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Lunar New Year Yum Cha: 2018 Leftovers for Australia

Lunar New Year installation in Sydney, NSW. Photo by G Neilson

As opposition leader in 1971, Gough Whitlam made a risky move to visit Peking (just a few days before Henry Kissinger), and once he subsequently became Prime Minister made Australia an early partner with China. In contrast, under the leadership of Prime Minister Robert Menzies, former External Affairs Minister Paul Hasluck used to repeat the prhase, “At the end of the road, there is always China,” to warn about the threat of Communism. The extensive cultural and political relationship that has developed continues to shape both the good and bad sides of domestic politics in Australia.

China’s decades-long rise across economic, political and strategic dimensions hit a turning point in 2018 in the Asia-Pacific. In 2017, Western political presence in and commitment to the Pacific began to pick up its pace in light of China’s perceived expanded presence. Over the course of my first full year living in Australia, this tension came to the forefront. Specifically, Australian leaders have tried to balance the drive for foreign investment and celebration of culture with avoiding overt political influence and over-reliance on a single trading partner.

With February 2019 marking the start of the Lunar New Year, in this post, I take a look back at several key 2018 events by the numbers that have dragged into 2019. The bite-sized dishes (like yum cha) are served up in categories of the environment, governance, international trade, economy, and security. Many (but not all) of these events were influenced by China.

ENVIRONMENT

1.3 million tonnes of waste materials no longer sent from Australia to China.

  • In late 2017, we heard about China’s “ban” on foreign waste that took full effect in early 2018, for 24 categories of solid waste that centred on recycling. In the short term, there was a crisis in local councils, increase in costs, and much of the waste may have gone to landfill; state governments still are not openly addressing the challenge of current recycling waste. Yet China’s “ban” presented an opportunity for Australians to thoughtfully consider their consumption habits and the amount of plastics they consume (such as bags, packaging or bottles), and for companies to employ new practices. The ABC ran a second season of its popular series War on Waste to challenge public and business perspectives, major retailers and states banned single-use plastic bags (with much media frenzy), and a movement to ban plastic straws picked up steam. This all led to development of the 2018 National Waste Policy which sets out to reduce Australians’ waste by 2030.  
  • While Australians have cut down on some plastic waste (see next point below), the need for a circular economy continues to go unanswered. States and territories have differing regulations but there are calls for unity as recycling domestically helps create more jobs than exporting the problem.

1.5 billion fewer plastic bags were consumed over 3 months in Australia thanks to a ban by major supermarket retailers Coles and Woolworths.

  • By charging 15 cents per bag instead of giving them away for free, Coles and Woolworths have experienced an 80 percent reduction in their usage. As of 1 July 2018, Queensland and Western Australia banned single-use, lightweight plastic bags from major retailers. All states and territories have now phased out the bags, except in the two largest states. Victoria has started a plan, while in New South Wales, they are still commonplace!
  • In 2019, Victoria’s phase-out of plastic bags will start. With an election in New South Wales, the issue may gain traction.

$444 million was granted to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation by the Turnbull Government.

  • While most everyone in Australia wants to protect the Great Barrier Reef, the grant, announced in April 2018, was controversial because it was not put through a competitive tender process per usual government practice, and at the time the Foundation had only six full-time staff. For a noncompetitive process, the auditor-general found that the grant’s objectives were to broad, such as “improved management of the Great Barrier Reef”, and disagreed with the department’s assessed value for money. The first project was awarded to the Australian Institute of Marine Science and started in January 2019.
  • Despite the controversies, to remain a viable tourist destination and thriving ecosystem, the Great Barrier Reef will benefit from additional scientific attention and funding. The area faces threats from climate change and an Adani Carmichael coal mine that still faces opposition. Overall in Queensland, 2018 was a booming year for Chinese investment and boosted state leaders’ hopes for tourism.

GOVERNANCE

$18,390,818 estimated total cost (provided by the ACT Commission) for 9 by-elections since the 2016 federal election.

  • There were 7 by-elections in 2018 for federal positions due to resignations, 8 countbacks, 1 vacancy filled by the Labor selection process; these were preceded by 2 by-elections in December 2017. Between 2016 and 2017, at least 9 Senators and 2 members of the House of Representatives resigned due to the “dual citizenship crisis” in Australia. Section 44(i) of the Constitution states that those who have conflicts of interest, or loyalties to other countries such as citizenship are ineligible for Parliament. This included, among others, Former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce (who is now a backbencher due to his love affair scandal and not the citizenship crisis).
  • Across the country, by-elections were seen as a referendum on the Government. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was the most high profile politician to resign, and his was the one seat to change parties (from Liberal to Independent). A national election is due by May 2019, and already we’ve seen a movement toward more independent candidates stepping forwarding and rejecting the major parties.

85% of Australians think most or all federal Members of Parliament are corrupt, andsupport creation of an anti-corruption body, according to a 2018 report by Transparency International and Griffith University.

