International aid from SIDS perspectives: An interview with Hon. Steve Victor, Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Environment of the Palau National Government and Dr. T. Y. Aleck Yang, researcher in the National Museum of Natural Science

Calvin Chu

Chief Editor, Development Focus Quarterly

What are the Small Island Developing States, SIDS?

SIDS are comprised of 38 UN Member States and 20 Non-UN Members/Associated Members    of the United Nations regional commissions. SIDS are geographically located in the Caribbean, the Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

According to the United Nations, the combined total population of SIDS is 65 million. While SIDS make up slightly less than 1% of the world’s population, SIDS face unique and severe social, economic, and environmental challenges.

Due to small populations, geographical remoteness, transportation costs, and other factors, SIDS are vulnerable to the impacts of global economic shocks. However, exacerbated by climate change impacting diverse land and marine ecosystems – SIDS now face further degradation and biodiversity loss.

With a high dependency on imported nutrition, the COVID-19 pandemic has further contributed to the societal and economic challenges faced by SIDS, due to the disruption of supply chains and resulting increase in retail price of commodities.

Moreover, their economic lifelines, the tourism and the fishery industries, have been operating far below capacity for some time now. With increased unemployment rates, prices of goods and services, and expanding budget deficits, SIDS are now in the vicious cycle of borrowing new debt to repay old ones and maintain basic government functions.

As the world fights against the pandemic, climate change has not slowed down. Islands and communities in the paths of typhoons have experienced more frequent and more intense storms and typhoons, demonstrating their increased risk of suffering natural disasters.

Stepping into the post-pandemic era, developed countries are witnessing some recovery, while recovery for SIDS still looks bleak. Recognizing unique situations and national circumstances among

SIDS, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) paper “COVID-19 pandemic: Towards a blue recovery in small island developing states", reports that quick and flexible recovery is possible. The OECD paper emphasizes that in order to resolve the severe financial crisis brought on by the pandemic, and make a full recovery, it is essential that SIDS obtain effective targeted support of the international development community.

This issue of Development Focus Quarterly digs further into what SIDS need and expect from the international community and discusses the different approaches to aiding them in their recovery and growth. Besides interviewing Hon. Steven Victor, Palau’s Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Environment, in the hopes of borrowing his rich experiences in the protection of the ocean, community development, and fishery management, we also invited Dr. T. Y. Aleck Yang, researcher of the National Museum of Natural Science (Taiwan), who also participates in TaiwanICDF projects to share his experiences working on the front lines.

1. From the perspective of the decision maker: Seize the blue recovery opportunity and seek a balance between environmental sustainability and economic development

On April 13th 2022, for the first time in history, the Our Ocean Conference (OOC), co-hosted    by Palau and the United States of America, was held in Palau, a SIDS Member State. The conference saw over 700 participants attend, including governments, non-governmental organizations, and youth representatives. Keynote addresses were provided by President Surangel S. Whipps Jr of Palau and the United States Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, Mr. John Kerry. The conference also welcomed pre-recorded messages from United States President Joe Biden and former president of the US, Mr. Barack Obama. Taiwan was invited in an official status for the first time, a significant and symbolic milestone, with Tzi-Chin Chang, the Minister of the Environmental Protection Administration, participating in the conference as the special presidential envoy.

The OOC was first held in 2014, in Washington D.C., promoted by the then Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry, to emphasize the importance of the ocean to humanity, focusing on fisheries sustainability, ocean acidification, ocean pollution, and marine protected areas. As a  starting point each country put forth commitments on marine protection and the fulfillment of promised investments in order to raise awareness of and put into practice marine protection. The previous 6 conferences had already facilitated over 1,400 commitments, the total value of which comes in at US $91.4 billion dollars, and efforts are underway to protect at least 5 million square miles of ocean.

