Delivered by Dame Meg Taylor
Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum
17 September 2020
Professor Pal Ahluwahlia, Vice Chancellor of the University of the South Pacific
The Reverend Dr Uplou Luma Vaai, Principal of the Pacific Theological College
The faculty and students of the USP and the PTC
Ladies and gentlemen
I am pleased to be here this evening, at the invitation of the Pacific Theological College, to launch three very timely and thought-provoking publications:
At the outset, allow me to acknowledge and commend the Reweaving the Ecological Mat Project for convening a valuable multi-stakeholder platform to thoroughly discuss alternative development paradigms that better align with our region’s rich indigenous, ecological and spiritual values. The three publications are a timely contribution to the development discourse in our Blue Pacific Continent.
They offer a new development paradigm which places the interests of our heritage, our culture and our people at the heart of our development. I will briefly reflect on this and where we are at today, in terms of regionalism and collective action in the Pacific region.
We live in unprecedented times and our region faces a three-pronged crisis: the COVID-19 health pandemic, which in turn has triggered an economic crisis and thirdly, the ongoing climate crisis which continues to bear down on our people on a daily basis.
Indeed, crisis’ such as these call into question the circumstances of our reality today and what the future may be for our people, our place and our prospects in our Blue Pacific Continent. What is the future of our Blue Pacific region? To reflect on this question, let me cast back a little.
In 2017, Forum Leaders endorsed the Blue Pacific narrative as the core driver for collective action, in support of their vision for a region of peace, harmony and prosperity.
The concept of The Blue Pacific is of course not new. Pacific voyagers have navigated their way across the Pacific Ocean for a thousand years before their European counterparts began to venture into it, and well before political and economic boundaries were drawn and established.
To recall the words of Prime Minister Malielegaoi in 2017, “the Pacific Ocean has provided our island communities their cultural and historical identity and attachment since time immemorial. It has been the major influence in the history of Pacific Island communities. Throughout the region, customary association with the sea forms the basis of present-day social structures, livelihoods and tenure systems and traditional systems of stewardship governing its use.” Building on this notion, exercising a sense of common identity and purpose linked to the ocean, has been critical for protecting and promoting the potential of our shared Pacific Ocean.
This commonality is the fundamental essence of our region and consequently our Pacific Ocean has become a powerful catalyst and framing for Pacific regionalism. As aptly recognised in the opening words of the Framework for Pacific Regionalism, “Pacific peoples are the custodians of the world’s largest, most peaceful and abundant ocean, its many islands and its rich diversity of cultures”. Building on this, the Blue Pacific identity harnesses the ocean as a driver of a transformative change in the Pacific’s socio-cultural, political and economic development.
Despite the chaos that has emerged as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, an opportunity has presented itself – the opportunity to rethink our development strategy and chart a new course.
‘Reweaving the Ecological Mat Framework’ and ‘Ecological Economic Accounts -Towards Intemerate Values’ presents an alternative narrative that challenges the age-old position that all that exists is simply to serve human civilisation. It reaffirms the need to consider the full cost of ‘development’ beyond its contributions to the Gross Domestic Product of individual States – that is, the importance of considering its costs on our cultural values, social wellbeing and preservation of our natural environment.
The two publications contend that we need to move away from this and re-balance our narrative by infusing it with our Pacific consciousness and its inextricable link to our environment and cultural norms. This will allow us to embrace fit-for purpose economies that are scaled to our needs, sustaining communities and strengthening resilience through our traditional roles as stewards and custodians of our natural surroundings.
I am intrigued by the notion and possibility of not only exploring an alternative development pathway but adopting an ecological approach towards accounting for development. Indeed, this approach could eventually reorient our economic trajectory away from an over-reliance on foreign aid and financing which, in my view, has been a negative force for our island economies.
Ladies and gentlemen, regionalism is fundamentally about working together where it matters most. In reflecting on the publications today, perhaps one could offer that for our Blue Pacific Continent, the ecological biodiversity of our shared ocean space is where it matters most?
The ecology of our vast ocean, forests and natural environment underpins our wellbeing as Pacific peoples. Our cultural wellbeing is inseparable from our ocean ecology. Our food security is dependent on it. Our economies are driven by it, whether that be in the form of tuna fisheries, tourism, ecosystems or biodiversity. Therefore, if I were to reflect again on my initial question What is the future of our Blue Pacific region? Perhaps, an answer on the viability of our Oceanic future, could lie in the protection of and accounting for our shared ecological biodiversity.
