THE SIZE of the problem

Neroni Slade tells Geoffrey Lean how the very smallness of island states puts them at the mercy of threats, from hurricanes and global warming to the storms of the world economy

If Neroni Slade had a motto on his desk at the small Samoan Mission to the United Nations it might read ‘No Retreat’. For the phrase both sums up the predicament of the world’s small island developing states (SIDS) and his determination, as their main champion, to fight for their survival. He uses the words himself. ‘For us there can be no retreat in the face of sea-level rise, no retreat from hurricanes and severe storms. There is nowhere else for us to go. It’s the same story for our biodiversity; there is no way it can retreat from the threats it faces.’

The tall, quietly-spoken Ambassador Slade is expressing the particular vulnerability of SIDS. Few can do so with more authority. For the past two years he has been their chief international representative as Chairman of the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS), arguing their case around the world – on the slenderest of resources – in international negotiations and expert conferences.

AOSIS brings together islands from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, turning widely scattered nations with little individual bargaining power into a negotiating block.

‘SIDS are developing countries and face exactly the range of problems that confront other developing nations,’ says the Ambassador, who also represents the Pacific Islands constituency on the Executive Council of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). ‘But these are often accentuated by the characteristics of small island states.’

No support system
‘Their smallness means that they are without the blessing of natural resources. They lack the continental blanket that gives a nation natural support in terms of the scattering of disastrous events like hurricanes.

‘They also are without the adequate support of a diverse and numerous population. So there is a problem in preparing the human resources needed to serve a fast evolving society. It is not easy for our communities to keep up with the rest of the world in handling new concepts and technologies and in tackling the pressures of economic competition.’

The isolation of mid-oceanic islands puts them off normal shipping routes. Ships and aircraft call ‘at the convenience of their owners’ and ‘there is no check or control on the costs’, so that the islanders pay more for their imports and get less for their exports.

Most islands, he adds, ‘have to concentrate on a very limited range of exportable items, such as sugar, sugar cane, bananas and maybe fish’. These are prey to the fluctuations of the world economy, including price collapses.

Tourism has offered ‘an obvious alternative economic opportunity, and in some regions, like the Caribbean, it has become a dominant industry. It’s a natural activity of profit and development for countries that have little choice. But it is essentially an invasive activity.’

He cites tourism’s effects on the customs of highly traditional societies, the excessive pressure it can put on foreshores, the wastes it generates, and the pressure all those showers and swimming pools put on scarce freshwater supplies. ‘So there needs to be a balance and the individual countries concerned must be the major voice in determining it.’

Aiming high
Despite all this, many SIDS – including Barbados, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Seychelles and Mauritius – score highly on the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index, which measures the benefit development has on their peoples, through, for example, promoting health and education.

‘There is a much more developed sense of welfare interest and involvement in many SIDS, and a high sense of communality,’ he explains. ‘In terms of health, literacy and education, the effects are clear enough.’

No issue takes more of Ambassador Slade’s time than global warming. He became Chairman of AOSIS in 1997, the year of the agreement of the Kyoto Protocol on controlling greenhouse gases, and is widely credited, along with a number of senior AOSIS colleagues, with making SIDS an important force in the negotiations. A lawyer by training – he was Attorney General of his country and then spent ten years on international legal issues at the Commonwealth Secretariat before becoming Samoa’s Ambassador to the United Nations in 1993 – he used his legal skills and talent for building consensus to take SIDS to the heart of the process.

He still concentrates largely on climate change – together with the Biodiversity Convention – and on his role on the board of the GEF, continuing to ensure that the SIDS’ voice is heard loudly. And he achieves this with few resources: he has only a small, two-person mission with which to both chair AOSIS and represent Samoa at the United Nations.

‘Climate change is real,’ he says. ‘We know this from what is happening to our islands, whether through excessive rainfall or drought or through the destructive forces of increasingly frequent hurricanes and storms. The effects strike directly and deeply into the heart of our development efforts. For small island states, the effect of a hurricane can be total.

‘But sea-level rise is profoundly the most dangerous effect of climate change. In my part of the world the sea has already claimed historical areas and burial sites in a number of countries – Kiribati, Niue and Micronesia. And in several states freshwater supplies have been significantly affected by seawater and the rising tides.’

In Tuvalu, for example, he says saltwater from the rising seas has so polluted groundwater reserves that the country now has to rely on the rain for drinking water. In some islands of the Maldives the water is already seriously brackish, and contamination is also occurring in the Bahamas and other low-lying areas in the Caribbean.
It cannot be too late, and we cannot lose hope...

‘The problem is very urgent. Well before any of these islands are overwhelmed by the seas, communities would need to abandon their lands because of the lack of freshwater. And when populations are forced to move, it is also the demise of cultural links and the societal environment.’

Building seawalls, he points out, would be far too costly to protect whole nations. Instead SIDS should adapt to the rising seas by reconstituting their natural defences weakened through misuse. ‘We need to save or resuscitate the coral reefs, and resurrect or replant protective natural vegetation like mangroves. It’s a massive task, but we need to take the first step. Some of these activities can be undertaken by island states themselves, but some will obviously need financial support from our development partners.’

More important still, industrialized countries have to make far greater cuts in the emission of greenhouse gases than they have so far promised under the Kyoto Protocol. ‘The overall Kyoto target of some 5.2 per cent in cuts in greenhouse gas emissions is quite insufficient measured against what the scientific community tells us must be done: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change has referred to the need for cuts of as much as 60 per cent if not more, if there is any hope of stabilizing the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere by the end of the new century.’

Equity and justice
‘We make no apology for the fact that we are driven by our fears and concerns for the safety and survival of our islands and communities. However, we believe very deeply that there is a fundamental question of equity and justice at stake. This is an issue not of our making. Yet we are the first and the most severely at risk.’

Is it already too late? ‘It cannot be too late, and we cannot lose hope. Survival is the strongest human instinct. Remember also that this is a global long-term problem, not just a small islands issue. While islands are the first, others will be visited, perhaps with even more severe consequences, especially for the larger more populous developing countries. By their combined power humans have altered, and continue to alter the global environment. It is critically urgent that we find the will to tend to its health.’

H.E. Tuiloma Neroni Slade is Ambassador of Samoa to the United States of America and Permanent Representative at the United Nations.

Carlos Guarita/Reportage/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Editorial M. T. El-Ashry | Let action... |The size of the problem | Looking good... | Vanishing islands | Whispers and waste | At a glance | Competition | Preserving paradise | Coral grief | ...biodiversity and beauty | Grassroots | GEF - helping small islands | Making a difference | UNEP - new books | Small is vulnerable | Measuring vulnerability | Exporting solutions | New friends in...

Complementary articles in other issues:
Terry Donald Coe: Small is dutiful (Climate & Action) 1998
Maumoon Abdul Gayoom: Averting catastrophe (Oceans) 1998
Neroni Slade: Scaffolding or scaffold? (Climate Change) 1997
Vaasiliifiti Moelagi Jackson: Water is everything (Water) 1996