Concerning the progress and the outcomes of the 7th conference, Palau’s Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and the Environment, Hon. Steven Victor stated that this conference was themed as

“Our Ocean, Our People, Our Prosperity”. The conference focused on 6 action areas: “Advancing Marine Protected Areas for Communities, Ecosystems, and Climate”, “Tackling Marine Pollution”, “Confronting the Ocean-Climate Crisis”, “Creating Sustainable Blue Economies” “Advancing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries and Aquaculture”, and “Achieving a Safe, Just and Secure Ocean”. Issues of Indigenous and island country communities were included for the first time. Side events also included the issues of blue bonds and programs for nature-based solutions for the Indigenous people and local communities. During the conference, he saw that many countries had begun to focus on the experiences and wisdom of Indigenous people, and commitments for financing to address climate change and build a blue economy. The two-day conference raised 410 commitments, amounting to a total value of 16.35 billion dollars. Aside from being ecstatic about these results, he firmly believed that past and recent commitments would be accelerated and fulfilled sooner than expected.

Once the Director for the Micronesia Program in The Nature Conservancy (TNC), an important civil organization for environmental preservation in over 70 countries, and currently the Pacific high- level champion of the UNFCCC COP 26, Minister Victor has quite the rapport working with SIDS.   He stressed that SIDS are impacted by global economic and climate change related issues due to their geographic location, limited economies of scale, human resource capacity, and financing opportunities. They are often faced with the dilemma of whether to fully utilize their natural resources to develop their economy or to prioritize protection of the environment. The continuity of COVID-19 and the outbreak of the Russo-Ukrainian war have increased pressure on their already fragile economies. Hence, he believes that there needs to be a balance between production and protection that can enhance SIDS food security, livelihoods, and economies while maintaining durable environmental protection that can sustain a resilient SIDS blue economy.

(1) Seizing the blue recovery opportunity, creating diversity and resilience

How can the international community assist SIDS in reaching a quick and flexible recovery through international aid? Hon. Steven Victor believes that the pragmatic way is to bring the abundant marine resources under our full control, then stimulate new and sustainable economic opportunities for a “blue recovery”, boosting the diversity and rejuvenation of the marine and tourism sectors, which are the pillars of SIDS economies.

There are several ways of achieving these goals: Assisting SIDS in resolving their debts and securing them access to finance for investment in sustainability and recovery; attaching sustainability requirements and standards to concessional loans and recovery support; seeking out more possibilities for long-term development cooperation, such as an international sharing mechanism for the costs of protecting and utilizing scarce marine resources sustainably; and reinforcing professional knowledge and risk assessment in the newly emerging marine industry to attract private sector investment.

Under these circumstances, island countries have drafted their climate readjustment strategies

autonomously. For example, the Tokelau islands in the South Pacific have been preparing for the 100% renewable energy and a few other SIDS have also formulated their own renewable energy goals. Inhabitants of Papua New Guinea are using locally produced coconut oil as an alternative for diesel, and sailing boats in Micronesia and Melanesia are employing solar cells in an attempt to replace internal combustion engines and thereby reduce transportation fees and fossil fuel pollution.

The Small Island Developing States Accelerated Modalities of Action Pathways (SAMOA Pathway) is an internationally agreed upon program of action for sustainable development. Committed to by 115 SIDS leaders, the SAMOA Pathway represents the agreed outcomes of the Third International Conference on SIDS held in Apia, Samoa from 1-4 September, 2014.

(2) Seeking balance between environmental sustainability and economic development

The UN SDG 14 is listed as “Life below water”, which refers to preserving biodiversity underwater, preventing the deterioration of the marine environment and sustaining marine ecosystems for future use. The subclauses mention the elimination of over-fishing, the establishment of marine reserves, the non-financing of illegal over-fishing, and the supporting of small-scale fishers to try to find a balance between “sustainability” and “development”.

