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No time to procrastinate

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Pacific has long been romanticised as a peaceful, pristine and rather sleepy backwater, somehow removed from the stresses of modern day life.

This picture is a travesty of our diverse and vibrant region and the unique development challenges we face. It also belies the fact that we are contending with some of the biggest environmental threats faced by humanity today.

We encompass some of the smallest countries in the world, rich in cultures and histories, and blessed with a breathtaking array of land and marine life. However, powers outside the region are plundering our precious oceans and forests. We are also at the frontline of global warming impacts, even though we are the least responsible for the damage done to the climate. This inequity and exploitation of our resources is not new. We have seen it before in the form of the unfair and destructive trade in sandalwood, beche-de-mer, bonito tuna and copra.

Just last week a bold decision to ban tuna fishing in high seas areas, as a landmark for tuna conservation and biodiversity protection by eight Pacific Island Countries of the Palau Nauru Agreement group meeting was made in Palau.

This means that foreign fishing vessels will not be allowed to fish in the two major high seas pockets in the Pacific. The first is north of Papua New Guinea, its boundary shared by the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau. The boundary of the larger second area is shared by PNG, Nauru, Marshall Islands, FSM, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Solomon Islands.

Foreign fishing boats will also be required to retain their full catches, regardless of whether or not they are tuna stock and to carry observers onboard at all times. The use of Fishing Aggregation Devices (FADs), a device used to intensify overfishing will be banned in the third quarter of each year. An agreement formalising these measures will be in force from June 15, 2008.

Until the end of this month, there will be an opportunity to redress this imbalance and keep our oceans, forests, and indeed our future, safe. World governments are meeting to discuss the protection of life on earth Convention on Biological Diversity Conference of Parties in Bonn this week. It is important governments use this opportunity take real action because our oceans and forests are in crisis. The people and diversity of life they support are under threat.

Pacific Island countries depend on tuna as a source of income and food. Tuna fisheries make up to 40 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product of some Pacific states and tuna is our primary source of protein. The Western and Central Pacific Ocean has the world's largest tuna fishery and is threatened by unsustainable and destructive fishing.

The fleets of Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, the USA, Philippines, and the European Union catch more than 80% of tuna in our region. Industrial fishers make over $US3billion ($F4.4bn) from this resource every year, while Pacific nations receive approximately 6% of the profits, mainly from licensing and access fees. This is unfair payment for our principal economic resource.

In their race to catch more fish, these distant fishing nations use large-scale, unsustainable and wasteful fishing technology such as purse seining and long-lining. A large-scale purse seiner can take in two days the amount of fish it would take a local fisher a year to catch.

As most of us are aware, climate change also poses a serious threat to oceans and people in the Pacific. Many Pacific Island countries are already struggling with increasing vulnerability to extreme weather events, collapsing ecosystems and the contamination of their fresh water and crops with salt water. Beyond this, our oceans have to contend with the potential impacts of climate change such as acidification.

The region's tropical forests are also under threat from illegal and destructive logging. These forests are a key defence against climate change, rich in bio-diversity and home to communities that rely on them for their survival. Global demand for cheap timber products is driving their destruction and large foreign multinationals are logging these forests at unsustainable rates. Forest communities are usually swindled out of their land, sometimes under threat of violence, and regularly complain of human rights abuses and inadequate compensation for their forest resources. When logging companies leave areas these communities are left with nothing but crumbling infrastructure, polluted waterways and no ready means of survival.

Nowhere is the situation dire than in the Solomon Islands. Decades of logging at up to five times the sustainable rate has decimated the country's forests and has had serious impacts on society and the environment. The International Monetary Fund recently predicted a total collapse of the forest industry by 2014. This would be disastrous for the Solomon Island's economy with logging accounting for 70% of exports, 15% of domestic government revenue and 10% of GDP.

Papua New Guinea's forests look set to suffer the same fate unless something is urgently done to reign in its forestry sector. Up to 90% of all logging in PNG is done illegally. Numerous reports from the likes of the International Tropical Timber Organisation, the World Bank and numerous non-government organisations, over the last decade have shown there is no evidence of sustainability or of any real development or substantial monetary benefits to forest communities. Added to this are allegations of widespread corruption and an inability by PNG to enforce its forest laws. The PNG Forest Minister, Beldan Namah, recently admitted in parliament that logging companies routinely flout laws with the help of corrupt officials saying "I've noticed a lot of corruption going on within the Forest Department". In the meantime loggers continue to operate with impunity.

Our oceans and forests are not inexhaustible, but highly vulnerable complex and finite. There is a strong link between global climate change, oceans and forests. There is a need for a concerted effort and integrated approach to biodiversity issues.

That's why the 9th meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Bonn from May 19 to 30 is so important. This treaty was designed at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to conserve the diversity of life on earth. It also aims to share the benefits equally from the sustainable use of environmental resources such as fish and timber. Given the plight of our forests and oceans the CBD's implementation is clearly important to the Pacific. Unfortunately, world governments have been slow to act on their responsibilities. Under the CBD, world governments agreed to significantly reduce the global loss of biodiversity by 2010. There are less than two years left before that deadline. To reverse the disastrous decline of marine resources and biodiversity in our oceans we only have four years for governments to put in place a global network of protected areas and well managed marine areas that span the earth's oceans. But recent figures released by the Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Global database housed at the University of British Columbia, reveal that MPAs cover just 0.65% of the world's oceans. Governments are required under the CBD to address this shortfall by the end of 2012.

Amongst the areas that should be prioritised as marine reserves are three pockets of international waters in the WCPO. Greenpeace ship, the Esperanza, is currently defending these Pacific Commons to gather evidence of excessive and illegal tuna fishing. Ocean defenders have freed tuna, sharks, marlin and an endangered sea turtle from a Taiwanese longliner that was fishing in one of these areas earlier this month. These Pacific commons are ecologically important, featuring breeding and migratory routes for species such as leatherback turtles, yellowfin and bigeye tuna as well as yet unexplored deep sea realms. Fishing vessels have also been peacefully escorted out of these international waters. These areas are entirely bound by the Exclusive Economic Zones of surrounding Pacific Island nations, are also the scene of rampant overfishing as well as pirate fishing by rich and powerful industrialised fishing nations.

Protecting biodiversity is also important for all life on earth. Deforestation is contributing to climate change and it is in the global interest to protect forests and their rich natural heritage for all of humanity. Tropical forests are particularly critical to climate regulation, through the carbon they store, absorb and recycle. However, industrial logging and deforestation for biofuel plantations and agriculture are rapidly destroying these natural buffers. Up to 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by forest destruction mostly of tropical forests like those of PNG and the Solomon Islands. That's more than the emissions from all of the world's cars, trucks and aeroplanes put together.

Time is flying, oceans and forests are dying. Far from enjoying ecosystems teeming with life, we are entering a period that could be marked by even more overexploitation, depletion and extinction.

The longer we procrastinate, the bigger the cost to our environment and communities.

It's time for action. In our forests and our oceans lies our future. We, as Pacific Islanders, must undertake responsible stewardship of our vital resources and, importantly, we must demand this of the big industrialised nations who have created their wealth at such a hefty environmental and social cost.

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