In Pacific Islands, Tomorrow’s Leaders Must Act Today

Boy jumps into water in the Cook Islands. (© Toby de Jong)

A boy jumps into the water in the Cook Islands. (© Conservation International/photo by Toby de Jong)

If someone told me a year ago I would soon be presenting at a United Nations conference dedicated to the issues faced by small island developing states, I’d truly believe that person was pulling my leg. Yet last week, I found myself doing exactly that.

Here on my home island of Samoa, around 3,000 people — including more than 20 government leaders, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and civil society representatives — are currently gathering for the third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

These islands, which occur across the globe, have been identified as special case studies for sustainable development. Although these islands are particularly vulnerable to threats like species extinction and sea level rise, how they deal with these challenges could serve as useful examples for the rest of the world. In fact, the U.N. has acknowledged their importance by christening 2014 as the International Year of Small Island Developing States.

So, how did I get here? I was born and raised on this island; all that I love belongs to this land. My interest in conservation lies with the desire to see the environment and development work together to ensure sustainability.

As part of my internship with CI, I am looking into the status of Samoa’s Programme of Works for Protected Areas in hope that these identified areas are managed well for the protection of biodiversity and livelihoods.

Last week, I was given the opportunity to speak at the Youth Forum, one of the events leading up to the conference. This gathering was designed to engage young people in dialogue addressing a number of themes, including climate change, fresh water, biodiversity, education and health.

I was truly humbled and excited by this opportunity — but I was also scared beyond words.

But then I reminded myself: As a youth myself, I am a leader of tomorrow. And as such, I needed to be bold, take chances and speak out — and what better time than at this important global meeting?

At the forum, I presented on the importance of protecting our oceans and biodiversity for small island nations. I also shared how SIDS are most vulnerable to high biodiversity loss, and how we must lead in protecting the vast oceans that we have jurisdiction over. CI Samoa has been doing its part, working with Samoa’s government and communities on conservation efforts since 2005.

For these islands, the value of oceans and their resources to people can never be overestimated. The ocean covers over 70% of the world’s surface; many SIDS are located in the world’s most remote locations, hundreds or even thousands of miles from the nearest continent. With the establishment of 200-mile [322-kilometer] exclusive economic zones, for most islands the ocean-to-land ratio exceeds 30:1; for some it’s 200:1. Small islands could more accurately be called large ocean states.

Marshall Islands (© Andre Seale/Marine Photobank)

Marshall Islands (© Andre Seale/Marine Photobank)

Clearly, SIDS landmasses hold only a small proportion of the resources their people rely on. Oceans are the essence of their livelihoods and, in turn, survival. Specifically, loss of biodiversity — the building blocks of life on Earth — could have serious implications for people. For example, biodiversity loss will have a direct negative impact on food security and quality. This will create many challenges for communities, such as loss in productivity, increased health costs and other damaging consequences.  

If this is not reason enough for young people to take action, then I do not know what is.

I totally share CI’s belief that “humans need nature to thrive” — a concept that was clearly understood among participants at the forum. The 300-plus attendees all seemed eager to discuss the needs of SIDS to sustainably manage our natural resources.

Throughout all the presentations, one thing was clear: The youth want action. And they believe if they set the example, island leaders will pay attention. As one participant put it, if you want your voices heard, it is important to establish credibility at the community level first, and then build up from there.

Although this conference is focusing on the specific challenges these islands face, it will also benefit the world as a whole. SIDS can be seen as “canaries in the coal mine” — the first places across the planet to feel the impacts of global threats like sea level rise, invasive species and freshwater scarcity.

The situations island nations are facing should be a warning sign to the rest of the world of what could come. Yet with proper action and support, SIDS could also become models for sustainable development — examples of how other countries might deal with and overcome similar problems.

As dire as things may seem at times, there is still hope. There is always hope. I saw it in the faces of my peers last week, I heard it in their ideas — and I have no doubt that today’s youth will bring positive change to  the island communities that need it most.

Danita Strickland is an intern with CI Samoa. Her internship is funded by the Conservation Leadership Programme, a partnership of CI, BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International and the Wildlife Conservation Society. 

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