In 2015, Palau passed the “Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act”, which regulates 80% of its jurisdictional seas as marine reserves and forbids any kind of resource exploitation within these areas, including fishing and mining. The remaining 20% is regulated as “domestic fishing zones” to supply just enough catch to fulfill domestic needs and allow for limited commercial fishing. This policy had been considered as a model that went beyond international expectations. However, from Hon. Steven Victor’s point of view, he believes that to achieve 100% ocean management, it is still advisable to move forward gradually by bringing the socioeconomic well-being of people who depend on these resources into consideration to ensure inhabitants benefit as well as the durable protection of nature.

Hon. Victor took Palau’s “Blue Prosperity Plan” now being promoted as an example, for reconsidering how to make good use of Palau’s advantages of a vast exclusive economic zone and forward-looking environmental policies to build a comprehensive blue economy. A blue economy that enhances ocean management can provide benefits to both its people and nature. Through an inclusive marine spatial planning process that integrates local knowledge with scientific knowledge of Palau’s oceans can identify and prioritize important conservation goals and guarantee maximum protection   for at least 30% of their marine areas, to promote sustainable fisheries and support domestic fishing companies that contribute to food security and economic livelihoods.

He emphasized that in order to realize the goal of balancing protection and production, Palau needs the meaningful support from both its bilateral and non-governmental organization partners. Palau’s vision will set a new benchmark for conservation that enhances the benefits to the people of Palau, demonstrating that they can balance protection and production and chartering a course that

others in the region and globally can replicate.

He indicated that in the process of economic development, it’s imperative to balance climate change and ecological awareness. For example, island countries like Taiwan can also share their experiences and lessons, and provide examples of tools that can help SIDS formulate appropriate policies and priorities for development and resource utilization. By doing so, they can ensure economic growth, reduce environmental impact and improve resilience to climate change at the same time. Capacity building is also vital for SIDS to develop regenerative agriculture, stock farming, sustainable fisheries, and aquaculture. International aid can assist them in elevating their human resources to develop linkages between the supply  chain and  the  market, break  through their limited economies of scale and regulate and allocate projects appropriately and efficiently, step by step, on the way to achieving the SDGs.

(3) Creating a win-win scenario through effective use of carbon rights

Article 6 of the Paris Agreement aims to regulate the detailed rules and regulations on the “carbon market”, an international climate cooperation mechanism allowing states to offset their emissions by trading their carbon rights and reducing the pressure for immediate self-carbon reduction. The COP 26 that took place in 2021 finalized the formulation of the Paris Agreement Rulebook.

The conference passed two important resolutions. The prohibition of double counting carbon rights, legislated that carbon rights sold by the selling parties can only be counted as emissions reductions of the buying parties. The Certified Emission Reduction (CER) distributed by the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) regulated in the Kyoto Protocol can only be used with the certificates issued after 2013. Additionally, a corresponding adjustment was proposed in order to avoid confusion in the counting of carbon rights exchanged between states. This was done by formally establishing a global carbon market for the trading states and with it a new form of international cooperation.

Although the proportion of global carbon emissions from SIDS is less than 1%, they face the most damaging consequences brought about by climate change, and they are now among the most fragile state groupings in the world. Now in pursuing zero emissions, through the UN platform, states can choose to implement emissions reducing aid projects in SIDS and other developing and under-developed countries and turn these reductions into credits for their “National Determined Contributions” (NDCs) or “Internationally Transferred Mitigation Outcomes “(ITMOs). This “offsets” or lowers the emission reduction burdens of their own countries and enterprises. Hon. Steven Victor says that although the SIDS have limited experience in the carbon market, in recent years, they have engaged with proposals like Indo-Pacific carbon offsets and joint crediting mechanisms (JCM). Take the JCM between Palau and Japan as an example. Japan offers Palau an allocation of solar panels, and Palau shares its carbon credits with Japan.

2. The perspective of the implementors of foreign aid: Take the Taiwan experience as a model for defending global biodiversity

Taiwan is also an island country and two-thirds of our allied countries are SIDS, such as those in the South Pacific and Caribbean Sea, or coastal countries, such as those in Central America. Therefore, Taiwan understands the difficulties faced by SIDS. Over many years, we have been launching projects in various domains such as food security, health, and business development services for micro, small and medium sized enterprises, to assist our allied countries in meeting their economic, social, and environmental needs while promoting their resilience and adaptation capacity. Taiwan also participates actively in cooperation platforms with the island countries for negotiating and discussing strategies for climate change and sustainable development.

