IN the clamour of nations frantically vying to make their voice heard at the gargantuan Rio+20 Earth Summit, it’s almost certain the Pacific will remain a drop in the ocean.
Yet a small group of Pacific women consider the environmental issues in the region so critical that they have made the long trip to Brazil to represent the Liquid Continent regardless.
The 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development, held 20 years after the seminal original Rio Earth Summit in 1992, opened today and is billed as “an unprecedented opportunity to build the future we want”.
‘The future’, as we know from Copenhagen, is hammered out in summit deals palatable to the power-broker nations, while the voices of small island nations on the frontline of multiple environmental crises get swallowed in the feeding frenzy.
But that hasn’t stopped Maureen Penjeuli, Noelene Nabulivou and Rosa Koian from trying.
Representing civil society organisations (CSOs) from Fiji and Papua New Guinea, these women have been campaigning hard inside and outside summit conference rooms to make the Pacific an issue.
“We wanted to put the Pacific at the centre of the debate,” Koian, a coordinator at PNG CSO Bismarck Ramu Group, said. “The Pacific sometimes gets forgotten, but the reality is our region is at the forefront of some of the most pressing environmental issues in the world right now.”
Indeed, while the myriad Rio speeches and press conferences take place, the Pacific’s unique ecologies are fighting urgent challenges.
The region is home to some of the most pristine and biodiverse flora and fauna in the world, but an influx of foreign extractive industry activity threatens these. In PNG, 10% of customary land has been stolen or leased for commercial purposes – often without landowner consent – almost overnight.
This landgrab is also robbing livelihoods in other Pacific nations at a pace that could destroy not only the environment, but thousands of years of diverse traditional cultures and lifestyles, within a generation.
“We have to go back to the roots of poverty – where did that come from?” Koian said. “If we look at how masses are now left in such a poor state, it’s because they’re landless. If we compare these landless people to Papua New Guineans, most of whom still own their customary land, we can safely say those people who have land are more free than those who do not.
“So if we want to achieve a level of poverty reduction, we have to return a lot of the stolen land to indigenous people.”
The Pacific’s environmental battleground is not just being fought on land. Even the seas are being targeted for exploitation, as predatory mining companies seek to make the region a guinea pig for Experimental Seabed Mining (ESM). The Pacific delegation has been hitting the streets to bring the ESM protest to global attention, spearheaded by Penjueli from Fiji’s Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG) and Noelene Nabulivou, a Pacific representative in the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) global network.
“Our message to our governments remains strong – we the people reject experimental seabed mining in the Pacific,” Penjueli said. “What is needed in Rio is a strategic refusal by small island states and allies to participate in this false development course”.
The Cook Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Marshall Islands, Fiji and Kiribati are all targeted for ESM. Canada’s Nautilus Minerals wants to start shipping copper from the seafloor off the coast of PNG by 2013.
“In allowing essential ecosystems to be mined, we are part of a global industrialization process that views the environment as a means to profit, with environmental degradation, social exploitation, biodiversity loss, and violence as its consequence,” Penjueli said.
Koian admits she feels like a small fish in a big ocean. But that’s just the point, she said.
“As the Pacific, we have our problems, we have our strengths, we have our weaknesses, we have our ways,” she said.
“Together we’re going to ask world governments, if they are really serious about sustainable development, they have to re-think a development model that best fits all the different groups that exist in this planet. Because we cannot talk about a one-size fits all model.”