Solomon Islands (12/03)

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.


Solomon Islands

Area: Land -- 27,556 sq. km. (11,599 sq. mi.). Archipelago--725,197 sq. km. (280,000 sq. mi.).
Cities: Capital--Honiara (on the island of Guadalcanal), pop. 30,000. Other towns--Gizo, Auki, Kirakira.
Terrain: Mountainous islands.
Climate: Tropical monsoon.

Nationality: Noun and adjective--Solomon Islander(s).
Population (2003): 509,190 (43.4% under age 15).
Annual growth rate: 2.83%.
Ethnic groups (2002): Melanesian 93%, Polynesian 4%, Micronesian 1.5%, other 1.5%.
Religions: Christian 95%--more than one-third Anglican (Archdiocese of Melanesia), Roman Catholic 19%, South Sea Evangelical 17%, United Church (Methodist) 11%, Seventh-day Adventist 10%.
Languages: English (official); about 120 vernaculars, including Solomon Islands pidgin.
Education (2002): Years compulsory--none. Attendance--85% primary school; 14% secondary school. Adult literacy--64%.
Health (2002): Infant mortality rate--24/1,000. Life expectancy--71.8 yrs.
Work force (264,900, 2002): Agriculture--75%. Industry and commerce--5%. Services--20%.

Type: Parliamentary democracy within the Commonwealth.
Constitution: May 1978.
Independence: July 7,1978.
Branches: Executive--British monarch represented by a governor general (head of state); prime minister (head of government). Legislative--50-member Parliament elected every 4 years. Judicial--high court plus magistrates court; system of custom land courts throughout islands.
Subdivisions: Nine provinces and Honiara town.
Political parties: United Party, People's Alliance Party, National Front for Progress, SAS Party, Liberal Party.
Suffrage: Universal over 18.
National holiday: July 7.
Flag: Rectangle divided diagonally by a thin yellow line from bottom of staff to opposite top; the lower part is forest green; the upper, ocean blue containing five stars for the major island groups.

GNP (2001): $264.5 million.
Annual growth rate (2000-02): minus 24%.
Per capita income (2002): $580.
Avg. inflation rate (2001): 7.9%.
Natural resources: Forests, fish, agricultural land, marine products, gold.
Agriculture: Products--copra, cocoa, palm oil, palm kernels and subsistence crops of yams, taro, bananas, pineapple.
Industry: Types--fish canning, sawmilling, boats, rattan and wood furniture, fiberglass products, shell jewelry, tobacco, beer, clothing, soap, nails, handicrafts.
Trade (2000): Exports--$70 million (a 52% drop from 1999): fish, logs and timber, cocoa, copra. Major markets--Japan 39%, U.K. 23%, U.S. 2%. Imports--$94 million (an 11% drop from 1999): machinery and transport equipment, fuel, food and beverages. Major suppliers--Australia 34%, Japan 16%, New Zealand 9%.
Official exchange rate: Solomon Islands $1=about U.S.$0.20.

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 Solomons 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 is forested. 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. Of its 496,000 persons, 93.3% are Melanesian, 4% Polynesian, and 1.5% Micronesian. In addition, small numbers of Europeans and Chinese are registered. About 120 vernaculars 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 10% reside in urban areas.

The capital city of Honiara, situated on Guadalcanal, the largest island, has over 30,000 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 maintain traditional beliefs.

The chief characteristics of the traditional Melanesian social structure are:

  • The practice of subsistence economy;
  • The recognition of bonds of kinship, with important obligations extending beyond the immediate family group;
  • Generally egalitarian relationships, emphasizing acquired rather than inherited status; and
  • A strong attachment of the people to the land.
Most Solomon Islanders maintain this traditional social structure and find their roots in village life.

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 somewhat later to the Pacific Islands 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, however, 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.

Postwar Developments
Following the end of World War II, the British colonial government returned. The capital was moved from Tulagi to Honiara to take advantage of the infrastructure left behind by the U.S. military. A native movement known as the Marching Rule defied government authority. There was much disorder until some of the leaders were jailed in late 1948. Throughout the 1950s, other indigenous dissident groups appeared and disappeared without gaining strength.

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.

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. In June 2002, 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. New elections in December 2001 brought Sir Allan Kemakeza into the Prime Minister's chair with the support of a coalition of parties. Bartholomew Ulufa'alu is currently Leader of the Opposition.

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. 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). The mission, consisting of a policing effort, military support, and a large development component, has largely restored law and order to Honiara and the other provinces of Solomon Islands and has been seen as highly successful so far. Efforts are now underway to identify a donor base and reestablish credible systems of governance and financial management.

Principal Government Officials
Governor General--John Lapli
Prime Minister--Allan Kemakeza
Minister for Foreign Affairs--Laurie Chan

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).

Although its per capita GDP of $340 ranks Solomon Islands as a lesser developed nation. Over 75% of its labor force are 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.

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.

Tourism, particularly diving, is an important service industry for Solomon Islands. Growth in that industry is hampered, however, by lack of infrastructure, transportation limitations and security concerns.

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.

Since 2000 the Government of Solomon Islands has become increasingly insolvent. It has exhausted its borrowing capacity; in 2001 the deficit reached 8% of GDP. It is unable to meet bi-weekly payrolls and has become extraordinarily dependent on funds from foreign aid accounts, which provided an estimated 50% of government expenditure in 2001. 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, also is accredited to 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, but refugee return has been slow.

Membership in International Organizations
Solomon Islands is a member of the United Nations, Commonwealth, South Pacific Commission, South Pacific Forum, International Monetary Fund, and the European Economic Community/African, Caribbean, Pacific Group (EEC/ACP)/(Lome Convention).

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 South Pacific Commission and the South 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. A United States National Marine Fisheries Service Officer works with the South Pacific Forum Fisheries Agency in Honiara. The United States also supports efforts to protect biodiversity in the Solomon Islands. In addition to supporting the establishment of local conservation areas, the United States supports the International Coral Reef Initiative aimed at protecting reefs in tropical nations such as Solomon Islands.

U.S. military forces, through the Pacific Theater Command in Honolulu, Hawaii, carry out annual bilateral meetings as well as small-scale exercises with the Solomon Islands Police Border Protection Force. The U.S. 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.

Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Robert Fitts (resident in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea)

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).

For the most current version of this Note, see Background Notes A-Z.