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Some months ago, I was part of a special ocean and culture story-telling workshop on my home island of Erromango, in Southern Vanuatu. There, I listened to traditional elders recount ancient sea wisdom and oral histories about ocean connections with other islands, passed down through generations over thousands of years. Far away, in the virtual domain, Pacific island governments were preparing key statements about the ocean to safeguard Pacific island futures, culminating in the annual Pacific Island Forum Leaders meeting on 6 August 2021 that produced the “Declaration on Preserving Maritime Zones in the Face of Climate-Change Related Sea-Level Rise”.

This forward-thinking Declaration sets an invaluable precedent on maintaining maritime boundaries, without reduction, in the face of climate change-related sea-level rise. It aims to mitigate against loss of resources for island nations, demonstrating a significant interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to maintain rights and entitlements of national maritime zones despite shrinking coastlines, something that scholars have suggested provides the most environmentally just solution.  

The Declaration strongly positions the Pacific states to present a clear message to the upcoming COP26 in November 2021 about the ocean-climate nexus. It is a culmination of a plethora of multilateral strategies and diplomatic statements regarding the shared stewardship and safeguarding of the Pacific Ocean, some of which include:

  • A statement in March by Pacific Islands Forum Leaders at the 7th Our Ocean Conference hosted by Palau calling for sustainable ocean management.
  • A commitment at US President Biden’s April Leaders’ Summit on Climate pledging to work with islands on climate resilience, and coastal and marine resource management strategies in cultural contexts.
  • A call in July by Pacific island countries for the preservation of maritime zones at the 5th France-Oceania Summit, signaling the clear intent of Pacific leaders with regards to France, one of the major, enduring colonial powers in the Pacific with whom many share territorial borders.

However, as the village story-telling session highlighted to me, the role of culture in maritime zone preservation is often overlooked and needs greater prominence in regional diplomacy.

Anna Naupa is a Pacific policy and development specialist. She has previously written on a range of topics including Pacific geopolitics and regionalism, sustainable development and human rights. She volunteers on a community ocean heritage initiative on her home island of Erromango in Vanuatu, which is generously supported by the One Ocean Hub’s DEEP Fund. The opinions expressed are her own.

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