  • It was quite a year for local and federal corruption and foreign influence. Labor Senator Sam Dastyari was pressured to resign after a scandal over a relationship with a Chinese donor. He allowed a company owned by a Chinese billionaire to pay a legal bill and made comments about the South China Sea that went against party policy. At the local level, Queensland was particularly rocked. In Ipswitch, the entire City Council was sacked in July 2018 after 15 people with links to the council faced at least 75 charges by the Crime and Corruption Commission, including two former mayors and chief executive officers. While Ipswitch former mayors were primarily facing charges for fraud, the Gold Coast mayor was at the centre of a corruption investigation over potentially influencing council decision-making while holding interests in Chinese-owned property developments. Also, Logan City Mayor Luke Smith was charged on allegations of corruption based on receiving a boat from a Chinese property developer who donated to his election campaign fund. In a message to China, the Australian Parliament passed legislation to limit foreign interference in politics. MPs and former ministers must publicly reveal any influence by foreign governments. Separately, in contrast to Australian politicians’ recent anti-Huawei sentiments (for example, the cable controversy), the Australian Strategic Policy Institute showed in 2018 that Huawei was the biggest corporate sponsor of international trips for Australian Members of Parliament (7 trips for Liberals and 5 for Labor).
  • States maintain anti-corruption commissions, but there is still no agreement about a national body. Meanwhile, a 2018 report showed that since 2012 Australia’s GDP has potentially been reduced by 4% due to corruption. Foreign interference, on the other hand, was agreed upon as a problem due to its national security implications. The 2019 Federal Election will have its first test with its new registration portal to show forms and sources of foreign influence in Australia’s political system.  

INTERNATIONAL TRADE

500,000 tonnes of grain and 575,000 live cattle could be exported to Indonesia under the Australia-Indonesia Comprehensive Economic Partnership that was supposed to be finalised in 2018.

  • Negotiations for the FTA began in 2012, and it was supposed to be a crowning achievement of the Turnbull Government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has damaged the deal and delayed its signing – due to the fallout from his consideration of moving the Australian embassy in Israel late last year. Elections are also looming for both countries. The deal is highly sought after by agriculture and education groups, two of the most important sectors for Australia’s exports. Australian beef farmers have faced difficulties with a devalued rupiah and competition from Indian buffalo meat; fewer tariffs (and eventually zero tariffs) and raised caps for live exports were intended to lift business in the face of a drought. Despite the proximity, Indonesia is Australia’s 13th largest trading partner, and two-way trade was worth $16.4 billion in 2016-17.
  • Free trade agreements are non-partisan in Australia, so either Labor or the Coalition Government could take credit for a finalised deal with Indonesia.

187,547 Chinese international students were enrolled to study in Australia in 2017-18.

  • Education is Australia’s third largest export behind iron ore and coal, and students from China make up 30 percent of Australia’s international student population.Together, they brought in over $10 billion to the economy, almost a third of the total income of $32 billion. Chinese students are being called out by U.S. intelligence agencies among others for allegedly “spying” or thieving intellectual property (knowingly or unknowingly) on behalf of Beijing. Criticisms have also been laid on Confucius Institutes in Australia and abroad. Further, Australian universities continue to build relationships with Chinese companies, universities, and government departments like the UNSW China Centre and UNSW Torch Innovation District in order to boost rankings and research outputs, strengthen their base for international students, and commercialise research.
  • Under the Coalition Government, universities have been encouraged to seek external funding through partnerships overseas and with the private sector, with the most opportunity found in China (particularly for engineering, science, and business fields). Universities will likely continue to balance the need for funding and striving for academic freedom. 

ECONOMY

$1.8 billion committed by the Morrison Government to drought preparedness, emergency support, and low interest loans. States of NSW, Queensland, and Victoria committed an additional $1.684 billion.

  • In 2018, the drought particularly across NSW and Queensland, was called “the worst in living memory.” Rain levels in some parts of NSW were the driest on record, and the entire state was declared to be in drought. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in June while touring a drought-affected area: “I don’t know many people in rural New South Wales that I talk to that don’t think the climate is getting drier and rainfall is becoming more volatile.” In October, in one of his first actions as new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison held a National Drought Summit; notably one of the objectives to guide future Drought Reform: “farming businesses and farming communities prepare for, and adapt to, climate change and variability and their effects, including drought and high temperatures.” As of October 2018, 854 farm businesses were issued concessional loans worth $490 million.
  • Long-term action to combat climate change and cope with drought will be needed in order for farmers to succeed. Meanwhile, Australia remains committed to producing and exporting coal (its #2 export).

2.2 million temporary visa holders reside in Australia, including roughly 669,000 New Zealanders on 444 visas and 391,000 graduate students.

  • As the number of students increases, apparently over 200,000 students per year switch to other visas to continue staying in Australia. The increase in students in major cities of Melbourne and Sydney has partly contributed to a strain on transportation and other public resources (but is certainly not the only cause). Additionally there are 176,000 people on bridging visas due to the Government policy of “slowing immigration.” The number of people on bridging visas has grown by almost 40,000 in the past year.
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to cut permanent city migration; in a speech in November 2018 he said: “The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full, the schools are taking no more enrolments.” Labor and the Coalition government and state leaders are entertaining ideas on how to cut immigration.

9.9 percent drop in house prices in 2018 in Sydney and 3.5 percent nationally.

  • According to a Domain report, house prices have fallen 11.4 percent since their peak in mid-2017, with the median price at $1,062,619. Demand fuelled by population growth outstripped supply leading to the previous years of double-digit growth. Chinese purchases of Australian real estate softened overall in 2018 due to capital controls introduced in 2017, additional taxes, and difficulty in getting financing for foreign buyers. Bank lending has also tightened due to investigations from the Royal Commission.
  • In 2019, house prices are predicted to continue to fall and may impact consumer sentiment. If Labor is able to end negative gearing, it will further support those wanting to purchase their first home.

SECURITY

>$100 million spent on Australian support for APEC hosted in Papua New Guinea.

  • Australia underwrote many costs of the 2018 APEC meeting, with a price tag of over $100 million; almost half of it supported the Australian Federal Police security commitment. According to the ABC, Australia deployed special forces soldiers and had Royal Australian Navy warships sitting off the coast to protect cruise liners that accommodated many APEC delegates. The final bill is not yet known. By comparison, China’s contributions included gifting a $35 million overhaul of the International Convention Centre and upgrading a major road with signs declaring “China Aid.”
  • Both Labor and the Coalition Government have announced plans to “step up” aid and security commitments to Pacific island neighbours to counter Chinese influence. In February, Foreign Minister Payne was the latest in a flurry of high profile Australian visitors to the region, traveling to the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu.  

