If Vanuatu can ban single-use plastics, so can other Commonwealth countries

Op-ed by Ralph Regenvanu, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vanuatu

Cradled in the South Pacific, my home country Vanuatu is made mostly of ocean.  The Pacific covers 98% of the national jurisdiction. Here, some 280,000 Ni-Vanuatu like myself live simply off the land and sea.  We view the ocean as a living ‘bridge’ that connects islands and continents while sustaining life in all its forms. Where we come from, the ocean has a heartbeat.

So when scientists collected nearly 24,000 pieces of non-biodegradable trash on the beaches of the capital city Port Vila last August, it was a harsh reality check for us all. A tally of more than 4,400 plastic bags, 3,000 food wrappers, 4,400 plastic and foam packages, 2,600 beverage cans and 2,100 plastic drinking bottles showed that the addiction to cheap, convenient plastics had crept onto our shores and into our lives. The debris was choking marine life, slowly poisoning fish (and those who eat them) and negatively affecting tourism.

To save our oceans, the country had to take swift and decisive action.

Last month, Vanuatu became one of the first in the world to implement a ban on single use plastic bags, straws and polystyrene food containers. The Government announced the new rules in January, prohibiting the importation and manufacturing of certain non-biodegradable plastic products, followed by a six-month grace period so local businesses and manufacturers could use up supplies.

Alternatives were developed. Traditional natural fibre baskets took the place of plastic bags. Home-grown innovators such as Tom Yaken created community water taps using bamboo instead of the usual plastic pipes. We were guided by a National Ocean Policy for sustainable ocean management, framed around the traditional ‘Nakamal’ – the customary Ni-Vanuatu institution for governance.

A medium and long-term communication strategy is being put in place to begin the discussion on how to achieve lasting change in the age of plastic.

Looking at the region, I am proud that other Pacific ‘big ocean states’ are also rallying against the curse of marine plastic pollution. Samoa recently announced plans to ban all single-use plastic bags and straws by January 2019. New Zealand made a similar pledge to phase out single-use plastics over the next year. Meanwhile, island countries such as Palau, the Marshall Islands, Northern Marianas, Guam, and parts of the Federated States of Micronesia have all outlawed single use plastic shopping bags. Fiji and Tonga have levy systems in place to discourage plastic bag use.

But even beyond the Pacific, the momentum towards a major global transition has never before been so great.

In April, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London, 53 countries made a joint commitment to preserve the health of the ocean, recognising its role in sustaining life on our planet.  Under the Commonwealth ‘Blue Charter’, Vanuatu and the United Kingdom stepped forward as ‘champion countries’ to tackle marine plastic pollution.

It is a pressing global issue – scientists predict that if current trends continue, there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Even now, the accumulation of trash floating in the Northern Pacific Ocean (commonly known as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’) spans an area three times the size of France and is estimated to weigh 80,000 tonnes – equivalent to 500 jumbo jets. The effects are dire for marine ecosystems, ocean economies and human life, and demand a global response.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Commonwealth countries are island or coastal states (just seven are landlocked).  There is huge potential for resources and good practices to be shared, refined and scaled across the Commonwealth, and with the rest of the world.

My own hope is that all 53 leaders who signed on to the Commonwealth Blue Charter commit to concrete steps to address plastic waste in their countries. We have a remarkable opportunity to jointly make improvements to our planet, and it must not be missed.

Vanuatu’s journey so far has been instructive. I am confident that between traditional marine resource management practices and new knowledge and innovations, solutions to the plastic problem are available, or ready to be discovered. It just takes leadership.

Pacific Island countries like Vanuatu have already shown themselves to be ready and willing.

This Op-ed was originally published on IPS News.

World Ocean Day 2018: A Blue Charter for a blue planet

International concern for the plight of the global ocean is at an all-time high. In April this year, the 53 countries of the Commonwealth adopted the Commonwealth Blue Charter, creating a bright blue beacon to guide cooperative action on ocean issues.

World Oceans Day has come a long way from 1992 when it was first proposed by Canada. Now the ocean has its own Sustainable Development Goal, thanks to the foresight of Peter Thomson and many others. SDG 14 commits countries to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”

Our ocean and the coastal communities around it are receiving a lot of negative news coverage – about plastic rubbish, declining fisheries, acidification, rising sea levels, destructive hurricanes. But now countries recognise that time is of the essence and they are cooperating to achieve their goals.