Dr. T. Y. Aleck Yang, a researcher in the biology department of the National Museum of Natural Science (NMNS), who specializes in plant systematics research, has represented the NMNS   to cooperate with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the TaiwanICDF, the Dr. Cecilia Koo Botanic Conservation Center, the Forestry Research Institute, the Council of Agriculture, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the Ministry of Forestry & Research of the Solomon Islands, for the “Census and Classification of Plant Resources in the Solomon Islands.”

The Solomon Islands are rich in natural resources, with over 7,000 native species. In recent decades, they have grappled with enormous amounts of logging, rising sea-levels and global climate change. This has resulted in massive reductions of forest coverage, and many species are now in danger of extinction. Hence, to raise local awareness of biodiversity and plant conservation in the Solomon Islands and to decelerate deforestation and species extinction, this project included training and seminars as well as accompanying and demonstrating plant harvesting techniques to build the capacity of personnel in the Solomon Islands and reinforce their basic knowledge of the plants. It also conducted species preservation in both the Solomon Islands and Taiwan. The project had collected over 10,000 plants over the course of 5 years, assisted in the preservation of 3,421 living plants, and made over 40,000 specimens. We’ve also published 3 newly-discovered species in international scholarly journals, complete with botanic illustrations, in Chinese and in English, highlighting Taiwan’s abilities and results in scientific research. We have managed to preserve many precious species and diversify international aid.

(1) Taiwan fulfilling duty to preserve global biodiversity

Dr. T. Y. Aleck Yang stated that the word “biodiversity” was first coined in 1986. It originally referred to the research and recording of all animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms into lists. However, as research expanded to discover new living organisms, their similarities and diversity, their

close and complex codependency, the concept of biodiversity expanded to include the variability of all species in all ecosystems, not only comprising all living forms at the levels of individual organisms, populations, species, geographical distribution, and ecosystems, but even including the molecular levels of genetics etc. He emphasized that biodiversity has in itself the values of ecosystem and economy, science and education, culture and morality. How to keep a balance between exploitation and conservation is indeed a question that states all around the world are studying, discussing, coordinating, cooperating on and searching for an answer to, especially since research has pointed out that global biodiversity is in rapid decline. The most obvious evidence is that species are going extinct at 100 to 1,000 times the normal rate.

Looking back to actions made collectively by the world to actively engage in reducing the loss of biodiversity, the United Nations held the Earth Summit in Rio, Brazil, where countries around the world signed the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), clearly stating the 3 main goals of “conservation of biodiversity”, “sustainable use of biodiversity resources” and the “fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources.” The treaty was put into practice the following year. There are now 196 contracting parties, and it has become a milestone for global biodiversity and the sustainable use of biological resources. Following the CBD treaty, other milestone efforts made to seek a win-win scenario for biodiversity and the well-being of humanity included the 2010 Biodiversity Targets signed at the 6th Convention on Biological Diversity in 2002, the Aichi Targets at the 10th Convention, and the Satoyama Initiative promoted by the Ministry of the Environment of Japan and the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies (UNU-IAS).

Although Taiwan is restricted by many political circumstances—we cannot become a contracting party to the treaty—we have nevertheless been fulfilling our duty to preserve global biodiversity and move in the direction of sustainable development. The “Census and Classification of Plant Resources in the Solomon Islands” is one of the examples.

(2) Enhancing the capacity for sustainable development of nature conservation and plant science in Pacific “hot spots”

Dr. T. Y. Aleck Yang pointed out that the Solomon Islands are in one of the most abundant and endangered of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots, the East Melanesian Islands area in the South Pacific. “Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific” is one of the most critical of ecosystem regions, containing three hotspots: the East Melanesian Islands, New Caledonia and Bohol Polynesia-Micronesia. The importance of the region is self-evident.