$2 billion in concessional loan and grant schemes were allocated by the Morrison Government for infrastructure projects in the Pacific. Another $1 billion will be able in export financing.

  • In November, Australia’s announcement of an infrastructure bank, Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility, is in line with the U.S. announcement in July of USD$113 million in new infrastructure initiatives in the Indo-Pacific region. In July 2018, Australia, Japan, and the U.S. announced a trilateral partnership to “enhance peace and security in the Indo-Pacific” by mobilising investment in transportation, energy, tourism, and technology infrastructure. This pact seeks to combat China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Meanwhile, whether or not anyone believes it, Labor leader Bill Shorten said that his planned infrastructure spending increase in the Pacific is not about China. According to the Asian Development Bank, emerging economies in the region will require at least USD$26 trillion for infrastructure by the year 2030. This figure has been adjusted for climate change and is more than double their 2009 estimate.
  • Still, an increase in frequency and strength in natural disasters may worsen infrastructure prospects; leaders in Australia will be called upon to do more than throw money at projects that can be considered climate change adaptation.

1,587 U.S. Marines were stationed in Darwin.

  • A record number of U.S. Marines were in Darwin for six months in 2018 to train alongside the Australian Defence Force. Troops from Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore,  France, and Thailand also were invited to take part in 15 training exercises in the area.
  • In the future, more U.S. troops may be in the area to support redevelopment of the PNG naval base at Manus Island. The AFR considers the PNG base a counter to “Beijing’s aspirations for military facilities of their own in PNG.”
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Explainer: Why did the U.S. just give $87.3 million to Palau?

 

On 1 October, 2018, Palau celebrates its 24th Independence Day, with a welcome birthday gift of $87.3 million from the United States Department of Interior.

The $87.3 million represents a down payment of a larger economic assistance package of $123.9 million that was appropriated in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act and the 2018 Omnibus Bill signed into law by President Trump. The funding is actually overdue and a relief for civil servants and elected officials from both Palau and the U.S. who have been working diligently to get the funding secured from the 2010 Compact Review Agreement (CRA).

What can it be used for?

According to a letter signed by U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to Palau President Tommy Remengesau, $65.2 million will be paid to the Compact Trust Fund and provides $22.1 in additional economic assistance.

The total funds, $123.9 million, were provided as a lump sum to be allocated as determined by the 2010 Agreement. The terms originally specified in the CRA were for continuing current grant assistance, although at a declining level. Additional resources were provided to support the Compact Trust Fund, infrastructure maintenance and capital projects.

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Source: Palau Government Facebook post.

While the creation of the Palau Compact Trust Fund has been an important feature of original Compact, it has led to its share of disputes in part due to its lower than expected rates of return. According to an economic review from the Graduate School:

“The CTF was intended to provide $5 million annually from FY1999 to FY2009 and then $15 million annually for government operations through the Compact’s 50th year in FY2044. However, these projections were based on the CTF’s achieving an annual return of 12.5 percent. As it turned out, the CTF achieved a 7.47 percent return through FY2009. This result was actually slightly better than the blended benchmark market rate of return of 7.32 percent over the same period; however, based on projections made at the end of FY2009 the CTF would have failed by FY2022, long before the Compact objective of providing level funding through all 50 years (FY2044).”

Palau has consistently referenced the “inflation adjustment factor” and has sought to have the remaining funds “front ended” so they can be invested to protect from inflation until zeroed out. Having funds in a money earning instrument able to be monitored by both governments provides for transparency and understanding. The money is intended to be subject to a withdrawal schedule under the agreement, but is not part of the documents released publicly at this stage.

Why Palau?

The U.S. and Palau have a special relationship via the Compact of Free Association. It is separate but similar to the Compact of Free Association with the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia (with all three countries referred to as the ‘Freely Associated States’ or FAS). Essentially, the Compact provides for U.S. economic assistance (including eligibility for certain U.S. federal programs), defense of the FAS, and other benefits in exchange for certain operating rights, denial of access to the territory by other nations, and other agreements.

Importantly, flashpoints in the South China Sea and Korean Peninsula have helped revive U.S. policy attention and financial support for the Freely Associated States. In a statement, U.S. Interior Secretary Zinke said, “The U.S. Insular Areas are on the front lines of North Korean aggression and are an important part of the strategic defense for our nation. Authorizing full funding for the agreement is an important element of the Pacific national security strategy to maintain stability in the Western Pacific Region and we look forward to continuing our work with Congress to get this job done.”

Geopolitics over the last several years combined with a new administration have led to improved policy coordination and a whole-of-government approach to its bilateral relationships; U.S. Departments of Interior, State, Commerce, Health & Human Services, Education, Homeland Security, Energy, and others are working much more closely than in recent memory. This has been essential in moving forward interests of both the U.S. and Freely Associated States.

Timeline of the U.S. – Palau Compact

Untitled presentation

What’s next?

Although funding for the Compact Review Agreement was just reignited, it appears the term of the Agreement will still expire at the end of FY2024 and further funding thereafter will be provided from distributions from the Compact Trust Fund. Almost more important than direct financial assistance for Palau are the many federal programs and services Palau currently benefits from that are provided through annual Congressional appropriations. The range of programs included within the Compact include: Postal Services, FDIC, NOAA, Pell grants, FAA, education, health programs, and so forth which are subject to Congressional authorization.  

