“If all we do is host people from around the world and have a really great conference, then we have missed the opportunity.” So said Charles “Chipper” Wichman, addressing attendees of the Hawaii Conservation Conference at UH-Hilo in August of 2015.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), founded in 1948, has a mission to, “Influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve the integrity and diversity of nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable.” Every four years they convene members, delegates and guests to the World Conservation Congress (WCC), most recently held in Jeju, Korea (2012) and Barcelona, Spain (2008). Never before had the United States been a venue for the Congress.
Wichman, National Tropical Botanical Garden President and CEO, curator of the 989-acre Limahuli Preserve on Kauai, not only served on the Host and Program Committees of the WCC, but was largely responsible for the idea of holding the event in Hawaii, where threats to unique eco-systems and biodiversity are on center stage. Back in 2008, after attending the Barcelona WCC, Maui kalo farmer and educator Penny Levin suggested that the only way to get suitable attention and funding for local conservation needs would be to bring an event of this stature to Hawaii. Dr. Christopher Dunn, then-director of Lyon Arboretum, and Wichman agreed, and began an eight-year odyssey of making the dream a reality.
By all accounts, the 2016 IUCN-WCC, held Sept. 1-10 at Honolulu’s Hawaii Convention Center, was an unprecedented success. More that 10,000 people attended, from more than 190 nations. The extravaganza showcased Hawaii, Pacific and global eco-issues and challenges with dozens of displays, presentations, forums and discussions over the first five days. Then the Congress shifted gears, with five days of deliberations and voting on 85 proposals, from closing domestic markets for elephant ivory trade to securing our future by developing a post-2020 strategy.
A Who’s Who list of conservation luminaries and leaders highlighted the event–Jane Goodall, Sylvia Earle, Jean Michel Cousteau, E.O. Wilson and more—with President Barack Obama a late no-show after a brief welcome to the Pacific Island Conference of Leaders in a small, private event at the UH East-West Center on Manoa on the eve of the WCC. Expected to address the general assembly at an opening reception at Neal Blaisdell Center the next morning, Obama instead flew to Midway, in the center of the Paphanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) that he expanded just a week earlier by presidential order, making it the world’s largest marine protected area.
OCEANS OF ISSUES
The push to expand protection for the Northwest Hawaiian Islands spanned several months, gaining attention of global conservation organizations, charitable trusts and igniting some lively local debates on the perceived merits or impacts of the decision. The Western Pacific Advisory Council (WESPAC), the long-line fishing industry and at least two past governors fought to oppose expansion, claiming the need for Hawaiian fishing interests to pursue schools of tuna in those surrounding waters. But the debate served to expose the underbelly of WESPAC and the long-liners: Hawaii’s 140-boat fleet annually exceeds its quota of fish, then buys out unused quotas from other Pacific nations while fishing in the same waters; much of what is caught here is shipped to Mainland or foreign markets, defusing the notion that PMNM expansion would lead to limited local fish availability, or sky-rocketing prices; and the disturbing investigation of the near-slavery conditions of contracted workers from impoverished South Pacific and Asian nations who crew the long-line boats.
It’s well understood that protecting up to 30 per cent of our ocean resources makes sense for conservation purposes. But a study published earlier this year suggests that level of protection will also benefit fisherman and other stakeholders. The recommendation, first put forth at the IUCN World Parks Conference in Sydney, Australia in 2014 has been largely adopted by other conservation organizations. Currently, just six percent of the world’s oceans are set aside as marine protection areas, and in the main Hawaiian Islands, a mere three percent of our near-shore waters are similarly protected.
Speaking at the opening reception, Governor David Ige, giving what might have been the best speech since he took office, pledged a “30 by 30” commitment. “Our reefs provide habitat for spectacular marine life, and feed us,” he said. “That’s why I’m committed to effectively managing 30 per cent of our near-shore ocean waters by 2030.”
Ige’s remarks resonated with Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. “Initiatives such as 30 by 30 are essential for our sail plan to a sustainable future,” said Thompson. “To protect life on earth, we have to protect the ocean waters.”
