Friday, February 23, 2018

Take action for the planet

Published in the Fiji Times as Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan
Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Last week I had the privilege to be a Fiji Council of Churches representative at the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) meeting in Suva.

The meeting was part of the preparation for Fiji's presidency of the 2017 UN Climate Change Conference, which will take place from November 6-17 in Bonn, Germany, the seat of the Climate Change Secretariat.

The presence of faith-based organisations at the CAPP event was an affirmation of the statement by climate change champion and Minister for Agriculture, Inia Seruratu, that partnership and the empowerment of non-state stakeholders was essential in addressing climate change.

It was also an acknowledgement that sustainable development in the Pacific necessarily includes spiritual and religious dimensions. Spirituality is integral to the world views of peoples across the Global South, the Pacific included. It underpins the moral and social frameworks in which decision making and day to day life take place.

Faith communities are key in informing these world views, including the way we understand our own relationship with the natural world and our responsibilities to this planet we call home.

Integrating this understanding with scientific and technological understanding regarding our world and its natural and human systems is key to engaging faith community members at the grassroots level in both mitigation and adaptation strategies with regard to climate change.

Our strengths are in the area of spiritual knowledge regarding environmental stewardship, but access to information on scientific expertise, accessing appropriate government and other structures, services and education materials is frequently a challenge.

At the end of the CAPP event, the general secretary of the Fiji Council of Churches, Rev Simione Tugi, along with representatives of Interfaith Search Fiji, and representing the diverse regional and local faith communities who work within and on behalf of local communities across the Pacific echoed the statement made at the conclusion of the National Faith Based Environment Stewardship Summit organised by the Ministry of the Environment in 2013.

They called for faith-based organisations to fulfil their rightful collective role in reminding people that we have a duty to restore and maintain the ecological balance of our shared home, and on faith community leaders to take active leadership in facilitating environmental stewardship at the community level and in prioritising environmental stewardship in religious education and mainstreaming it into religious structures.

The group also recommended the establishment of regional and local platforms for inter-faith collaboration on the deepening of our commitment to, and active participation in, our care for our common home.

I had the opportunity to join the roundtable thematic discussion on oceans and present a statement of outcomes to the CAPP plenary.

In the statement, the ocean thematic group affirmed that the Pacific Ocean, covering one-third of the earth's surface is intricately linked to the heart, soul, identity, culture, resilience, economy and way of life of Pacific Islanders while playing a major role in regulating climate.

With the adverse impacts of climate change on the ocean, including the rise in ocean temperatures, ocean acidification, loss of marine biodiversity, sea-level rise, amplifying the threats caused by marine and land-based activities the group stressed that climate change is one of the greatest challenges of our times and its widespread, unprecedented impacts disproportionately burden the poorest and most vulnerable and the need for a full, effective and progressive implementation of the Paris Agreement.

With the CAPP meeting's focus on accelerating climate action in the Pacific, the oceans group recognised the synergies between the implementation of the Paris Agreement and the 2030 Sustainable Agenda, including SDG14 on "Life Below Water" which further contributes to SDG7 "Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all", and, SDG13 "Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts".

We noted that the protection of biodiversity and ecosystem services including urgently halting and reversing the decline in the health and productivity of our ocean and its ecosystems is an integral part of climate change mitigation and adaptation and can galvanise climate action and vice versa.

The outcome of the UN Oceans Conference to Support the Implementation of SDG14 and call on all stakeholders, inter alia, to integrate the "Call for Action" adopted during the conference and the registered voluntary commitments as necessary to further accelerate climate action in the Pacific is welcome news as are Pacific leaders commitments in the Suva Declaration, the SAMOA Pathway, Palau Forum Declaration, the FSM Forum Declaration and the Pacific Oceanscape Framework.

The Ocean Thematic group shared examples from the Pacific Ecosystem Based Adaptation to protect important natural infrastructure such as mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs and offshore marine spaces through community lead locally managed marine areas; country and regionally lead large seascape networks of MPAs and MMAs, which integrates traditional knowledge and cultural practices.