Palau is a large ocean state, made up of more than 21,000 people and hundreds of islands. Its most pressing issues are dealing with non-communicable diseases, infrastructure development (including for tourism), advocating for global climate action, and sustainable management of its maritime zone. These are all medium and long-term issues that require sustained budgeting and attention.

AUSMIN 2018: What’s In, What’s Out

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Source: U.S. Dept. of State Flickr.

In a highly coordinated annual event arranged by civil servants of large bureaucracies with pre-cooked outcomes it is difficult to find surprises in joint statements. They tend to reflect the nature, state of the relationship and hot topics of the day.

In the case of the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN), the two-day bilateral meeting with leaders of defense and foreign affairs agencies is focused on strategic, diplomatic and to a lesser extent economic outcomes. While there is an increasing desire to focus on or highlight commercial ties and deliverables, commercial and treasury staff are not engaged at the meeting. (In this relationship, there are not enough problems to resolve, or trade barriers, in the bilateral trade and investment relationship to warrant a formal standalone commercial dialogue or include Commerce as part of AUSMIN. Also, tradition! New things are hard for big government.)

With academics and think tankers leading the charge, topics that continue to come up in Australian media and elsewhere are: the apparent withdrawal of the U.S. from the Pacific and so-called rules-based order and a lean toward Russia. So, naturally, the joint statement allayed fears that the governments’ haven’t been listening, and included language refuting those claims:

  • The Secretaries and Ministers emphasized both nations’ strong and deepening engagement in the Indo-Pacific. They made clear their commitment to work together – and with partners – to shape an Indo-Pacific that is open, inclusive, prosperous, and rules-based.”  

  • “The United States and Australia highlighted the priority each places on supporting an international rules-based order, alongside allies and partners. In the Indo-Pacific, that order has underpinned decades of stability, democracy, and prosperity.”

  • “The two countries reaffirmed their determination to oppose actions that seek to undermine the international rules-based order. Noting the anniversary of the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 on July 17, the principals…expressed full confidence in the findings of the Joint Investigation Team concerning Russia’s role..[and] called on Russia to cooperate fully with efforts to establish accountability….”

 

What is more worrying or telling than what was said, was what was withheld. This included topics that plague the relationship and region.

immigration. Both countries are working through restrictions to immigration and with increasingly louder anti-immigrant constituents. Yet a steady flow of skilled and unskilled workers are essential to both economies, particularly Australia with population ageing. The Trump Administration has praised Australia’s strict immigration standards including for skilled migrants. For irregular migration, in Australia, there is almost no political debate from the major parties on whether to close the offshore detention centre on Nauru and its ‘no advantage’ policy. While a few academics have acknowledged the conflict with “Australian values” it is certainly not discussed widely. And, the Obama refugee resettlement deal still haunts policymakers on both sides.

Iran. We don’t have public access to the workplan that was developed, but surely Iran was discussed at AUSMIN. Prior to the bilateral meetings, Secretary Pompeo delivered a speech titled “Supporting Iranian Voices” in Simi Valley, CA that drew mixed reviews from the diaspora. Australia has room to gain from exports to Iran in agriculture, mining and energy. While there was no joint statement on the recent days’ spats, it is likely that Canberra would stand ready to support the U.S. even if it took any military action.

climate change. What a sad reality. Resilience is the code word for climate change adaptation, but the very denial lessens credibility of both states among Pacific island countries. How can diplomats and commentators say with a straight face that either country is pursuing sustainable infrastructure development (combating China’s funding) without acknowledging the coastal erosion, rising sea levels, drought, increasing frequency and strength of typhoons, etc.? The Green Climate Fund, Global Environment Facility and World Bank and ADB funding mechanisms all understand the depth and complexity of “resilience.”

fisheries or marine protection. Understanding that the Our Oceans conferences were a President Obama/ Secretary Kerry legacy (which Minister Julie Bishop attended), there have been a lot of resources directed toward marine protected areas, fisheries management and ocean acidification. Across the Indo-Pacific there are precious ocean resources that require high-level policy to protect fish stocks and ecosystems. Again, this is an area that Pacific island countries highly value, so joint understanding and action would have given both some Pacific leadership points. In the case of the U.S., the Commerce Department is reviewing its relevant policies and may allow fishing within maritime monuments!

Agile policymaking, including keeping bilateral meetings to minimum staffing, is becoming the norm due to budgeting, past mission creep and corporate influence on government. Then, those of us who analyse foreign policy advocate for more attention and resources for their region or issue. But we should consider that bureaucracies are limited and cannot have an ever-expanding mandate.  

While I’ve highlighted issues that trouble the relationship and region, these are difficult for the U.S.-Australia alliance to work on because they are multi-faceted and have domestic political considerations. To supplement high-level diplomatic conversations, engagements can and do happen regularly at the public staff, civil society and private sector level. Just because they’re difficult, it doesn’t mean we can’t try. And to stay mates, we also don’t have to come to a consensus on every issue. Perhaps a public ‘to do’ list would be a start.

Plastic Battle in the Pacific: Is it too late to win the bin war?

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There’s no time like the present to reduce consumption of plastics, and at minimum reuse and recycle. In the Pacific, we are facing questions on what to do with our own rubbish and imports that continue to float onto our shores. Recent reporting about the well-known “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” estimates that there are more than 78,000 tonnes of plastic in an area of about 1.6 square kilometers. The rubbish patch has grown substantially, helped by extreme events like the 2011 tsunami in Japan.

This year, for better or for worse, certain trends are creating a momentum of impact on the plastic landscape. At the national level, some governments are refusing to take notice. Leaving recycling up to the market and local level to regulate has meant inconsistencies in costs and infrastructure across districts and states and impeded an effective national movement in many countries.