And while the world came to Hawaii for 10 days for the IUCN-WCC, Hawaii also embarked upon connecting with cultures and communities worldwide, through the Hokule‘a voyaging canoe’s Malama Honua (“take care of Island Earth”) Worldwide Voyage, a three-year initiative to inspire and create change for, “our children and future.”
While 30 per cent conservation of our ocean resources may seem dramatic or bold to some, it might not even be under discussion if not for the leadership of the tiny (21,000 population) island nation of Palau. President Tommy Remengesau, who also provided opening remarks, recently increased his nation’s commitment from 50 percent protection to 80 percent, underscoring the importance of a healthy ocean eco-system to Palauan people. Having created a shark sanctuary and stating zero tolerance for poaching, his administration followed up on that warning by confiscating and burning vessels from Vietnam and the Philippines caught illegally fishing in Palau’s waters last year.
“Eighty percent is the culmination of the Micronesia Challenge we embarked on 10 years ago,” said Remengesau. “This initiative [initially] targeted 20 percent of our reef and 30 percent of our terrestrial areas for protection. Again, the benefits of a marine protected area are not confined to that area: It is very effective at repopulating other areas. Imagine the benefits if every country had a sizable marine protected area.”
The Micronesia Challenge and Caribbean Challenge are collaborative models that allow conservation goal setting and progress tracking amongst island nations. These sort of agreements bring about “a friendly ‘co-opetition,’ half cooperation and half competition,” said Kate Brown, Executive Director of the Global Island Partnership (GLISPA). Ige also announced the State of Hawaii will join GLISPA, which is open to all islands regardless of size or political status, and strives to, “build resilient and sustainable island communities by inspiring leadership, catalyzing commitments and facilitating collaboration.”
Hawaii Green Growth (HGG), a statewide sustainability network, hosted a panel discussion highlighting the Aloha + Challenge initiative, signed by four mayors, two governors and the heads of University of Hawaii and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Island mayors, including Maui’s Alan Arakawa, related progress they’re making towards goals set in six sustainability sectors: local food production, natural resources, waste diversion, renewable energy, green jobs and education and smart, sustainable communities. HGG continues to refine the scope of these goals to be achieved by 2030 or before, and has set up a dashboard where measures can be tracked.
UH President David Lassner announced a “Make the Ala Wai Great” challenge, complete with a cash prize for teams of students with the best plans to protect Honolulu’s waterway from the impacts of a 100-year storm, which could cost an estimated $300 million in damages. With climate change predictions for greater storms ringing true, in light of Maui’s recent torrential rains that overwhelmed the Wailuku River, such initiatives will likely be essential proactive planning, to shift us from our current mode of reactive emergency actions for clean up and recovery.
Hawaii Island Mayor Billy Kenoi touched upon a topic not often addressed by top elected officials: How much is too much? Noting that he and his colleagues often compare or boast which island has the most visitors, highest occupancy rates and highest visitor spending, he floated the elephant-in-the-room question. Kenoi paused, then asked, “I just like know how much it takes for people to say ‘no more?’”
Put another way, Ige said that, “We cannot continue to disregard all the signs that show we are at the tipping point.”
Speaking at the conclusion of the Pacific Ocean Summit on the first afternoon of the Congress, Nainoa Thompson said that, “Ecology, sustainability and climate change weren’t taught,” [when he was young]. “It wasn’t even a thought.” He credited many who inspired him, including artist Herb Kane, whom he said, “possessed the conviction of an evangelist.”
A riveting storyteller, Thompson shared his experiences in the early years of preparing the Hokule‘a for voyaging, including the heart-wrenching details of losing Eddie Aikau in a fierce storm in the Ka‘iwi channel off Lanai. Thompson expressed deep appreciation for lessons learned from master navigator Mau Piailug, from the tiny Micronesian island of Satawai. He held Mau as an example of the power of one to change the world, deeming him, “the most compassionate man I have ever known.”
