SPECIAL REPORT: By Sri Krishnamurthi of Pacific Media Watch
In this new covid-19 world, environmental and climate crisis defenders are developing new ways to cope and operate under the pandemic constraints.
Groups as diverse as the local branch of the global environmental campaigner Greenpeace Pacific, Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Green Party in French Polynesia and Greenpeace New Zealand have found solutions.
They have followed in the traditions of the Fiji-based Pacific Climate Warriors – part of the global 350 movement – who have drawn attention to environment and climate crisis issues with colourful and dramatic protests.
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Climate Warriors coined the phrase: “We are not drowning, we are fighting.”
The Pacific faces mounting climate change issues, environmental degradation, rapidly rising sea-levels, massive king tides with the salty sea affecting arable land, coral acidification, pollution and – just to make matters worse – wildlife poaching as the plundering of the region’s fisheries goes unabated.
“Climate change could produce 8 million refugees in the Pacific Islands alone, along with 75 million in the Asia-Pacific region within the next four decades [has] warned a report by aid agency Oxfam Australia,” wrote the Pacific Media Centre’s director Professor David Robie in Dreadlocks a decade ago signalling the dire need even then for environmental defenders to pick up the pace.
Greenpeace head of Pacific Auimatagi Joseph Sapati Moeono-Kolio realises that need and is thankful that most parts of Pacific are being largely spared from the covid-19 pandemic that has raged across the world, leaving his organisation free to pursue its green goals.
“Fortunately, many island nations in the Pacific are free of covid-19. As a result, Pacific climate leaders are able to continue our moral and ethical fight for climate justice,” says the Samoan climate change campaigner.
“We are doing so by leading the world in transitioning to renewable energy – in fact Samoa is on track for 100 percent renewables by 2025.
“So, while covid-19 has slowed several things down, the transition to renewables, as an important pillar of climate action, has stepped up.”
Climate change on back burner
The pandemic has forced leading climate change advocates of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who was president of the 2017 Conference of the Parties COP23 to push the issue onto the back burner.
Pacific Island climate frontline states such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau and Marshall Islands along with Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea (Carteret Islands) and the Federated States of Micronesia require a champion for their cause. However, the pandemic has put paid to that, as Auimatagi points out.
“Because of covid-19 our global advocacy moments to elevate the voices of Pacific leaders demanding climate action are limited,” says Auimatagi.
“We are also working on a documentary called Finding Hope: Samoa, where we will meet with people from all walks of life and share their truth of what is happening in their villages as oceans rise and warm.
“With covid-19 and climate change combined, we are seeing dual impacts such as in Vanuatu during the most recent cyclone – Harold in April 2020.
“Communities and families were all social distancing and then the cyclone hit so they needed to decide whether to stay apart at home or take shelter in emergency refuge centres,” he says.
From that occurrence emerges the real and immediate threat of making climate change of secondary importance despite an increase in adverse climate events.
Working hard for the Pacific
“Pacific communities are among the first to feel the full impacts of climate change, and there is a threat that while the world is focused on covid-19, that climate action takes a back seat,” says Nick Young of Greenpeace New Zealand.
“Greenpeace internationally is working hard to make sure that isn’t the case.
“The covid-19 recovery also offers a unique opportunity in this regard as billions are spent to stimulate economies around the world and Greenpeace in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world is pushing for a Green Covid-19 Recovery that invests in climate resilience.”
Greenpeace initiatives and campaigns as environmental defenders are still continuing, albeit at a slower pace than usual.
“All of the core Greenpeace campaigns around transforming agriculture and energy, protecting the oceans and shifting away from single-use plastics remain active,” Young says.
However, it is more than the pollution that is a concern with the ocean. Auimatagi talks about this.
Ocean poaching problem
“Ocean poaching is ongoing, carried out by the Chinese and Japanese flagged vessels. While Samoa has one of the smallest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), places like Micronesia and Kiribati are much harder to enforce as they have much larger EEZs.”
As Jacky Bryant, president of the Green Party in French Polynesia points out: “The 5 million km/2 of the EEZ (Exclusive and Economic Zone) are open to all kinds of abuse by foreign ships and is under surveillance by only one ship belonging to the French state.
