Pacific islands' migration plea

Posted: 30 July 2001

While 180 governments were locked in intense negotiations on climate change in July (2001), the tiny South Pacific country of Tuvalu sent out an international SOS signal, writes Kalinga Seneviratne.

Officials of Tuvalu, which has a population of 11,000, asked Australia and New Zealand if they would be willing to allow the Pacific island nation's citizens to migrate there if the islands continue to sink due to rising sea levels, and become uninhabitable.

Tuvalu is made up of nine islands of about 24 sq km, and several of these islands are fast shrinking. In the last decade, rising sea levels have claimed one per cent of the land and estimates are that Tuvalu will be wiped off the map within the next 50 years.

The plea from tiny Tuvalu made it clear that the effects of climate change are already being felt.

This is why South Pacific countries, among the most vulnerable to changes caused by the warming of the Earth's temperature, welcomed the Bonn agreement on climate change reached on July 23, but with some caution.

Scientific evidence

The Bonn conference produced a broad agreement on rules for implementing the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, whose implementation hung in the balance after the United States pulled out from it in March.

Like many developing-country governments that played a key role in keeping the tough talks in Bonn going, the Samoa-based South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) described the agreement as a triumph of multilateralism over unilateralism.

The agreement is also "a triumph for exhausted Pacific Island negotiators who persisted for many years to voice their concerns," SPREP officials said.

Indeed, in an impassioned appeal to rich countries at the Bonn meeting, Samoa's Environment Minister Tuala Sale Tagaloa, speaking on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States, called on countries to recognise scientific evidence and honour their commitment to the Kyoto agreement.

"For our countries it is undeniably necessary to do so," he said. "There is no choice. We know and we can see the damage being done."

Also, SPREP says that as a result of the Bonn agreement, Pacific Island nations can look forward to getting monetary assistance from developed countries to help them adapt to changing living conditions due to rising sea levels.

Canada has pledged 10 million U.S. dollars to help kickstart a fund and Japan and the European Union have also agreed to contribute to it.

Yet there were difficult parts of this week's agreement, including its acceptance of the use of emissions trading by industrialised countries and of carbon sinks to earn credits toward cutting greenhouse-gas emissions.

Indeed, New Zealand Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons was sceptical of this controversial provision. "It is not a big victory for the planet, but it is a small victory for international diplomacy and co-operation," she told the New Zealand Herald.

Pacific Island countries have been particularly critical of Australia's stance on the Kyoto protocol and its attempts to water it down in Bonn.

To Tuvalu's question to Australia and New Zealand about offering shelter to people who have to leave the nation if it becomes unliveable, Canberra issued a reply from the immigration viewpoint.

Australia's Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock told Radio Australia that the people of Tuvalu are not entitled to any special schemes.

"The fact is we've been talking about these issues for the last 20 years. And it is, not at the moment, an issue in which the populations of those countries are at risk," he said.

"Things are getting densely populated and landmass erosion is really becoming a great concern," Pusinelli Laafai, Tuvalu's assistant secretary of foreign affairs, told the same radio programme.

Already, Laafai said, people have already started leaving and there is a substantial population of Tuvaluans in New Zealand. "New Zealand has been quite relaxed and supportive," he said, criticising Australia for been lukewarm to their request.

Source: Inter Press Service (IPS)