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Charting a Course to a Blue Commonwealth

Patricia Scotland is Secretary-General of the Commonwealth of Nations

LONDON, Jun 5 2017 (IPS) - The United Nations Ocean Conference offers an historic opportunity to safeguard the ocean environment and support small island and vulnerable developing coastal states, who depend on the seas for national economic growth and sustainable development.

Patricia Scotland

Patricia Scotland

This summit is about navigating a course to deliver on the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development, in particular Goal 14 to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.” As we set our eyes on this goal, it is worth considering what the oceans mean to coastal communities.

Forty-five of the Commonwealth’s 52 member counties are ocean states, including most of the world’s small island developing states. For our member countries, the sea is a precious ecosystem, and also deeply rooted in traditional culture. It also provides jobs and immense potential economic opportunity – Vanuatu for instance has a maritime territory 56 times greater than its terrestrial footprint.

The whole Commonwealth family is immensely proud of Fiji, which has the special privilege of being co-chair of the Ocean Conference alongside Sweden. The commitment shown by Fiji’s Prime Minister, J.V. Bainimarama, is testament to the Pacific region’s leadership and advocacy on oceans.

Pacific countries, and in particular its small island developing states, have in recent years agreed powerful joint declarations on the sustainable use and management of the ocean. These have had a direct impact on influencing national policies to manage access to their waters while setting vital conservation limits.

A forthcoming Commonwealth Secretariat publication, ‘A Sustainable Future for Small States: Pacific 2050’, takes a closer look at some of the region’s innovative approaches on ocean governance, as well as a host of related issues from health to climate change and migration. The study follows on from a similar report in the Caribbean published last year which provided a stark warning for policy-makers.

Our research concludes that while there is much opportunity to be gained from the oceans, these states face a great many challenges, including commercial competition for marine resources and the impact of climate change. Rising populations, limited national capacity and investment and inadequate fiscal and revenue management also bring huge pressures.

Spurred on by leaders in the Pacific and Caribbean who understand these threats better than anyone, Commonwealth heads of government were early pioneers of the ‘blue economy’ concept. Applying to ocean governance the Commonwealth’s shared values – the commitment to democracy, good governance, equity and sustainability – this ‘Blue Commonwealth’ approach aims to help countries unlock economic value from the ocean while also conserving and protecting the marine environment.

At the Commonwealth Secretariat, we help our member states to better manage and protect against threats such as pollution and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. We offer help so countries can claim their maritime territory, and advise on managing offshore renewables, petroleum and deep-sea mining. We help our peoples to unlock the value of the sea in a sustainable manner while ensuring the equitable distribution of its benefits.

This ‘whole-ocean’ approach to economic development recognises the linkages between terrestrial and marine resources. It is an integrated ‘regenerative’ model which can best respond to sectoral and national interests in a way that suits day to day life.

The magnitude of the threat from climate change and rising sea levels, especially for those whose endowment or stage of development renders them less resilient, makes it incumbent upon us to shift from mere adaptation and mitigation towards approaches capable of transforming climate change into a window of opportunity.

This week’s Ocean Conference in New York, June 5-9, offers the chance to build on the hope offered by Sustainable Development Goal 14 to make good on our commitment to conserve and sustainably use the oceans. We need no less than a paradigm shift to move from ‘explore and exploit’ to ‘sustain and be sustained by’.

Most of all, we need to listen to communities who have been custodians of the seas for centuries and who have much wisdom to share. As one of the Pacific’s most influential scholars, Epeli Hau’ofa, once said, “no people on Earth are more suited to be guardians of the world’s largest ocean than those for whom it has been home for generations.”

On Tuesday 6 June 2015, Fiji Prime Minister J.V. Bainimarama, co-chair of the conference, joins Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland at a ‘A Blue Commonwealth’, a high-level roundtable hosted by the Commonwealth Secretariat and the Government of Seychelles. Find out more: thecommonwealth.org/oceanconference

 
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