Look to Small Islands for Inspiration in Protecting Oceans and in the Fight for a Safe Climate

Look to Small Islands for Inspiration in Protecting Oceans and in the Fight for a Safe Climate

In late October 2013, I attended the Third International Marine Protected Areas Congress in Marseille, France.  Check out my earlier blog post about an innovative way that island leaders exchanged knowledge during the conference.

At the Third International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC3), I had the opportunity to observe an inspiring island leader in action.  His Excellency Ambassador Ronald Jumeau from Seychelles spoke boldly at the conference about the central role of islands in marine protection.

I first met Ambassador Jumeau in New Haven before IMPAC3, when he visited our Yale F&ES International Organizations and Conferences class. He explained that he came to New York in 2007 as permanent representative of Seychelles to the UN.  As head of the Seychelles delegation at UN climate negotiations, Ambassador Jumeau has often led the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) in urging the developed world’s leaders to adopt an ambitious, legally binding agreement for limiting their greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change. Although small island states like the Seychelles are limited in human and financial resources, their role in the negotiations has been powerful, and their negotiators have come to be highly respected as some of the best in the world.

When Ambassador Jumeau’s term as permanent representative to the UN was up, Seychelles President James Michel, recognizing his significant role in advocating on behalf of islands, decided to create a special post for a New York-based roving Ambassador for Climate Change and Small Island Developing States.

Ambassador Jumeau admits that he has not always been so outspoken.  He used to write because he lacked confidence in his ability to speak. He was the editor of Seychelles’ daily newspaper and served positions in government ministries and the Cabinet of the President, always playing a behind-the-scenes role.  It wasn’t until later in life that he realized his ability to promote action through speaking.

His motivation to tirelessly speak out comes from a deep concern for the future of his home country, an island archipelago in the Indian Ocean. “Small Island Developing States don’t have anywhere to run to,” Ambassador Jumeau told our class while visiting Yale F&ES.

Seychelles contains some of the oldest islands in the world, some of which rise to 900 feet in elevation.  Although it may seem that higher islands like the Seychelles are not as urgently threatened as low-lying islands by climate change and sea-level rise, Ambassador Jumeau explains that Seychelles’ economy, like most small island states, depends on the ocean. Tourism and fisheries underpin the economy and support most local jobs. If the coastal plains are flooded, coral reefs die off, fisheries collapse, and beaches are submerged, it would spell an end to their livelihoods. Coastal erosion, exacerbated by sea-level rise, has already taken a toll on the islands.  “We’ve been dumping granite boulders on our sand beaches to prevent them from being swept away. That’s not exactly the reason tourists come to Seychelles. They come to see beaches with white sand, not beaches strewn with boulders,” said Ambassador Jumeau in a 2010 interview with NPR.

The Seychelles and other small islands are taking bold steps to protect their ocean ecosystems, in hopes of making them more resilient to the impacts of climate change. Using the positive example of his home country, which has pledged to protect 30% of its marine waters and designate 15% a “no-take” zone, Ambassador Jumeau set high expectations for his peers at IMPAC3.

At an evening event showcasing island work in marine protection, he gave a call to action in a rousing speech.  Asserting that islands should be at the center of efforts to protect marine areas, he said,  “For islands and coastal states, oceans are a development issue. Protecting the environment is part of the solution. For islands, oceans are our backyards, they are our homes and we must all protect them because they provide for all of us.”

We had to part with Ambassador Jumeau at the end of the week when he departed for the high-level IMPAC3 meeting on Corsica.  However, we heard that his leadership continued over the two-day ministerial conference, as he worked with other government representatives from the Western Indian Ocean region on plans for a regional agreement that would address climate change impacts through enhancing ecosystem-based adaptation and sustainable development.

Listening to Ambassador Jumeau and his colleagues at IMPAC3, it was clear where large-scale commitments to protect marine areas and preserve cultural traditions could be found: islands.  Similar bold words and actions have raised the profile of islands, threatened to be sidelined in international climate change negotiations, and have kept expectations high for an international agreement to mitigate climate change.