In addition to what is floating in the ocean, plastic and other recycling is piling up on land in Australia, the United Kingdom, Samoa, the European Union, and elsewhere as China’s restriction on imports of waste takes effect. According to the ABC, the ban will impact about 619,000 tonnes of materials worth $523 million in Australia alone.

But, when one recycling bin closes, sometimes, another one opens. This presents an opportunity to transform the industry and societal behaviours, take leadership, and call out harmful practices.

We’ve heard positive news from industry recently, who noticed rubbish piling up in the Pacific. Rather than leaving the Pacific islands with empty shipping containers after unloading exports, China Navigation wants to pick up rubbish and recyclable materials for free. It is still figuring out where and how to process the recyclables. Pacific Recycles in Samoa is the only major recycling operation in the Pacific islands, and is aiming to improve quality of materials so that New Zealand or other countries will accept the rubbish.

Unsurprisingly, Pacific island leaders are acting. Governments of Vanuatu, Palau, Marshall Islands, and American Samoa have signed on to banning single-use plastic bags. Some have also adopted levies on bags or bottles. In New Zealand, a petition to ban plastic bags was accepted at Parliament in February.

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In Australia, waste industry and environmental advocates are calling on the government to take action on regulations to encourage a circular economy or ensure purchasing of recycled products in government procurement. The federal government has signaled it is an issue for state and local governments; so for now at the lowest levels, local governments like the Hornsby Shire Council in the Sydney suburbs have it on their agenda to find new solutions for recycling and to consume less plastics.

While China has framed the ban on imports of recycling as a way to improve its environment, it could lead to an increase in new production of the same plastics. China’s demand for some plastics, particularly polyethylene, are forecast to rise to make up for the loss of recycled plastic.  Producers, then, should take more responsibility for managing the environmental impact of the full lifecycle of their products. Consumers can also refuse to create demand for certain plastics, recycle, and utilise the local resources available to understand lifestyle habits.

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Clean beaches don’t necessarily mean a clean ocean. Manly Beach, Australia.

It seems no beach or stream is free from pollution, but there are plenty of groups and individuals working to fix that. For example, the organisation Clean Up Australia has more than 7,000 registered clean up sites, empowering local communities with tools, networking, and knowledge. We know that commercial fishing gear make up a significant portion of ocean rubbish and have their own harmful impact on wildlife; recycling nets and other gear has turned into an effective business for more more than a few startups, converting them into carpets and other consumer products.  Bringing government, industry, and community groups together is essential to not only creating projects like those funded by the Australian Packaging Covenant but also to understanding global needs and expanding possibilities.

Pacific Climate Change Conference Identifies Contradictions & Capacity

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Oriental Bay, Wellington, New Zealand. Credit: Genevieve Neilson

The likelihood of conferences on climate change to be impacted by severe weather events is on the rise. In February 2018, many participants of the Pacific Climate Change Conference were delayed or prevented from arriving in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington. We participated in the conference because we understood the grave dangers that lie ahead to local communities and countries if there is no action to prevent a rise in temperature above 1.5 degree Celsius or a focus on adaptation. And, Cyclone Gita strengthened the resolve of academics, physical scientists, consultants, activists, and project planners to press for change. With the Pacific islands at the forefront of climate change, having a conference and community dedicated to showcasing work in the region helps to identify future needs for the most important transnational issue of our age.

Presentations on the world of climate finance, indigenous voices, and the economy provided contradictions in the way these issues are handled by policymakers and academicsPacific_ocean_news. First, there is a confusing ‘spaghetti diagram’ of funding models and mechanisms for attaining climate finance. As I’ve written, those that need it the most often have the least human and financial resources to submit project proposals. One presenter provided an example: a proposal for a $9 million project in one Pacific island country took 6 years and $300,000 to complete. Additionally, some overseas development organisations are using access to climate finance in order to climate-proof their existing aid projects.     

With panels and a keynote session on indigenous voices, the conference provided a platform to share knowledge and provide suggestions for non-indigenous researchers and policymakers. There was a major call to enable indigenous communities to protect traditional land-based and maritime cultural practices. Their rights to environmental self-determination in New Zealand and elsewhere have been eroded in the face of recommendations from external consultants.

Moreover, there are multiple levels of governance regulating adaptation projects but they are not all connected; in one example, local tourism operators in Samoa were not away of national and regional climate adaptation programs that were intended to benefit the tourism industry. Rather than claiming expertise and recolonizing indigenous practices, Western academics and policymakers should be more inclusive by inviting indigenous communities to the table to showcase examples of holistic approaches to ecosystem and economic planning.

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New Zealand Parliament, Wellington, New Zealand. Credit: Genevieve Neilson

Criticisms were rife of politicians and businesses who have, in Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s words, “discounted the future in place of the present.” Dealing with climate change requires long-term planning and a transformation of lifestyles. Action is hampered by political cycles and people who think we can simply “trade our way out of climate change.” Christopher Wright from the University of Sydney explained how advanced economies have failed to act because neoliberalism both masks capitalism as the problem and exacerbates it by framing business and markets as the solution. Regulatory intervention and promotion of renewables are options, but highly unlikely on a global scale. Rather, he sees divestment and social mobilisation as the most productive paths for society to disrupt the status quo discourse.

Existing international law is also not sufficient to change norms and handle existing crises. Presenters discussed how history has shown that states are not inclined to follow non-binding rules whether or not they relate to fossil fuels. Even when rules are written, such as those around deep sea mining in the Pacific, they are made in the interests of the extractors rather than indigenous and local communities who have rights to their ocean and land.

