THE man who led the salvaging of historical metals from shipwrecks at Malaita Outer Islands in October last year maintained that the properties belong him.
Dr Reginald Aipia reiterated his stand following the national government’s decision to allow the court to determine the rightful owner of the metals.
Attorney General James Apaniai told Parliament this week that the government owned the items because they were found within the territorial water of Solomon Islands.
But MrApaniai said there is provision under the Shipping Act which stated that wrecks found within a territorial water, marine will take control and advertise overseas and locally for anyone who can claim the wrecks.
He added that under the international law, finders will own the things they salvaged, but if these things are found within the territory of a nation, that nation owns those things.
However, Dr Aipia said the wreck site which his team salvaged belongs to his ancestors and passed down to his father.
He said the salvaging site was known historically as the Luangiuan Ancestral Site and Events.
He said the events the ships sunk were between 1765 and 1874 during the ruling of King Keulaho 1.
“These shipwrecks were not naturally hit by natural disaster but by my people’s aggression,” he said.
Dr Aipia said these events occurred when the heir to King Keulaho 1’s throne was murdered.
“The first ship was massacred by my great-great grandfathers and all these properties belonged to me and my people.
“In such event and history, as a layman’s point of view, the Attorney General has erred in his statement that these findings belong to the state.
“The law of the country cannot claim my own property as their property,” he said.
Dr Aipia said the last ship massacred in the area occurred in 1874 namely Jamie Birney.
He said during that period Ontong Java was not even in the British Solomon Islands Protectorate (BSIP) which was formed in 1893.
“We only joined BSIP in later 1900s. The ships sunk in our islands 26 to 70 years before the nation of Solomon Islands was formed,” he said.
Therefore, he said on a layman’s point of view regarding the law of finding, the finder is the owner.
“We have all sorts of court cases regarding findings such as this, in various countries.
“Even the country like Unites State of the America (USA) hasits own legislative that stated ‘all abandoned shipwrecks within the American territorial sea belong to the state’, but the famous Mel Fisher as the salvager won the case and declared as the owner of the finding as the finder,” Dr Aipia said.
Similarly, Dr Aipia said Solomon Islands did not have a legislative to cover these old shipwrecks.
“Hence, all these findings belong to me as the finder and not the state,” he said.
“I welcome the AG and SIG decision to take this issue to court to determine the ownership issue once and all.
“I as the finder and owner of these findings, I assure all the people of Ontong Java that this is our property and we will get our property back and convert them into cash for our own benefits,” he said.
Dr Aipia first attempted to salvage the shipwrecks in December 1997 with the help of five other local divers.
He made a second attempt in 2007 between January 4th and 10th with his team.
Then in 2013, Dr Aipia established a company called Ontong Java Development Company (OJDC) purposely for sea cucumber and shipwrecks salvaging.
The company purchased scuba diving gears and a compressor and started visiting the salvaging site frequently.
In 2014 Dr Aipia hired top scuba divers from Maldives to teach his four local divers how to dive using the scuba diving equipment purchased. During their dives his team only found one treasure bar.
“In September 2015, I as the ‘finder’ teamed up with my company in the operation and in October 2015, the salvaging exercises were in full with a 15 member team of ODJC,” he said.
All items salvaged then, police had retrieved and kept at the Central Bank of Solomon Islands (CBSI).