While recognizing the challenges we collectively face on “Island Earth,” Thompson said there is opportunity for light, hope and strength. Relating anecdotes from the Malama Honua World Wide Voyage over its first two years to date, he concluded, “We must maintain focus, strengthen commitments and forge partnerships.”
The Pacific Ocean Summit came about primarily due to the focus of IUCN Oceania Regional Director Taholo Kami. In August 2015, Kami spoke at the Asia Pacific Resilience Conference on a panel that included Blue Planet’s Henk Rogers and Maui Mayor Arakawa. After their session ended, Kami and Arakawa proceeded to a small conference room where Kami shared his vision of bringing Pacific Island leaders together for a summit on shared ocean issues: climate change, sea level rise, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, over-fishing and plastic marine debris, among others. The Pacific Ocean Summit could be the start of collaborations, said Kami, one that could lead to greater actions and to establishing a Pacific Ocean Resilience Fund.
Arakawa pledged to support his vision of a Moana Pasifika Voyage of South Pacific island nations, sailing to Hawaii to draw attention to our connections, as well as our challenges. Meetings were held at the IUCN Oceania headquarters in Suva, Fiji in April of this year. Voyaging canoe captains and crew from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, and the Cook Islands spent two days discussing logistics for a sail plan to Hawaii to coincide with the beginning of the IUCN-WCC. Maui’s Tim Gilliom of Hui O Wa‘a Kaulua (HOWK), who has spent much of the past two decades on efforts to get the voyaging canoe Mo‘okiha O Pi‘ilani built and seaworthy, also sat in on the planning. As someone who’s sailed extensively throughout the Pacific, including on the Holule‘a, Gilliom and HOWK offered to host the canoes and crews once they arrived in Hawaii.
Ultimately, the South Pacific voyagers abandoned the plan, unwilling to sail into El Nino weather projections and potentially damaging storms. The Pacific Ocean Summit nevertheless hosted a sunrise welcome to a small outrigger canoe at the lagoon in front of the Hilton Hawaiian Village. Blustery winds from passing Hurricane Madeline gave way to sunshine and calm, as hundreds looked on. Native Hawaiians from Maui participated in the cultural protocol, and received ho‘okupu (ceremonial gifts) from numerous Pacific Island leaders.
IUCN Director Kami brought his entire office staff of 30 to assist with the welcome ceremony, summit and to monitor many more events at the Congress. The first floor of the Hawaii Convention Center hosted dozens of pavilions and booths, where hour after hour presentations were offered to the thousands of people attending. With such an international audience, the traditional native attire made for a colorful montage, with even those from Hawaii and throughout the Pacific in their finest designer apparel. Evening receptions hosted by various organizations allowed attendees to unwind, share lessons learned, and make new acquaintances.
That Hawaii stepped forward as a world conservation leader by hosting the largest such event in history is immeasurably powerful. The concurrent ambassadorial role of the Hokule‘a in sharing a message of Malama Honua underscores Hawaii’s position to help set the course for a sustainable future.
Yet the immense challenges we’re facing should not be diminished by the success of a 10-day conference, or even a three-year worldwide voyage. A prevalent theme at Congress sessions was that this is a time to move beyond discussion and to take action. Given the sluggishness of governments in setting new initiatives and securing funding, it sometimes seems we are taking mere baby steps when we should be taking giant strides to setting a course and action for conserving resources and establishing a new paradigm of sustainability.
Our elected officials look at annual budgets, two- or four-year terms and at solving the crisis de jour, more than setting sights on long term goals and needs. Frankly, this is true of most of us, as we go about our daily struggles just to make ends meet.
The World Conservation Congress offered a glimpse of where our planet is situated with respect to ecological, political and financial challenges and provided many opportunities to breath in new inspiration at global efforts. We will need all the inspiration, compassion and dedicated action that we can muster to address the issues of today and hold the vision for a future where we may take care of each other and our planet’s shared resources.
Rob Parsons is a former columnist and frequent contributor to MauiTime. He is serving in his tenth year as Maui Environmental Coordinator and is a member of the Hawaii Environmental Council.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Photos courtesy Rob Parsons