About 1,800 kilometers northeast of Australia, the Solomon Islands, consisting of nearly 1,000 islands, is an important fishing ground in the South Pacific region. Tropical rainforests account for more than 90% of its territory, and the produce from the forests is very valuable. However, due to the large demand for tropical logs on the global market, illegal deforestation has increased sharply. This,

along with land development and cultivation of crops such as palm oil, means the deforestation rate now far exceeds the upper limits of sustainable development, by up to 10 times. According to the Solomon Islands own government estimation in 2011, the rainforest will be depleted as soon as 2036.

Dr. Yang analyzed that logging is one of the central economic activities in the Solomon Islands despite the country striving to strike a balance between economic development and ecological conservation. For a long time, there has been a lack of “flora” (list of plants) to identify important and rare species and systematically record significant information regarding local plants such as the type, characteristics, growth environment, and related uses. As a result, it is impossible to understand local plant resources, let alone promote conservation activities and concepts.

Therefore, this project focuses on “resource plant surveys” and “flora compilation”, with the TaiwanICDF as the project management, communication and coordination platform. It synergizes  the professional plant ecology and scientific research capabilities of the NMNS and the Dr. Cecilia  Koo Botanic Conservation Center and dispatches a team to collect plant resources, assist in the construction of greenhouses, strengthen the equipment of the country’s national herbarium and conduct digital preservation of specimens. Through training workshops, field collection and demonstration,   the capacity of plant resource conservation personnel in the Solomon Islands is increasing, thereby enhancing the country’s nature conservation work and the sustainable development of plant science.

“Due to time limitations, it is impossible to collect all types and  quantities of species, so we  first selected protected species such as Orchidaceae, Zingiberaceae, Arransaceae, Palmaceae, Ferns, Begonias, Peonyaceae, Rudaceae and Rubiaceae etc; considering continued global warming, bananas may be an important source of edible starch in the future, so we also collected edible bananas and wild varieties to grasp the diversity of this biological hotspot.” Dr. Yang recalled, it is not easy to carry out plant surveys and conservation in an unfamiliar tropical country due to the limited assistance of the local government, the lack of transportation and power infrastructure, and the problem of privately- owned land. In the years of collection, we have encountered various problems, so we can only adapt accordingly.

Deep in the inaccessible tropical rainforest, the plants are diverse and complex, which was eye- opening for the Taiwanese team who are more familiar with plants in the northern hemisphere, but it also increased the difficulty of collection and the challenge of classification and compilation. Moreover, in order to collect the epiphytes hidden at the top of the tall trees and to preserve some records and some of the vitality of the natural environment on different islands, we coordinated with loggers to collect native plants before the giant trees were cut down.

The ocean can provide answers to many problems brought about by climate change – it not only has the ability to absorb and sequester carbon, but also plays a key role in producing oxygen, providing food and resources, and nurturing rich ecosystems. Therefore, our need for commitment and responsibility towards the ocean can never be emphasized enough.

SIDS are at the forefront of the battle to save our oceans. Although their total land area is not  large nor their total population massive, the total area of their territorial waters accounts for one-fifth  of the earth’s surface — they are responsible for managing the oceans that cover one-fifth of the earth’s surface! Therefore, the importance of SIDS cannot be ignored. Moreover, because of their sensitive and fragile ecosystems, SIDS can become an invaluable reference point for detecting global warming, a pilot ground for formulating countermeasures, and an important contributor to other island countries and their coastal areas.

From Minister Steven Victor’s views and Dr. Yang’s  personal experience, the challenges faced  by SIDS – climate, oceans, epidemics or economy – cannot be solved by any individual or single country. Food security, climate justice, and economic concerns require global solutions and resources, partnerships and innovative approaches, because the actions that we take now are not only for the sake of SIDS, but also for the sustainable development of the entire planet and future generations.

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