More questions than answers were posed on the future statehood and rights of those citizens who lose their islands due to climate change. Kiribati and Tuvalu are in line to face these challenges and will rely on goodwill from other nation-states. How will they retain the connection to their culture and sovereignty if their land disappears? New Zealand’s temporary visa scheme is a step forward, but not a permanent solution.

So while problems of political will that stunted progress in climate change work are still present, they are mitigated by airing them out in the open and enabling discussion of alternative solutions.

There is a great and urgent need for action and research on all fronts (top-down and bottom-up, adaptation and mitigation) in the Pacific. The Conference provided hope that there will be more roles, voices, capacity-building, and legal debates for the Pacific.

Participation from political leaders like Samoa Prime Minister Prime Minister Susuga Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi, NZ Minister for Climate Change, Hon. James Shaw, NZ Minister for Pacific Peoples, Hon. Aupito Tofae Su’a William Sio, Papua New Guinea Provincial Governor Hon. Gary Juffa alongside grassroots activists the Pacific Climate Warriors, 5 Gyres, Tina Ngata, and well-known researchers Dr. Michael Mann, Aroha Te Pareake Mead, and others showed the real depth of commitment and knowledge in the region.

The Pacific is at the centre of climate change and many participants called for more research for the region and by local experts and communities. It is needed not just for the Pacific islands, but also to monitor things like sea level rise for the rest of the world. Because, as Prime Minister of Tuvalu says, “save Tuvalu and you will save the world.”

Like a Puffin in Winter: Escape to the Faroe Islands

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In my return to the blogosphere in 2018, I am breaking from my traditional posts. This time, I wanted to share more personal story (mainly photos), from my time in a remote archipelago in the Northern Atlantic, far from the Pacific. Tourists to the Faroe Islands are rare in winter, as many places are closed until spring or even summer. But, with time on our hands and travel plans taking us to Europe from Sydney, I decided this would be our moment to experience the unspoiled beauty and history of the Faroe Islands.

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Map of the Faroe Islands; credit: Mysid

Some Background

The Faroe Islands are a self-governing nation with autonomous powers and responsibilities within the Kingdom of Denmark. With a population of almost 50,000 people, and about halfway between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands have been touted as “Europe’s best kept secret.” It has always been a tourist destination for bird lovers; for our adventure, we wanted to hike, explore Viking history, and enjoy fresh seafood. Compared to Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, Viking sites are not as prolific or promoted. And more so than tourism, the fisheries sector is critical to the nation’s economy and way of life.

Since the late 19th century, fishing has been the primary source of income for the Faroe Islands. The Faroe Islands has strict regulations on its fish farming industry, with the goal of creating the most sustainable production in the world. Overall, fish and fish products represent between 90 and 95 percent of total export value. We ate cod dried and fried, salmon smoked, and miscellaneous fish pâté. We were unable to find and try other local delicacies, including fermented sheep, puffin, and whale.

Day 1 – Vágar, Streymoy & Eysturoy

Travel options into the Faroe Islands are relatively limited; particularly during winter, flights typically arrive and depart when there is the most daylight, between 12-2pm. We flew from Copenhagen; in winter, there are also flights from Iceland and Scotland. For those adventure-seekers with a lot of time, there is a ferry that takes more than a day of travel from Denmark or Iceland. Shopping at the duty free store at the airport is essential, because stores can be few and far between. I recommend stocking up on Föroya Bjór beers, which are brewed locally.

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For our first tourist site, we went to perhaps the most famous photo opportunity – Gásadalur – to view the Mulafossur Waterfall and the island of Mykines from afar. Gásadalur has only a handful of houses and a small parking lot for tourists making the walk. Mykines is an uninhabited island reachable by ferry. It is known for being an important puffin colony, but not during the winter.

Originally we tried to pack a lot of adventure into day 1, but winter daylight hours got in the way.

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From Gásadalur, we drove across increasingly dark, icy roads to the next island of Eysturoy to visit the Vestmanna Saga Museum. The museum was supposed to be closed for winter, but we arranged with the owner, Gunnar, to have it opened just for us. Arriving late and with no working phone, it was lucky that we found a friendly local originally from Australia who happened to know Gunnar and gave him a call. The Saga Museum was a gruesome experience, not for the faint-hearted or small children. Wax figurines detail important and gruesome historical events in the history of the Faroe Islands, including the country’s conversion to Christianity.

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Vestmanna Saga Museum

Next we drove to our accommodation in Leirvik. Without navigation or access to Google maps, we asked for directions at the local petrol/grocery store to our street. While the attendant couldn’t help us, one of the fellow shoppers was kind enough to drive us to the house. Our VisitHomes accommodation came with a 15% coupon for the Bowling Alley – which was the only restaurant open in winter! They served up huge portions of local fried cod and chips. 

Day 2 – Eysturoy

To maximise our daylight, we left Leirvik before the sun came up at 9am. We attempted to drive to Slættaratindur to climb the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands (882 m). From the top there is apparently a fantastic view of all the Faroes, and locals traditionally do this hike every year (in warmer months). Unfortunately, at a key turnoff, the road was iced over, with a sign warning the road isn’t cleared during the winter. Without chains for our tires, we didn’t risk driving up the mountain.

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Next we drove north to the east coast town of Gjogv, which dates to the late 1500s or earlier. Its name translates to “gorge” because there is a 200m gorge that runs through it. There was an old church (like in every town) dated from 1929, and a factory producing prefabricated concrete materials. It looked like the sheep ran the town, with almost no one else outside except for a couple of factory workers. We trekked up the side of a mountain, to enjoy the view, and to the beach. The one cafe in town said it was closed until June, but they did have a public water closet open.

