An Island Vibe at the World Parks Congress

At any conference, it’s always good to break up the daily routine of PowerPoints and panels with a bit of color, a bit of fun. After all, networking is one of the main goals of events like this week’s World Parks Congress (WPC), and many important connections have been made over drinks or meals intermixed within the usual conference schedule. Leading the way in this respect during the WPC has clearly been the WIN Pacific Pavilion, which is a collaboration between a number of Pacific organizations, including IUCN Oceania, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environmental Program (SPREP), and ­­­­­the World Indigenous Network (WIN).

This pavilion, set in the middle of the congress’ main hall, has been described as the heart of the congress. Regularly you can pass by and listen to islanders playing music on traditional instruments, check out the handcrafted artwork, or stop to drink a bowl of freshly made kava, a traditional drink of Oceania. Maybe it’s just the island style, but even the presentations given here have a much more down to earth, grounded feel to them. Local villagers have been invited to speak about their experiences alongside political leaders such as Prime Minister Henry Pauna of the Cook Islands and President Tommy Rememgesau of Palau, who pleased the crowd by dancing hula-style as he left the stage to the beat laid down by the pavilion’s in-house band.

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The band has really livened things up around here, playing well into the night after the speeches have ended. Our own Kate Heller always seems to play a key role in starting the dance party after a few servings of kava.

Many of the delegates in the Pacific Pavilion arrived in true style, sailing into Sydney harbor on traditional Polynesian canoes, called Vakas, stopping here as part of a trip around the world to raise awareness for island issues. My classmate Clara Rowe wrote a great post (http://environment.yale.edu/blog/2014/11/our-people-our-ocean-our-climate-a-call-to-action/) about their arrival and the ceremonies that followed, and I’d like to add a few of my thoughts about what was one of the week’s special moments.

It was an odd setting to see traditional pacific canoes and dances, in the middle of Sydney’s Darling Harbor, skyscrapers with the names of banks forming a backdrop. Nonetheless, the heartfelt nature of the event shone through as many in the crowd that gathered to greet the Vakas were touched by the authenticity of the ceremony. The arriving islanders danced and chanted on their boats as they docked and were mirrored by a colorful welcoming committee on the land.

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What stood out most to me was the striking juxtaposition of the four humble Vakas next to the massive warships that were parked alongside. The event was held at the Australian National Maritime Museum, and thus there were military boats with guns pointing in all directions on display next to where the Vakas docked.

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As the islanders in the Vakas sang, danced, and gave offerings to the Aboriginals for permission to come on the land, I couldn’t help but think of how differently the warships would have annouced their arrival. Every government speech at the conference has began by thanking the indigenous people for “allowing” us to use their land, but “we” certainly didn’t have the courtesy to ask in the beautifuål manner that the pacific islander’s did after they sailed across the seas on their Vakas.

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