“From time to time we have a fishing vessel that gets stranded on the reef carrying tonnes of fish, some legal, some illegal.”
Last month, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA) continued its coordination and commitment to regional fisheries surveillance operation.
The 17-nation organisation is based in Honiara, Solomon Islands and its members comprise: Australia, Cook Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
The FFA is charged with protecting Pacific fisheries from poaching among other cooperative activities.
It has recently completed its “Operation Island Chief” (August 24-September 4), conducting surveillance over the EEZs of Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu this year.
Challenging pandemic times
FFA’s Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen says: “During these challenging times with the focus of the world on the pandemic, we welcome the commitment and cooperation demonstrated across the region to deter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in our waters.”
That concerns Greenpeace as well. Young says: “Illegal and unregulated fishing is still an issue in many places, and certainly in the Pacific.
“It threatens ocean life as well as the resilience of Pacific communities who rely on the oceans for their food and way of life.”
The FFA Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre (RFSC) team, supported by three officers from the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), had an increased focus on intelligence gathering and analysis, providing targeted information before and during the operation in order to support surveillance activities by member countries,” the FFA said in a statement.
Aerial surveillance of the nations of the EEZ was provided by New Zealand, Australia, USA and France, assisting the fragile small island developing states in protecting them from poaching or overfishing.
In addition to that the cooperation goes as far as working together to prevent covid-19 from being transmitted in the fisheries operations allowing them to continue contributing Pacific Island economies.
“It is crucial for fisheries to continue operating at this time, providing much-needed income to support the economic recovery as well as to enhance contribution to the food security of our people,” says Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen.
Pollution and climate change still major
Greenpeace Pacific’s Auimatagi says that other than poaching, pollution and climate change remain major issues in the Pacific.
“While marine wildlife poaching is, of course, a big issue, the biggest polluter is one of our nearest neighbours. Australia digs up, burns and exports climate destruction to the whole world in the form of coal.
“Climate change is the number one issue on all fronts, including the environment as it is a threat multiplier. The impacts of climate change such as rising sea levels and warming oceans make the impacts of cyclones and ocean wildlife poaching more severe and more difficult to manage.”
Not so in Tahiti as Bryant explains, where covid-19 has taken hold on that part of the Pacific paradise.
Covid-19 cases in French Polynesia (population 280,000) have now reached more than 2700 cases – including territorial President Edouard Fritch and 10 deaths, and Bryant say this crisis has pushed climate change and environmental issues into a secondary status.
“Attacks to our natural environment such as the exploitation of the biodiversity, our cars’ carbon emissions (Papeete has 120,000 cars but luckily, we are an island with regular easterlies) are of governmental responsibilities,” says Bryant.
“There is no clear scrutiny of the climatic effects on the town planning code for example; no compulsory measures for double glazing; using solar panels is not mandatory and the same for photovoltaic, not even for experimental purposes on
an urban area.
No environmental friendly designing
“There are no projects towards designing more environmentally friendly interisland means of transport in order to anticipate any energy crisis with petrol, for example. We carry on training our youth for the combustion engine,” he adds.
While Bryant laments the lack of action in Tahiti, the Greenpeace organisation remains committed to making a better, environmentally safer world.
“We have pushed for a green covid-19 recovery that puts people and nature first, and we are calling for the replacement of current industrial agriculture system with regenerative farming methods – where we farm in harmony with nature and don’t use synthetic nitrogen fertiliser,” says Young.
“Regenerative farming involves growing a large diversity of crops, plants and animals. Synthetic inputs like nitrogen fertiliser are replaced with practices that mimic natural systems to access nutrients, water and pest control required for growth.
“Replace unnecessary single-use products like plastic drink bottles with reusable and refillable options, including glass. Plastic bags, and bottles are just the tip of the iceberg,
“All of the core Greenpeace campaigns around transforming agriculture and energy, protecting the oceans and shifting away from single-use plastics remain active,” he says.
The last word on the issue comes from the Samoan who has been a strong activist for a greener world, Auimatagi Moeono-Kolio.
“When it comes to the environment, Pacific Islanders are always vigilant no matter what is happening in the outside world: It’s a question of means and resources and geopolitics, it’s a very complicated web.”
This is the fifth in a series of articles by the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch as part of an environmental project funded by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) Asia-Pacific initiative.