An in­dus­try wait­ing to set sail

Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Ju­lian Makaa

Island Life - - Tropical Delights -

They are not lucky. Be­cause they live on man-made is­lands…but they do sweat their guts out – no mat­ter how hard and for how long – that is why they are about the hard­est work­ing peo­ple in the Solomon Is­lands. For them, sur­vival is truly for the fittest. They don’t have much land, but the sea is their provider. They go out fish­ing ev­ery­day. They sell fish ev­ery­day. They break, grind and rub shell money ev­ery­day. That is their way of life. That is how they sur­vive the daily strug­gles in this coun­try where the cur­rency value is one of the low­est in the re­gion. I am talk­ing about the peo­ple of Lan­galanga la­goon in Malaita Prov­ince. Al­though fish­ing and shell money are the best-known trade­marks of the Solomon Is­lands, the peo­ple of Lan­galanga la­goon have an in­for­mal ship-build­ing in­dus­try that is only found in this small patch of Malaita Prov­ince and could gen­er­ate mil­lions of dol­lars. Take a one-hour boat ride from Auki, the cap­i­tal of Malaita, through the Lan­galanga la­goon and you will see why. On al­most all the man-made is­lands there you can see huge tall sago palm houses with boat struc­tures. Some of th­ese boats, I am told, have been sit­ting there for the last 15 to 20 years or even longer. “That’s right. This hap­pens be­cause there is no money. But the ships you see sit­ting in those torn leaf houses will be com­plete one day,” Michael Talo told me. Mr Talo is one of th­ese self taught ship builders of Lalana Is­land who is soon to launch a ship he built with the sup­port of his brothers and rel­a­tives on their is­land. He re­vealed that the long de­lays hap­pened as builders stopped work to raise funds through fish­ing or shell money mak­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. “Once there is enough money to buy

tim­ber, they will go and buy what tim­ber they can from those who own the re­sources on the main­land. Then they will go back to their boats and add what­ever pieces of tim­ber they have been able to get and re­vert to fish­ing or mak­ing shell money to raise the funds for the next lot of tim­ber. That is the cy­cle,” Talo said. T he Lan­galanga ship builders are well known in the Solomon Is­lands. The likes of the late John Fera, who be­came very suc­cess­ful un­til his death a few years ago, had a flour­ish­ing busi­ness. He built a num­ber of wooden boats, large enough to ferry co­pra, tim­ber, co­coa, cargo and pas­sen­gers around this na­tion of scat­tered is­lands, which spans 133 mil­lion square kilo­me­ters of ocean. There are one or two other suc­cess sto­ries, all the re­sult of per­se­ver­ance and hard work. Michael Talo is one of those who had worked for the late Fera in his boat­build­ing yard in the Lan­galanga la­goon. “Af­ter hav­ing spent a num­ber of years there, I felt that I should get out and try my hand at a boat of my own,” he said. Talo said the idea to ven­ture into this risky en­ter­prise was born out of two bags of flour which some­one dis­carded be­cause they got wet while be­ing un­loaded at Auki wharf. “I took the bags and cooked ring cakes out of them. It was while cook­ing the cakes that the idea to try my hand at build­ing my own boat be­gan to take hold. So I qui­etly kept the idea to my­self. As soon as I had raised a bit of money from the two bags, I be­gan to look at other money mak­ing ideas such as fish­ing and mak­ing shell money. Once I had enough money, I went to one vil­lage on the main­land and asked if any­one had a good sized vi­tex tree. When one fam­ily told me they had such a tree, I paid them five hun­dred dol­lars and then brought

my brothers to chop the tree down and cut it up to the right size. So, out of that tree, we cut a keel and other im­por­tant pieces to start off this boat you see here,” he told me. Mr Talo said it took him and his brothers more than twelve years to build his boat. Talo, a grad­u­ate builder from the for­mer Solomon Is­lands Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute in the 70s, ex­plains he moved to boat build­ing be­cause he wanted to work with crooked struc­tures. “I en­joyed build­ing houses af­ter grad­u­at­ing but af­ter a while, it be­came so mun­dane,” he ad­mit­ted. “That is why I joined John Fera’s boat build­ing team. Asked whether or not the govern­ment had sup­ported the boat build­ing in­dus­try in the Lan­galanga la­goon, Mr Talo said as far as he knew, there was no sup­port at all. “I don’t know why. But I strongly feel that this is an in­dus­try that could make mil­lions for the coun­try if the govern­ment sup­ports it. This is a home­grown in­dus­try and the money that comes from it will re­main in the coun­try and sup­port the econ­omy,” he said. G overn­ment sup­port would en­cour­age more peo­ple in the coun­try to try their hand at this in­dus­try and pro­vide more boats for the grow­ing pop­u­la­tion of the Solomon Is­lands. “This would be a bet­ter al­ter­na­tive to log­ging, I be­lieve,” said Talo. The skills that the Lan­galanga men have to­day orig­i­nated from their in­volve­ment with the Buma ship yard that used to be op­er­ated by the Catholic Church and where a lot of young men were em­ployed. “When the ship­yard closed, the men came back home with those skills,” ex­plained Talo. There area two other ship­yards on Gela Is­land in the Cen­tral Is­lands – the Sas­ape Ma­rina, used to be owned and op­er­ated by the govern­ment and Ta­ro­niara is owned and op­er­ated by the Church of Me­lane­sia. “There are a lot of peo­ple with skills to build boats but they can­not ap­ply them with­out the nec­es­sary sup­port. I strongly feel that if th­ese peo­ple were as­sisted to build boats, this coun­try wouldn’t need to spend mil­lions of dol­lars buy­ing old ships from over­seas coun­tries,” he said. He adds that a num­ber of busi­ness peo­ple in Van­u­atu have ex­pressed in­ter­est in the wooden boats they are build­ing. Michael Talo’s newly built boat is al­ready float­ing on the sea, wait­ing for a few more mi­nor fit­tings be­fore start­ing op­er­a­tions. A nec­es­sary in­dus­try for the is­land coun­tries of the Pa­cific, just wait­ing for a lit­tle sup­port to flour­ish.

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