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A Note about Driving

To drive in the Faroe Islands, you need to be attentive to the elements: the wind, hail, roads weaving left and right, sheep crossings, giving way in tight, dark tunnels, and distractions from the amazing views. Particularly around Funningsfjørður, where there are mountains in all directions. We used Unicar to rent a Citroen Cactus; for two people and a few days, it was perfect. Tire chains might have been helpful, but they also could have gotten us into unnecessary trouble.

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We picked our next location based on the extremely helpful Visit Faroe Islands guides. We hiked for several hours, starting from the grassy land in Hellurnar up to snowy terrain and the top where we could see over to Fuglafjørður. The grassy portion was dominated by sheep (and their droppings). It was challenging at times, as we faced hail, icy rock scrambles, and snow. We encountered only one other couple hiking in the opposite direction, which made it slightly easier to find the path via footsteps in the snow. From the top of the first section, we could see salmon fish farms, common in many towns.

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Salmon Farming in the Faroe Islands

The seas surrounding the Faroe Islands are perfect for wild Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) from northern Europe, with steady cool temperatures, clean water, accessible fjords, and strong currents. The production is in average around 50,000 tons of farmed fish in round weight. In almost every suitable bay you can find farming like in the picture above.The Faroese aquaculture industry accounts for more than half of the country’s total export value, and produces the most salmon relative to the population with 1.5 tonnes per capita. There are 3 main companies producing salmon in the Faroe Islands – Bakkafrost, Marine Harvest, and Hiddenfjord. We enjoyed the local smoked salmon.

 

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Before nightfall, we drove to the southern end of Eysturoy to Runavik to see Lake Toftavatn. We didn’t have enough daylight or energy to go for a walk around the lake, so snapped a quick photo.

Day 3 – Viðoy, Borðoy, Kunoy, Eysturoy, & Streymoy

For our final full day, we started by driving to the northernmost settlement in the Faroe Islands, Vidareidi on the island of Viðoy and watched the sunrise.

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According to Visit Faroe Islands, “In the 16th century Viðareiði was home to a fabled priest’s wife, Beinta. This woman is a primary inspiration for the main character in Jørgen-Frantz Jacobsen’s novel, Barbara. Because of the vicarage’s historical placement in Viðareiði, the village has been a cultural centre for the north-eastern part of the Northern Isles through centuries.”

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Perhaps my favourite juncture was the crossing between Norðdepil on and Hvannasund on Viðoy.

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Traveling south from Viðoy, we went to Klaksvík on the island of Borðoy for a hearty sheep stew at Fríða’s. Klaksvík is the second largest town, which has Viking-era remains at Úti í Grøv.

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From there, we drove back to Leirvik to see the four buildings of ruins of Toftanes, which date to the early 10th century. The largest building was a 72-foot longhouse shared by animals and humans, once covered by a roof of turf and birch bark. There was also a smaller house, 43 feet by 13 feet, with a single wall of stone, and two smaller buildings. Many of the thousands of artifacts found at Toftanes are displayed at the Historical Museum; some items include: bowls, glass and amber beads, juniper ropes and rare bronze items, including a brooch and a pin.

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Just before sunset, we made it into Tórshavn for our final night. Historic sites included the area known as the Tinganes, the site of the oldest parliament in the world (dated 825) and Skansin, a fortress dated from around 1508.  

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The downtown is very walkable, with many boutique shops.

Music in the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands has one record label, Tutl, founded in 1977 and a thriving music scene (I’m told) mainly in the summer. The G! Music Festival is one of the most popular. At the Tutl record store in Tórshavn, the attendant helped us with recommendations and played some local records over the store speakers. We already knew about the folk metal band Tyr, so were looking for something different. We came across a music video by the band Hamferð, and were excited to find their music in store. You can read more about music in the Faroe Islands here.

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Tutl Store in Tórshavn

We were planning to try Barbara’s Fish House for dinner, but it was closed for winter; so, we opted for smorgasbords.

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Day 4 – Streymoy & Vágar

For our last activity, we drove out of Tórshavn, south west to Kirkjubøur, one of the Faroe Islands’ most important historic places and the southernmost town on Streymoy. Ruins from the unfinished Magnus Cathedral date from about 1300, and it is the largest medieval building in the Faroe Islands. Saint Olav’s Church is the oldest still used church of the Faroes dating from 12th century. Finally, Kirkjubøargarður, is the oldest still inhabited wooden house in the world from the 11th century.

One of my photos of our stop in Kirkjubøur was featured on the cover of the Bush Telegraph, our local community magazine.

People of the Faroe Islands

While they are not present in my holiday photos, we met very friendly, courteous people across the Faroe Islands. The first person we met in the country happened to be a woman from Australia, and the next person was a Faroese man who had lived in Sydney and brought back an Australian wife. That was a little striking given that almost 90 percent of the population are native Faroese, descendants from the Norse (Scandinavian and Gaelic) that settled the islands in the 9th century AD. Danes compose the largest non-native population at 7%, with less than 3% of the total made up by nationalities of more than 80 countries [Philippines (0.34%) Icelanders (0.33%), Thai (0.23%) Norwegians (0.19%), and so on]. The small number of new immigrants is a point of curiosity as SBS in Australia and the BBC have reported “women wanted in the Faroes.” Many Faroese women left during a recession in the 1990s and youth often leave for university in Denmark; the reports tell of women who immigrated for love and life on the archipelago. The population reached a milestone of 50,000 people in 2017.

Departing the Faroe Islands, we were reminded of the importance of the fishing industry, and salmon in particular. We watched as cases and cases of fresh salmon were loaded onto the SAS Airways flight. There was so much salmon that our flight was delayed!

