How Pacific environmental defenders are coping with the Covid-19 pandemic


School Strike 4 Climate via Flickr

Pacific Climate Warriors speak during a climate event in September 2019.

In the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, environmental and climate crisis defenders are developing new ways to cope and operate under pandemic constraints.

Groups such as the Pacific branch of the global environmental campaigner Greenpeace, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), the Green Party in French Polynesia and Greenpeace New Zealand now hold planning meetings over the online video platform Zoom and ensure that members are following safety protocols when out working in the field.

The Fiji-based Pacific Climate Warriors – part of the global 350 movement – has continued to draw attention to environment and climate crisis issues with colourful and dramatic protests.

Their fight comes as the Pacific faces mounting climate change issues, environmental degradation, rapidly rising sea-levels, massive king tides that increase salinity in arable land, coral acidification, pollution and – just to make matters worse – poaching as the plundering of the region’s fisheries goes unabated.

A decade ago Professor David Robie cited a report by the aid agency Oxfam Australia which warned that, “climate change could produce 8 million refugees in the Pacific Islands alone, along with 75 million in the Asia-Pacific region within the next four decades.” It was a signal even then about the dire need for environmental defenders to pick up the pace.

Greenpeace Pacific head Auimatagi Joseph Sapati Moeono-Kolio realises that need and is thankful that most parts of the Pacific have been largely spared from the Covid-19 pandemic, leaving his organisation free to pursue its green goals.

“Fortunately, many island nations in the Pacific are free of Covid-19,” he said. “As a result, Pacific climate leaders are able to continue our moral and ethical fight for climate justice.”

One way they are doing so, Auimatagi said, is by continuing to transition to renewable energy. In fact, Samoa where he is based, is on track to source 100 percent of its energy from renewables by 2025. New Zealand and the Federated States of Micronesia are also working to ban single-use plastic bags.

“So, while Covid-19 has slowed several things down, the transition to renewables, as an important pillar of climate action, has stepped up.”

Auimatagi Joseph
Greenpeace Pacific’s Auimatagi Joseph Sapati Moeono-Kolio. Image: Greenpeace Pacific

Auimatagi said Greenpeace is also working on a documentary called Finding Hope: Samoa, which will interview people from all walks of life and share the reality of what is happening in their villages as oceans warm and rise.

“With Covid-19 and climate change combined, we are seeing dual impacts [from these crises], such as in Vanuatu during the most recent cyclone  – Harold in April 2020,” Auimatagi said.

“Communities and families were all social distancing and then the cyclone hit so they needed to decide whether to stay apart at home or take shelter in emergency refuge centres.”

From that occurrence emerges the real and immediate threat of making climate change of secondary importance despite an increase in adverse climate events.

Action amid setbacks

While environmental activists have not let the pandemic slow them down, it has forced leading climate change advocates of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), such as Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama, who was president of the 2017 Conference of the Parties COP23, to push the issue onto the back burner.

Pacific states on the frontlines of climate change, such as Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands, along with Fiji, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea (Carteret Islands) and the Federated States of Micronesia, require a champion for their cause. However, the effects of the pandemic have effectively silenced those who would speak out, as Auimatagi explains.

“Because of Covid-19, our global advocacy moments to elevate the voices of Pacific leaders demanding climate action are limited,” he said.

Working hard for the Pacific

Globally, Greenpeace initiatives and environmental defender campaigns are continuing, albeit at a slower pace than usual.

“Pacific communities are among the first to feel the full impacts of climate change, and there is a threat that while the world is focused on Covid-19, that climate action takes a back seat,” said Nick Young of Greenpeace New Zealand.

Nick Young
Greenpeace NZ’s Nick Young. Image: Greenpeace

Internationally, Greenpeace is working hard to make sure that isn’t the case, he noted.

“All of the core Greenpeace campaigns around transforming agriculture and energy, protecting the oceans and shifting away from single-use plastics remain active,” Young said.

“The Covid-19 recovery also offers a unique opportunity in this regard as billions are spent to stimulate economies around the world and Greenpeace in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world is pushing for a Green Covid-19 Recovery that invests in climate resilience,” he added.

Ocean poaching problem

Auimatagi has worries that go beyond pollution and a green recovery when it comes to the oceans.

