dropping landscape to let me lean over and take photos.
Moments earlier, we had been flying past row after row after row of what must be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of palm oil plants operated by Guadalcanal Plains Palm Oil Ltd (GPPOL). Destined for processing and shipment around the world, they have in the past been recorded as producing nearly 15,000 tonnes of crude palm oil, ready to be shipped around the world to become every possible type of foodstuffs. Unfortunately these plantations, and many much smaller in scale ones run by local people all over this eastern part of the island, are potentially at great risk from the peaceful-looking reservoir Peter and I have just pulled up alongside.
The reservoir is used to dispose of the vast quantities of wastewater produced by the gold mining process. Consequently, it is reported to contain significant quantities of toxic-heavy metals including arsenic and cyanide. On a calm day such as this, as we stared out over the gentle lapping waves, this may appear of no great importance. But the very opposite is what the island experienced last summer, when, with Tropical Cyclone Raquel bearing down on the country and many extremely nervous glances over shoulders at the destruction wrought upon neighbouring Vanuatu (and subsequently by Cyclone Winston in Fiji), it was by no means beyond the realms of possibility that this vast waterbody, at one point just 20cm below maximum capacity, could have finally been breached. It would have resulted in nothing less than a complete ecological disaster, with mass contamination of agriculture and drinking water downstream.
While St Barbara insists it conformed to all legal requirements whilst running the mine, and that it passed on all responsibility with the sale to GCIL in May 2015, the dispute continues to rumble on. In the meantime, the water just sits there, in just as vulnerable a position, and no closer to being successfully cleaned up.
Peter is living proof of the benefits which gold can bring to the island’s economically poor communities, with a single gram capable of bringing in over 240 SBD (£21), and he intends to use it well, investing in tourism services to bring foreign money and skills to his remote village deep in the humid hills of central Guadalcanal. But on a larger scale, the potential damage remains unconfined and seemingly quite low priority. It’s a ticking time bomb, hidden in one of the most picturesque and peaceful spots on Earth.