In the Blue Charter’s own words, the time has come to “move from words to actions.”

Already, eight Action Groups are being established, led by Commonwealth countries. More are anticipated.

Innovation is key to this whole issue. We need practical new ideas for on-the-ground action – that’s what the Action Groups aim to deliver

For example, Australia, Belize, and Mauritius have stepped forward to co-lead a Blue Charter Action Group on coral reef regeneration. Just a few years ago, scientists were lonely voices sounding the alarm about coral. Now it is common knowledge that the world’s reefs are in peril.

Commonwealth countries realise that their work must go beyond protecting coral reefs to actively restoring them. And they are stepping up to the task!

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Likewise, Sri Lanka is leading a Mangrove Restoration Action Group. Cyprus is leading on sustainable aquaculture, and New Zealand is tackling ocean acidification. And the list goes on…

“To see Commonwealth leaders stepping forward for the ocean was a real ‘pinch-me moment,’” says Jeff Ardron, who coordinates work under the Commonwealth Blue Charter.

After years of being out of sight, out of mind, the ocean is now on everyone’s minds, and the Commonwealth Blue Charter is a good reason to celebrate World Oceans Day with a pinch of hope.

Sri Lanka’s trauma of tsunami turns into a defence for tomorrow

It is hard to imagine that only 14 years ago Sri Lanka was severely devastated by the tsunami, triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean.

Its waves submerged the southwestern part of Sri Lanka, killing tens of thousands and destroying the infrastructure.

But there is a lesson to be learnt here. Had Sri Lankans realised that through the destruction of a natural form of defence by chopping down the mangroves, it is unlikely they would have taken this course of action.

For today, Sri Lankans are resolute about one thing when it comes to the protection of their environment: mangroves have to grow, have to be nurtured and have to be respected to protect this invaluable ecosystem.

So it was that Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland visited the country’s Kalpitiya Coastal Environmental Centre.  What she saw was nothing short of a miracle; the country’s mangrove conservation and replanting programme.

Where once local communities little realised the value of mangroves, today men, women and young children have taken ownership. Their united goal is clear: to reduce the impact of natural disasters like tsunamis. It was, said the Secretary-General, who planted five baby mangroves, a perfect case study of regenerative development to tackle climate change.

B H J Premathilake, Duty Director of Sri Lanka’s Coast Conservation Department termed the 2004 tsunami as a “driver” for the country’s scheme to protect all mangroves and to build back better.

“During the 2004 tsunami, we understood that mangrove ecosystem can play a vital role to protect people and their resources. Mangroves absorb and reduce the height and intensity of high waves. It holds a particular significance at the current times when temperature continues to increase and climatic catastrophes become more frequent and disastrous,” he said.

The Secretary-General congratulated Sri Lanka on its commitment to turn the trauma of climate change to a defence of global significance.

“We owe Sri Lanka a huge debt of gratitude because what their work to conserve mangroves will save our tomorrow,” she said. “After the tsunami, we all realised the importance of mangroves as a real protection for the coastline. What Sri Lanka has done since the tsunami to preserve, understand and restoring mangroves not only keeps Sri Lanka safe but it really is a signal to how we keep our world safe. The fact that communities [in Sri Lanka] are planting these mangroves, care for them, growing them, it gives me hope that we have a future.”

In April this year, Sri Lanka stepped forward to lead a Commonwealth action group on mangrove restoration, as part of the Commonwealth Blue Charter, adopted during the 2018 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

The country now incubates a series of programmes which alleviates poverty as well as involves the community to protect mangroves.

“We started working on mangrove restoration programme with a vision to inspire communities to take the lead,” Mr Premathilake said. “The work included creating awareness about mangroves and showing locals the economic benefits of protecting mangroves. The programmes bring income to local people by promoting ecotourism in the mangroves areas. The financial factor encourages locals to take the ownership of this process,” he concluded.

The scheme is supported by the government and includes a combination of laws, regenerative development models and re-growing mangroves. It has formed part if the school curriculum, creating a future generation of environmental champions. The officials are hopeful that other Commonwealth countries will follow in their footsteps and adapt the lessons Sri Lanka has learnt on the way.