An important first step to the protection or and accounting for our shared ecological biodiversity, is the securing of our maritime zones. To this end, I have had the distinct pleasure of joining the region in a collective discussion over the last week, to strategise the steps towards developing international law that would ensure that Members maritime zones are set in perpetuity and cannot be challenged or reduced as a result of sea-level rise and climate change. This journey is not a short one and will take years to crystallise and progress, however, collective and consistent advocacy will remain key to its success.
The publication ‘From the Deep: Pasifiki Voices for a New Story’ presented a collection of reflections on how the region can rise from the opportunity of this pandemic. For me, personally, it has prompted me to examine my own conscience about what appropriate development paths are as a region. The visions of the various contributors demonstrate the richness of our Pacific – in terms of our belief systems, our cultural context and the life experiences and stories we all have – which are similar yet diverse. In reflecting upon the diverse essays captured in that publication, the thought did occur to me on whether returning to the cultural norms of the past would satisfy our youth? Would it satisfy our women folk?
Yes, the collective impact of COVID-19 has reawakened our senses. We have been forced to explore and utilise alternative methods and modalities to progress our work and convene our stakeholders. Consequently, it is clear that we cannot and will not be returning to business as usual, post-COVID 19 – there will be fundamental shifts in development relations which will underpin the recovery of our economies moving forward. We must seize the opportunity to place the health and wellbeing of our peoples and environment at the center of our recovery and development plans moving forward.
In parallel, we must remain aware and alert to the geostrategic and geopolitical shifts that continue to evolve rapidly around us. A pertinent question that I continue to ask is: how can we maintain our own sovereign and strategic autonomy in the face of ongoing global power struggles? Most especially at a time such as this, when we increasingly witness bilateral engagements over multilateral ones, much of it pursuing strategic interests – this is the biggest challenge to the collective and we should pay great attention to this.
It would seem wise to leverage competing actors against each other in order to seek the funding and infrastructure that individual states need, however, I would offer that it would be a grave oversight if we did not recognise the unprecedented opportunity the current historical moment provides for us to work together collectively and continue to emphasise the solidarity of the Blue Pacific Continent that is required.
At a more operational level in the region, the Pacific Islands Forum invoked the Biketawa Declaration to establish the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19 which has supported the movement of medical supplies, technical assistance and personnel across the Forum Member States.
Indeed, the many challenges and contestations within our region propelled Leaders collective recognition of the long-term and strategic potential for establishing an instrumental political bloc and a viable Blue Pacific Continent. It was against this backdrop that Forum Leaders endorsed the development of a 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent at their meeting in Tuvalu last year.
Securing the future of our Blue Pacific cannot be left to chance. It requires a long-term vision for our Pacific region and the will to work together to achieve it. Our strategic value lies with our peoples, our place in this great ocean continent and our prospects now and for the future.
In framing the 2050 Strategy, Leaders agreed that it must ensure social, cultural, environmental and economic integrity, sovereignty and security across our Blue Pacific Continent. It should promote inclusivity and equality, ensuring that the voices of women and youth are heard.
The innovative thinking and visioning espoused in the publications being launched today provoke much thought and at a timely juncture in this region’s journey. I hope that the work(s) launched today will breathe life into our communities and shape their thinking now and into the future. A lot of us may not be here in 2050, however, as our region contemplates its future direction it is vital now, more than ever that we as custodians of the Blue Pacific are thinking about our shared future – we are shaping the narrative – we are framing our region according to how we view ourselves and not through the lens or political constructs of others.
Before I conclude, may I once again offer my warmest congratulations to the authors, editors and contributors of the three publications being launched today. I hope that your vision does not end here, and you continue to offer that thought-provoking vision and ideology to continue to prompt our policy makers and political leaders in our region.
On that note, perhaps this is also an apt opportunity to offer one of my many take-aways from my tenure as Secretary General of the Pacific Islands Forum. As you are all aware, inclusivity in regional policy development and priority setting has been a key issue that I have sought to drive during my tenure. Whilst we have come a long way in this area, we still have a way to go to ensure that these dialogue mechanisms are not only embedded in the regional architecture, but also contribute meaningfully to the Leaders discussion. These publications are a testament to the valuable and differentiated perspective that non-state actors can offer the regional policy development process and I encourage you to continue doing so.
In saying that, I also fully recognise and reaffirm that at the end of the day, the fundamental importance to our Leaders vision for a Blue Pacific Continent is the solidarity of the members of the Blue Pacific. We are all stewards of the Blue Pacific. We are all accountable to those who came before us, and those who will come after.
To turn once again to Epeli Hau’ofa’s words: We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth.
I thank you.