Finding the Spirit
For Rio+20, I have the privilege of being a member of the delegation of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands, though considered a small island State in global terms, is really a ‘large ocean’ nation: its total land coverage of 181 km2 is far outstripped by a staggering EEZ of over 2,000,000 km2. Its atolls sit approximately two meters above water, making it one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise. The Marshall Islands’ waters are also home to one of the few remaining sustainable tuna stocks in the world. As such, sustainable development and the ‘blue economy’ are of utmost importance for this state.
As Rio+20 is expected to be a less than ambitious outcome, the Marshall Islands has decided not to wait for the contentious and political process to conclude, and instead has decided to lead by example and to move forward with sustainable development principles and practices. As a Party to the Nauru Agreement (PNA)—an intergovernmental agreement for the cooperative management of tuna stocks in the south pacific— the Marshall lslands, with all PNA members, has implemented voluntary measures including high seas fishing closures, the world’s only seasonal ban on fish aggregation devices, and a vessel day scheme to cap fishing effort. Through these measures, they have received sustainability certification from the Marine Stewardship Council for the tuna industry, and are launching a sustainable tuna brand called Pacifical. Additionally, they are participating in the Micronesia Challenge—a regional intergovernmental program to protect 20% of forested areas and 30% of coastal marine areas for conservation by 2020.
The Marshall Islands is also exploring the possibility of ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) technology in their waters. Although the technology is likely still some years away, it holds the potential to eliminate the islands’ dependence on imported fossil fuels while simultaneously enabling them to become source for renewable energy through the production of hydrogen.
The Marshall Islands are not alone in this effort; other small islands states are taking the initiative. Seychelles has protected 50% of its land territory from development and is looking to start a regional West Indian Ocean Challenge. This effort would be similar to the existing Micronesia Challenge.
With the closure of a particularly weak outcome document, many have suggested that the vigor and committed spirit that was present in Rio 1992 is simply missing. But where lengthy and time consuming negotiations have failed, small island countries are leading by example. Therefore, it seems that the Rio+20 spirit is not gone, but is still thriving through the initiative of individual countries, such as the Marshall Islands and Seychelles.