Pacific Islands Forum Facing Climate Realities

“Our islands are like the jewels in a blue crown and, like the diversity of colour, shape and types of jewels, our islands embody the uniqueness of our cultures and way of life and the surrounding ocean that sustains us and connects us.” – Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna

Too much of the hype surrounding the 43rd Pacific Islands Forum meetings in Rarotonga, Cook Islands has focused on the prospective visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the struggle for influence between the US and China in the South Pacific region.  The theme for this Leader’s Forum, Large Ocean Island States – the Pacific Challenge, deserves far more attention as Pacific Island nations work on creating and maintaining a sustainable Pacific environment.  The Forum Island Countries (FICs) are at the forefront of not only the effects of climate change, but also the solutions and coping mechanisms.  Therefore the agreements forged during this week’s meetings will be a critical test of the region’s resolve to continue the momentum of achievements and to serve as an example for future regional collaboration in other parts of the world.     

Climate change has been central to the Pacific Islands Forum agendas in recent years.  In 2009 the Leaders launched a Call to Action, stating “For Pacific Island states, climate change is the great challenge of our time. It threatens not only our livelihoods and living standards, but the very viability of some of our communities. Though the role of Pacific Island States in the causes of climate change is small, the impact on them is great.”  Involving both mitigation and adaptation efforts to overcome threats caused by climate change, the Pacific Islands Forum has advocated for international assistance to support the small island states.

Launched in May 2009 at the Pacific Island Leaders Meeting (PALM) in Japan, the Pacific Environment Community Fund has proved to be a successful catalyst to facilitate sustainable development and to combat the negative effects of climate change in the region.  At the launch, Japan provided a ¥6.8billion (approximately USD$66 million) contribution to Forum Island Countries for environmental issues. According to the program, “each FIC is provided with an indicative allocation of USD$4million to support projects with a focus on the provision of solar power generation systems and sea water desalination plants or a combination of both.”  The governments of Cook Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu have utilized the PEC Fund, with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia still working on agreements for local projects.

In the same way that sustainable, equitable trade is a factor in the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations, New Zealand has emphasized sustainable development and renewable energy in particular as part of its NZ Aid Programme.  This was highlighted in last year’s Forum dialogue in Auckland.  The NZ government is providing NZ$7 million to Tokelau to install solar power systems which will provide almost 100 percent of the energy needs for the state’s over 1,400 residents.  With international assistance, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu are all undertaking projects in renewable energy.

One of the most ambitious and pioneering plans has been the Pacific Oceanscape, envisioned by His Excellency Anote Tong, President of Kiribati.  It is a framework for creating marine protected areas and a mindset “to ensure in perpetuity the health and wellbeing of our oceans and ourselves.” I highly recommend watching the Pacific Oceanscape video.  The project has been closely supported by Conservation International, including the FICs’ programs The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the Micronesia Challenge, and the Cook Islands Marine Park.  During this session of the Pacific Islands Forum, the Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna is expected to announce the opening of country’s Marine Park, which includes about half of its exclusive economic zone.

In thinking practically and further ahead, the Kiribati government is working on a contingency plan to move its entire population abroad.  In March this year, Kiribati President Anote Tong was in talks with the government of Fiji to purchase 5,000 acres of land as an ‘investment’, to provide a new home for its 113,000 residents.  Currently, Kiribati is about two meters above sea level.  Part of the plan for “migration with dignity” includes educating and training its population so Kiribati residents have skills desired by other Pacific states, including Australia and New Zealand.

The Pacific Islands Forum Leaders’ meetings and smaller workshops surrounding the main events are about education and dealing with the challenges and opportunities within the region.  While globalization and improved transportation has facilitated the communication and trade levels among Forum states, the effects of climate change, increasing energy costs, overfishing, coral bleaching and geopolitical challenges have appeared to harden the resolve of Forum states.  With so many positive sustainable development and energy-related projects lined up (and hopefully more to be announced this week) the outcomes of the 43rd meeting in the Cook Islands should be watched not because the US and China will be battling for their attention, but because these small islands in the Pacific are among the first to ambitiously battle for their own survival in the face of threats to their homes (by rising sea levels) and livelihoods (by overfishing and coral bleaching).