Community-led initiatives, such as the recent declaration of part of the Rewa River to be tabu as a marine protected area, to protect the nursery of scalloped hammerhead sharks, was an example of a bottom-up approach which empowers communities to take decisive action to manage their land and oceans resource using the ecosystem based management/ridge to reef as a tool to protect important habitats and natural infrastructure to build community resilience/disaster risk reduction and integrating the important value of traditional knowledge and culture.

Sustainable land use practices (agriculture, forestry, coastal development, tourism, waste management) are prerequisites for healthy oceans and climate adaptation and mitigation. In all this, the ocean is the co-factor that can galvanise the collective efforts of all these sectors in accelerating climate action.

Rapid urban expansion and unsustainable development contributing to waste water runoff affecting health of the oceans and also contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Addressing oceans pollutions from plastics and waste water runoffs and ensuring that urban expansion and development does not compromise important natural infrastructure such as mangroves, coastal habitats such as beaches and shores that can play an important role in adaptation, mitigation and disaster risk reduction.

As we discussed the above issues in our roundtable dialogue, I recalled my recent paddle down the Navua River with the Viti SUP and Va'a group and how much plastics and other waste we had collected in our short river clean-up (663 kilograms) and the issue of plastic bags, bottles and styrofoam containers callously discarded and the struggle of rural communities because of the lack of proper waste management systems.

The oceans group also highlighted the importance of traditional knowledge guiding transformative technology in areas such as sustainable sea transport, as modelled by the Uto Ni Yalo; and role of mangroves and seagrasses in blue carbon sequestration and their link to the health of coral reefs and oceans economy.

Following the CAPP event, in an attempt to work off my carbon footprint from attending that meeting, I boarded the Uto Ni Yalo, as a crew member, as it sailed to Nairai in the Lomaiviti Group. The voyage was to support the Rotary Pacific Water Foundation as it inspected its projects in the area.

As I did my best to hold the uli (steering oar) and guide this symbol of climate mitigation and adaptation that has sailed the equivalent of twice around the world, I reflected on how affirming it would be for our maritime provinces to adapt our renown traditional maritime technology.

As he joined us for lunch on board the Uto Ni Yalo, the turaga ni yavusa in Tovulailai Village on Nairai, sadly recalled that it was more than half a century since he had seen a traditionally sailed canoe in these parts.

"Imagine what an improvement to maritime safety it would be if all the outboard-powered fibreglass boats in our waters had a sail, even just for emergencies," reflected Colin Philp, president of the Uto Ni Yalo Trust.

"That's just one small step which would make a huge difference in changing the current maritime transport culture and have a positive mitigating impact on climate change."

While the Rotary Pacific Water Foundation team went about their inspections and consultations, I volunteered to survey the mangroves in the area, and also collect some fresh nama (seagrapes) for lunch.

Listening to the sounds of life emanating from the mangroves, I marvelled at how important mangroves are to the future of our planet.

Mangroves ecosystems play multiple roles in mitigation, adaptation and disaster risk reduction roles, and are important nursery grounds and habitats for marine organisms and source of food for coastal communities.

Mangroves are an important part of Pacific culture and tradition. Mangrove ecosystems are not only good carbon sinks but also acts as buffers against ocean acidification.

Mangrove forests are among the most carbon-rich habitats on the planet and although they occupy just a fraction of the world's surface, they pack a punch in terms of carbon sequestration accounting for about 14 per cent of global ocean carbon. Mangroves and coastal wetlands store 50 times more carbon than tropical forests by area.

Mangroves are also important in buffering ocean acidification and prevent disease outbreaks in coral reefs.

This year International Mangrove Day (formally known as International Day for the Conservation of the Mangrove Ecosystems) is Wednesday, July 26.

If you'd like to take a small step in reducing your carbon footprint, join up with some friends, youth or church groups or your family and plant some mangroves.

Our planet will thank you for it.

"Simplicity, Serenity, Spontaneity"

* Reverend James Bhagwan is an ordained Methodist minister and a citizen journalist. The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Methodist Church in Fiji or this newspaper.

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