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Small Island Developing States can be Nature-Positive Leaders for the World

Credit: UNDP Pacific Office
In the low-lying small island state of Tuvalu, the government's National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) – administered and implemented by UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji and the Tuvalu government and supported by Global Environment Facility (GEF) – has been addressing marine-based livelihoods and disaster preparedness in the face of rising sea levels.
Meanwhile, the 4th International Conference on Small Island Developing States is scheduled to take place in Antigua and Barbuda from 27-30 May.

UNITED NATIONS, May 22 2024 (IPS) - Small island developing states (SIDS) are scattered across the globe, dotting the Pacific Ocean, the Caribbean, the west and east coasts of Africa and the Indian Ocean.

These low-lying highly indebted countries are on the frontlines of climate change and natural resource scarcity, already facing the extremes of sea level rise, unpredictable weather events, and environmental degradation that millions more will face tomorrow.

Yet they also are pioneers, innovating and demonstrating what is possible in a shift to a nature-positive future. Emerging technologies and solutions are re-setting economic and societal priorities to value and optimize natural resources and setting forth a path of thriving resilience.

In three decades of working together supporting small islands states, these are the three critical success factors we see emerging from these trailblazing island states as the world looks to transition to a nature-positive future.

One: Nature sits at the heart of this effort.

Nature is the most effective solution to our interconnected planetary crisis and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals. It can unlock new and quickly felt benefits of sustainable development.

Ecosystem services underpin key economic sectors in all vulnerable small island states, from fisheries to agriculture to tourism, but these same sectors have historically imposed serious environmental costs. Transitioning these sectors from ‘highly damaging’ to ‘sustainable’, in ways that are investable and profitable while benefiting communities, sits at the heart of our work together.

The new Blue and Green Islands Programme, for example, mainstreams the central role of nature and scales nature-based solutions to address environmental degradation across three target sectors—urban, food, and tourism—for nature-positive shifts in fifteen island states.

Small islands are especially well positioned to benefit from nature-positive economies, counting among them some of the most diverse and unique ecosystems in the world. For them, a nature-positive economy is important not just to stabilize the security of their natural resources and ensure resilient and thriving futures; it assures their role as irreplaceable hosts to many of the world’s migratory and endemic species that make up our global planetary safety net.

Two: Successful solutions touch all aspects of life and livelihoods.

Tackling sea level rise isn’t separate from restoring protective coastal ecosystems, which isn’t separate from rapidly expanding new opportunities in sustainable tourism and sustainable fishing. These expanding opportunities drive sustainable development, bringing jobs, economic prosperity, and resilience.

‘Whole of island’ approaches are now tackling the conservation of land, water, and ocean resources as interconnected issues. These approaches are championing decarbonization and sustainable livelihoods, increasing access to sustainable energy, increasing the ability of communities to adapt to unpredictable or extreme weather, creating jobs, improving opportunities and wellbeing, and achieving sustainable development goals.

The logic of integrated approaches is clear: our lives are deeply interconnected with our environment and our opportunities the world over. The challenge is adapting and shifting systemic norms that are out of step and out of date for the collective future we want. Whole of island issues demands ‘whole-of-society’ inclusion and coordination, across ministries and sectors, building on locally owned and existing structures and initiatives, and seeking private sector engagement and community empowerment at every level.

Today, all our projects undertaken with island states promote integration and inclusion and are designed to ensure that multiple challenges can be addressed at scale and pace simultaneously.

Early efforts through the Integrating Watershed and Coastal Areas Management (IWCAM), the Integrating Water, Land and Ecosystems Management in Caribbean Small Island Developing States (IWEco Project) and the Pacific Ridge to Reef Programme in Pacific SIDS, for example, helped to pioneer the integrated approaches we are seeing today under the global programs in SIDS.

Three: Innovation is the accelerator.

Successful projects demonstrate the disproportionate importance of innovation to turn our most urgent challenges into opportunities for sustainable development. Representing nearly 20% of the world’s exclusive economic zones, many of these islands are incubating new and investable nature-based solutions that can be scaled up to support successful transitions to nature-positive economic sectors and centres of excellence, both in the islands themselves and to the benefit of countries beyond.

For example, with UNDP and GEF support, Seychelles issued the world’s first ‘blue bond’; Cuba mainstreamed nature into policies and practices to reverse degradation of the Sabana-Camagüey ecosystem driven by agriculture, livestock, fisheries, and tourism; and the GEF’s Small Grants Programme supported local communities to ban single-use plastics in the Maldives.

New initiatives with innovative partners such as the Global Fund for Coral Reefs also seek to attract and de-risk private sector investment into local businesses to protect and restore important coral reef ecosystems. These initiatives offer opportunities for integration that are now inspiring similar examples across other islands.

Nothing without partnerships.

A broad and inclusive coalition of government, private sector, civil society, Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and other partners is critical to further accelerate nature-positive transformation and increase impact.

New partnerships with the private sector to identify and deploy new business models and instruments to support nature-positive outcomes are also a major part of this effort.

Small Island Developing States have in front of them an opportunity to scale and replicate their successes and make outsized contributions to the implementation of environmental conventions including the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (The Biodiversity Plan), the Paris Agreement and the UNCCD Strategic Framework, as well as progress towards their sustainable development goals.

In responding to the most pressing development needs of small island states, the nature-positive economic transitions that are emerging, sector by sector, taking an integrated, innovative and community-informed approach, offer answers to development challenges with applications far beyond their precarious and precious coastlines.

Achim Steiner is Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Carlos Manuel Rodriguez is CEO and Chairperson, Global Environment Facility (GEF)

IPS UN Bureau


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