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To close, a legend about the water elf, Nykin, that lived in Lake Toftavatn. The story goes, it rose up from the waters in the form of a young man or a horse that lured young women and children. Those that touched the Nykin were caught and dragged into the water. Experiencing the Faroese landscape and changing, misty weather, you can get drawn in and wonder what lies before you. Trolls, spirits, or just another sheep?

Blue Diplomacy: Interpreting the New Ross Sea Marine Protected Area

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Antarctica. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

This week, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Antarctica’s McMurdo Station, becoming the highest ranking U.S. official to visit the continent. His visit will bring international attention to the new Ross Sea Marine Protected Area (MPA) and showcase the Obama Administration’s commitment to conservation and acting on climate change. But, if Antarctica is already ‘protected’ by the Antarctic Treaty System and Madrid Protocol, why did 24 countries and the European Union need to sign onto the world’s largest new MPA? Taking a deeper dive into the issues surrounding MPAs, the Antarctic Treaty System and contemporary ocean policy leads us to understand that the Ross Sea MPA is a sign of a changing narrative in conservation where ocean health is linked to climate change.

In his book The Geopolitics of Deep Oceans, John Hannigan provides a timely interpretation of the changing discourse of oceans; from a place for ‘frontier’ activities to a place for ‘saving.’ In between, we’ve fought for sovereignty claims and worked on best ways to ‘Govern the Abyss.’ We can see several of these discourse changes in the management of Antarctica specifically.

At the height of the Cold War in 1959, the international community agreed to set aside an entire continent for scientific exploration, banning military activity including nuclear weapons. There are 53 parties to the Antarctic Treaty System, which also halted all new sovereignty claims on the frozen continent. This would prohibit any new bases by emerging countries and maintain existing power structures. In a sign of the discourse around oceans management and conservation, the original Antarctic Treaty System included land and ice shelves but not all of the surrounding waters.

In 1991, the Antarctic Treaty System was updated with the Madrid Protocol, which sought to limit adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment by designating it as a  “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” Importantly, it showcased that resource extraction was important issue at the time and prohibited mining; a later addition to the protocol prevented marine pollution and provided provisions for waste management.

Finalized in Australia in October 2016, the Ross Sea MPA has created the world’s largest marine reserve and will enter into force in 2017. The agreement designates 72 percent of the MPA to be ‘no-take’ and only some sections will allow harvesting of tooth-fish and krill for scientific research for the next 35 years. The Ross Sea is home to almost 40 percent of the world’s Adelie penguins, 30 percent of Antarctic petrels and a huge amount of krill which animals like seals and whales rely on for nutrients (and even humans). The agreement was first introduced by the United States and New Zealand in 2011, and they will also negotiate details of implementation including monitoring and assessment plans. Therefore it will be critical for a positive bilateral working relationship to continue.

The Ross Sea MPA is another example for the changing discourse in oceans management, from working on effectively governing territories to harnessing power from multiple groups (from government leaders to nonprofits to celebrities) in order to save and protect oceans no matter how distant from our everyday lives. According to John Kerry, 2016 has been a “landmark year for ocean stewardship” particularly when the Ross Sea MPA’s 1.57m square kilometers is combined with the nearly 4m square kilometers of newly protected ocean area announced at the Our Ocean Conference in September.

The Ross Sea MPA is not controversial and has several benefits for the U.S. First, for areas that are not threatened but are protected, MPAs brings significant scientific value to have a pristine ocean environment available. Second, it is a political opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to environmental principles and contribute to an administration’s legacy. When there are no threats to powerful political or commercial interests, MPAs are more likely to have bipartisan support. Third, it improves the soft power particularly of the U.S. where climate initiatives or environmental protections in the past have been weak.

The Ross Sea MPA is also important because it may set a precedent for high seas MPAs to be negotiated. According to Hannigan (2016), we are now in a discourse of “Saving the Ocean” whereby the primary actors oppose exploitation of ocean resources in favor of full protection; preferably protection is pursued through “zoning the oceans, specifically the establishment of marine reserves and other marine protected areas” (133). Nonprofit and industry groups, marine scientists and government leaders like Palau President Tommy Remengesau have called for 20 percent of the ocean to be protected.

While I agree with marine protected areas and have written about their importance, expanding upon the square kilometers of protected areas for their own sake or simply demonstrating international harmony is not sufficient for creating what is needed, a behavioral shift among consumers or international supply chains. The momentum must continue through bipartisan and multi-stakeholder efforts with work to educate the public about what they can do in their own communities.

I was fortunate to be able to visit Antarctica in 2005 as part of an educational trip with young students and researchers. Albatrosses and other sea birds soared past our ship as we cut through what seemed an endless bounty of icebergs and sea ice. I saw what most people only see on television – killer whales hunting a seal trying to escape capture on a lone ice flow. Once on land, I scooted among the penguins’ trails and visited Halley Research Station run by Great Britain in the Weddell Sea. A sign that not everyone can or should visit the pristine environment, our icebreaker ship rescued a large tourist cruise ship stuck in the ice. I experienced firsthand the serenity and silence of Antarctica and its inability to advocate for itself.  

Ocean conservation is now a welcome part of the discourse on global climate change, part of what I’d like to call Blue Diplomacy. In a 2014 letter to President Obama, the Marine Conservation Institute said “the unprotected ocean is like a debit account where everybody withdraws and nobody deposits. By contrast, marine reserves are like savings accounts that produce interest we can live off of.” (Hannigan 2016, 128) In the absence of the strongest binding commitments and complimentary to the Paris Climate Accord, the Ross Sea MPA provides a relatively easy ‘win’ for scientists and government leaders alike. It is a signal that despite escalating competition for Asia-Pacific territory resources harkening back frontier days, international actors are awakening to the climate-ocean nexus and the interconnectedness of healthy fish stocks and reefs with a healthy climate.