by H. Meph Wyeth
From 14-18 July, the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, hosted a combined conference on climate change and sustainable sea transport. Seafarers, government officials, and scientists from Europe, Australia, the United States, New Zealand, Japan, and many Pacific island nations gathered to discuss strategies for coping with problems such as overfishing, sea level rise, extreme weather, and fossil fuel dependence in Oceania.
Representing both Hawai`i and the Solomon Islands was a delegation from the Vaka Taumako Project. The members, Dr. Marianne George, Jacob Penchansky, Meph Wyeth, Dr. Simon Salopuka, Dixon Wia, and Ambrose Miki, were among the traditional Pacific seafarers who presented papers and talks. To Mimi and Simon fell the honor of giving the first paper of the first formal session, one devoted to traditional seafaring. Mimi also talked informally to a talanoa (discussion) in the outdoor meeting place around a kava bowl where some of the most productive encounters took place.
What distinguished this conference from many climate change conclaves was the inclusion of people like those from Taumako who still know how to build and sail traditional voyaging craft, vessels that enabled their ancestors to colonize some of the smallest and remotest islands on earth, and to thrive in these challenging environments. As Archbishop of Polynesia Winston Halapua, himself a canoe voyager, observed, “We are people of the moana (the ocean)…we have the abundance of the moana…” Over and over he and others affirmed that Pacific peoples have practiced sustainable seafaring, using renewable local resources to build boats propelled by wind, for millennia.
Speakers like Foua Toloa, Tokelau’s Minister of Transport and Energy, noted that small Pacific island nations spend 60-70% of their fossil fuel budgets on sea transport. For many of these countries, including the Solomon Islands, dependent on foreign aid for much or most of their revenues, this represents money that could be used for education, health care, and other urgent needs. Moreover, these poor nations can afford to buy only ships that are old and inefficient, that break down frequently, and are expensive to maintain, consuming still more of their limited funds. Yet sea transport is the only means available to people on small isolated islands to carry children to school, produce to markets, and accident victims to medical care.
Frustrating to many participants was the apparent inability of First World scientists and planners to understand such problems, which are obvious to anyone living in the region. As Feleti Teo, the Pacific Islands Development Forum’s Secretary General and other presenters pointed out, all funding assigned to Pacific countries for renewable energy projects has heretofore been for land-based endeavors such as rural electrification. Toloa added that his country, Tokelau, which spends 90% of its fossil fuel budget on sea transport, has repeatedly begged for funding to develop sustainable alternatives, and received none. He attributed this lack of support to the parochial views of many decision-makers from outside the region, caustically adding, “The view from the canoe is very different from the view from the ivory tower …the view from the middle of a continent…”
Yet, as Bishop Halapua remarked in the conference’s invocation, the moana comprises over 70% of earth’s surface, and is the highway over which 90% of the world’s goods move. What happens to the ocean affects everyone, even citizens of the most landlocked countries. Decision-makers everywhere on earth need to take these facts into account if they are to plan intelligently for humanity’s future.
For traditional seafarers in attendance, intelligent planning for the future requires study of the past and implementation of practices that have served generations of island people well. Their formal and informal presentations repeatedly made the point that ancient maritime technology has much to offer the modern shipping and fishing industries. Many nautical scientists agree, and reports from groups like Windship highlighted cutting edge vessels that have used ancient techniques to become more fuel efficient.
Several of the canoe voyagers hoped that the current journey of the Hawaiian replica canoe Hokule`a, one purpose of which is to spread a message of the importance of caring for the earth and sea, would support efforts of the Pacific island nations to revive traditions that can help protect their ocean home. A voyaging canoe from Fiji, the Uto Ni Yalo, also plans to sail to Australia in November to carry these nations’ plea for help to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s conference on climate change.
Some of those who have sailed on Hokule`a and other voyaging canoes have noted similarities between these canoes and islands; both are small self-contained ecosystems surrounded by oceans. Island peoples like those who live in the Pacific have known this for generations. In recent times, some have extended the analogy to our planet, calling it an island afloat in the cosmic sea. This makes every person on earth an islander and a member of the planetary voyaging crew.
People who work at sea quickly learn that crew members must rely on and help each other to ensure the safety of their ship and of everyone in it. If everyone is a crewmember on the canoe called earth, then all must rely on and help each other. While this may seem a daunting responsibility, it can also be an opportunity. As Archbishop Halapua remarked at the end of his final speech, “My friends, if we act together as a community…we can do anything!”
Vaka Taumako Project wishes to thank Allison, Peter, Carson, Colin, and everyone else who helped organize the Talanoa for the hard work they did to make it a success. Special thanks are also due United States’ Embassy in Suva, whose financial aid enabled the Solomon Islanders to attend. The Embassy’s Regional Environmental Officer, Jason Brenden, who also attended, affirmed official support for the conference in an interview. “One of the biggest challenges in the Pacific,” he said, “is sea transport, and the US would like to help the Pacific develop…ideas to support sustainable sea transport. …there has been a lot of sustainable transport in the past; we don’t want to lose those ideas.”