“Ocean poaching is ongoing, carried out by the Chinese and Japanese flagged vessels. While Samoa has one of the smallest Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), places like Micronesia and Kiribati are much harder to enforce as they have much larger EEZs,” he said.

As Jacky Bryant, president of the Green Party in French Polynesia points out: “The 5 million square kilometers of the EEZ are open to all kinds of abuse by foreign ships and are under surveillance by only one ship belonging to the French state.

“From time to time, we have a fishing vessel that gets stranded on the reef carrying tonnes of fish, some legal, some illegal.”

Last month, the Pacific Islands Forum Fisheries Agency (FFA), an advisory body that helps countries sustainably manage their fishery resources, continued its coordination and commitment to regional fisheries’ surveillance operations.

The 17-nation organisation is based in Honiara, Solomon Islands, and is charged with managing, operating and developing Pacific fisheries; protecting them from poaching through monitoring and surveillance; jointly setting policies for managing and policing each country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and ecosystem planning.

The FFA completed “Operation Island Chief” from August 24 to September 4, which involved conducting surveillance over the EEZs of the Cook Islands, Niue, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.

This year, the FFA Regional Fisheries Surveillance Centre (RFSC) team, supported by three officers from the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF), “had an increased focus on intelligence gathering and analysis, providing targeted information before and during the operation in order to support surveillance activities by member countries,” the FFA said in a statement.

Aerial surveillance of each country’s EEZ was provided by New Zealand, Australia, the US and France, all of which assist the fragile, small-island states in protecting them from poaching or overfishing.

In addition to that, the cooperation goes as far as working together to prevent Covid-19 from being transmitted in the fisheries operations, allowing them to continue contributing to Pacific Island economies.

“It is crucial for fisheries to continue operating at this time, providing much-needed income to support the economic recovery as well as to enhance contribution to the food security of our people,” said FFA’s Director-General Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen.

“During these challenging times with the focus of the world on the pandemic, we welcome the commitment and cooperation demonstrated across the region to deter illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing in our waters,” he noted.

That concerns Greenpeace as well.

“Illegal and unregulated fishing is still an issue in many places, and certainly in the Pacific,” said Young. “It threatens ocean life as well as the resilience of Pacific communities who rely on the oceans for their food and way of life.”

Pollution and climate change still major issues

Greenpeace Pacific’s Auimatagi said that other than poaching, pollution and climate change remain major issues in the Pacific.

“Climate change is the number one issue on all fronts, including the environment, as it is a threat multiplier. The impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels and warming oceans, make the impacts of cyclones and ocean wildlife poaching more severe and more difficult to manage.”

The outlier in the Pacific, both in terms of coronavirus infections and environmental action, may be Tahiti.

Covid-19 cases in French Polynesia (population 280,000) have now reached more than 2700 cases – including territorial President Edouard Fritch, and 10 deaths, and Bryant say this crisis has pushed climate change and environmental issues, which were already not a priority, into secondary status.

Jacky Bryant
Jacky Bryant of Tahiti’s Greens. Image: Heiura Les Verts

“There is no clear scrutiny of the climatic effects on the town planning code for example; no compulsory measures for double glazing; using solar panels is not mandatory and the same for photovoltaic, not even for experimental purposes on an urban area,” said Bryant.

“There are no projects towards designing more environmentally friendly interisland means of transport in order to anticipate any energy crisis with petrol, for example. We carry on training our youth for the combustion engine,” he added.

While Bryant lamented the lack of action in Tahiti, Young said Greenpeace remains committed to making a better, environmentally safer world.

“We have pushed for a green Covid-19 recovery that puts people and nature first, and we are calling for the replacement of the current industrial agriculture system with regenerative farming methods – where we farm in harmony with nature and don’t use synthetic nitrogen fertiliser,” Young said.

“Regenerative farming involves growing a large diversity of crops, plants and animals. Synthetic inputs like nitrogen fertiliser are replaced with practices that mimic natural systems to access nutrients, water and pest control required for growth,” he noted.

“When it comes to the environment, Pacific Islanders are always vigilant no matter what is happening in the outside world,” said Auimatagi. “It’s a question of means and resources and geopolitics, it’s a very complicated web.”

This is the fifth in a series of articles by the Pacific Media Centre’s Pacific Media Watch contributing editor Sri Krishnamurthi as part of an environmental project funded by the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network (EJN) Asia-Pacific initiative.