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Review of Pacific Plan Essential for an Effective Pacific Islands Forum

Between 31 July and 3 August, the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat meetings in Fiji set a tone for the forthcoming leaders’ meetings in the Cook Islands at the end of August.  Much of the media focus surrounding the Pacific has centered on the US involvement in the dialogue as part of its rebalancing, and to a lesser extent, Australia and New Zealand’s changing relations with Fiji.  As the Secretariat meetings have indicated, however, reforming the Pacific Plan to reflect the contemporary political, economic and security conditions in the Pacific will be critical for this year.  Issues of labor mobility and trade integration within the Pacific Islands region will be critical to the continued development and success of the Pacific Plan and the Pacific as a whole. 

A product of the 2004 Auckland Declaration, the Pacific Plan is a ‘living document’ that enables initiatives to adapt with the framework. The Pacific Plan has four pillars aimed at enhancing economic growth, sustainable development, good governance and security of the Pacific through regionalism.  Securing actions at the national level has been a paramount concern given the diversity of states and disparity in wealth.

One goal in reviewing the current Pacific Plan should be to improve labor mobility in the region. This goal is steadily gaining traction, but policymakers need to take care to avoid some of the negative aspects of temporary migration and to provide more sustainability.  The Australian Pacific Seasonal Work Pilot Scheme and New Zealand Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme have been workable models to increase remittances among the island states.  In fact, there are recruiting firms throughout the Pacific that promote workers for both New Zealand and Australian schemes (see, for example, http://www.workreadyvanuatu.com).    

However, the seasonal worker schemes create multiple dependencies on unskilled labor.  Horticulture, viticulture and other industries that have seasonal labor needs are more inclined to take on labor with less ability to make demands for rights and benefits; furthermore, migrant labor provides a pool of labor potentially unavailable or unwilling to do the grunt work required in those industries.  Migrants, on the other hand, become dependent on impermanent, unskilled and unpredictable work.  While remittances are highly valued as essential Pacific economies, the type of work created for seasonal workers is currently not the most sustainable either in terms of returning home as a skilled migrant or with a secure income.   

Such an exchange of labor could be expanded to all Forum Island Countries (FICs) in a way that encourages training and the exchange of skills. (See, for example, doctor exchanges between Venezuela and Cuba as a progressive idea; it hasn’t worked well in practice however due to strong ideological fervor among both states).  For a more skilled and sustainable Pacific economy, training is needed outside of the temporary program, and protections are needed against exploitation.  Migrants and temporary workers are typically the most disadvantaged in in terms of labor rights and the Pacific has the potential to produce a more equitable regional model.

Like the issue of labor mobility, creating a common market and pursuing free trade in the Pacific are goals that require careful attention.  Both Australian and New Zealand foreign ministries have explicitly stated that their approach to the Pacific Agreement on Closer Economic Relations (PACER) Plus negotiations differs from their traditional approach to free trade agreements; rather than focusing solely on their states’ commercial interests, Australia and New Zealand aim to promote the development and capacity of FICs.  The two regional powers additionally must maintain competitiveness with potential trade agreements that FICs make with the European Union. 

With ever-increasing collusion among trade, development and foreign policies, taking steps toward free trade agreements is a precondition for aid and greater access to NZ and Australian markets.  The goal of PACER Plus is to start with free trade within the FICs to demonstrate their abilities to cope with such policies.  One problem encountered by the region is that the principles of free trade clash with certain traditional Pacific principles (e.g. property rights).  Regionally, community development solutions such as bulk purchasing invite avenues for creativity and take into consideration the nature and interests of Pacific Island states.

Globalization and the changing international political landscape are creating an increasingly competitive environment in the Pacific.  As the region draws greater attention from China and the US for its geostrategic position and natural resources, the Pacific Islands Forum and its member states should secure a more formidable voice, particularly on issues that impact the region.  An effective review and renewal of the Pacific Plan then must include two of the most noteworthy subjects for development, improved labor mobility and closer economic relations.