Wednesday October 31, 2018
This week, Kevin Iro is representing the Cook Islands at the Our Ocean Conference in Indonesia, a meeting of prominent leaders, ocean advocates, scientists, businesspeople, funders, scientists, non-profit organisations, and advocates from all over the world. Recognisable names include Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s former prime minister; John Kerry, America’s former secretary of state; and Sylvia Earle, a longtime ocean explorer who has visited the Cook Islands before.
Traditional and government leaders from Asia, Africa, North America, Europe, South America, and Oceania will be attending also. Iro, an ambassador for Marae Moana, the Cook Islands’ marine park, is going primarily to create and maintain relationships with countries and organisations that can support the Cook Islands with advice and ideas and technical expertise and money. “If there’s new funding available, we want to be able to put our hand up and say we’re trying our best to do the right thing,” Iro said before departing Rarotonga for Bali on Friday. “When new initiatives are announced it makes sense to be there. You can’t close yourself off from these meetings just because you’ve legislated something.”
The legislation of Marae Moana was announced to the world at last year’s Our Ocean Conference in Malta. It’s a meeting known for the commitments it facilitates; in the last four years, world leaders have committed at Our Ocean to protecting a total of 12.4 million square kilometres of ocean. The conference’s official website proudly lists the Cook Islands’ achievement of closing 324,000 square kilometres—the total area of exclusion zones surrounding each island—to big boats and companies searching for minerals.
Prime Minister Henry Puna will not be attending alongside Iro this year, but in Malta last year he delivered a rousing speech in which he spoke about how Marae Moana Act was “one of the most significant pieces of legislation ever put together by our country” and local support for it was “overwhelming”. “Without sounding boastful, our government is one of the most environmentally progressive governments there is,” he said, addressing the conference. “And this is the way it should be, particularly for [a] small island developing state, uniquely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation.” Puna spoke about the breadth of Marae Moana, an initiative he said makes a major contribution to “the whole of mankind”.
He talked about how the Cook Islands and other Pacific nations are “carrying too much of the burden of caring for our ocean, while bigger countries seem to be adopting a ‘business as usual’ attitude”. He explained that this is because the ocean is integral to the history and lived experience of the Cook Islands people. “We are the ocean,” he said. “We live it, we breathe it, and it is the very essence of life for our people.” Puna then spoke about how unlike countries adopting this kind of nonchalant attitude, his government understands its responsibility to his people and to the future of the planet they will continue to inhabit. “We have a duty to future generations,” he told the room full of ocean advocates, “to be courageous with renewed vigour and commitment towards ocean governance, environmental conservation, and mitigating the effects of climate change.”
He spoke of ocean conservation as something that upholds “the long held values of our ocean voyaging ancestors”. “Provided we as a people care for our oceans and mother earth, our ocean and mother earth [will] in turn care for us and continue to provide sustenance and prosperity for our people for generations to come,” he said. This week, Iro is following through on these commitments by showing up.
The government’s commitment to the oceans begins with words, but becomes real through time, energy, partnerships, passion, and the people who do the work. “Just because something’s legislated,” Iro said before departing last Friday, “doesn’t mean it’s over the line.”