Meet the young climate official championing Fiji’s oceans

A blog by Chimaobi Omeye, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the second in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

Kushaal Raj is the Acting Manager for Climate Change and the Ocean Specialist for the Ministry of Economy, Government of Fiji, where he develops ocean policy and provides technical expertise for international negotiations on ocean-related climate challenges.

He is also responsible for updating Fiji’s progress on oceans within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – so is currently immersed in preparations for the global COP26 climate talks which take place next month.

Here, Commonwealth Correspondent Chimaobi Omeye interviews Kushaal Raj during the busy lead up to COP26, about his journey as a Fijian climate official for one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, during the most critical time in history for climate action.

What led you to become a climate change champion?

I started my career as an academic at the University of the South Pacific with a focus on renewable energy, after studying biology and chemistry.

My academic research group discovered the critical links between climate change and the renewable energy sector in Fiji. The University then championed further exploration of this link by developing the first programme in Fiji on Renewable Energy Management.

The passion I developed for climate change began there and took me towards a change in my career pathway. I diversified my knowledge through training and began aspiring to join climate change and oceans advocacy movements.

Kushaal Raj, Acting Manager for Climate Change and the Ocean Specialist for the Ministry of Economy, Government of Fiji

Why and how is Fiji is prone to climate change and ocean disasters?

As a large ocean state and developing Island Nation, Fiji – like the rest of the Pacific – is not immune to climate change.

We are vulnerable not only due to our small economies and inability to secure and adapt to climate-ready infrastructure, but the ‘doubled’ threat we face from multiple climate scenarios: sea level rise, coral bleaching, coastal inundation, intense and frequent cyclones, droughts, and others.

Fiji alone does not have the financial resources nor the technical capacity to address climate challenges, yet it trail-blazes efforts towards ensuring and increasing climate resilience through innovative policy interventions, coupling adaptation and mitigation co-benefits through nature-based solutions and integrated disaster risk reduction systems.

In what ways has Fiji been successful in rising above the challenges?

Fiji has always led through implementation; whether it was on mitigation through our Low Emissions Development Strategy, adaptation through our National Adaptation Plan or more recently on oceans through the National Ocean Policy.

Robust policy requires concise and effective implementation – which is what we are currently doing – through dialogue with mandated ministries and development partners, as well as the public through consultation on progress of actions within the ocean space.

This helps create greater awareness on the threats of natural disasters and what communities can do to assist in mitigating damage.

Climate policies

Apart from those stated, other notable policies include:

  • Fiji’s Five year and 20-year National Development Plan
  • The Third National Communication
  • The Planned Relocation Guidelines
  • The National Climate Change Policy
  • The Displacement Guidelines
  • Fiji’s Updated Nationally Determined Contributions and

Fiji has also complemented the Paris Agreement through its updated Nationally Determined Contribution, through which Fiji reaffirms its:

  • 2030 target under Article 4.11 of the Paris Agreement
  • Commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050
  • Commitment to enact its Climate Change Bill by 2021; and
  • To operationalise its National Adaptation Plan.

The Climate Change Bill, once endorsed, will be the legislative force which will ensure the implementation of numerous climate projects assist in Fiji ambitions to become carbon neutral.

In July 2019, Fiji successfully compiled its first Voluntary National Review (VNR) and presented it at the High-Level Political Forum in New York.

Fiji has learnt from its first progress report on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is now undertaking preparatory works for the compilation of its second VNR for presentation in 2022.

Fiji is also working jointly with the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs in strengthening advocacy, awareness and institutional readiness for the implementation of the SDGs across all sectors.

Ocean action

How does your work influence the attainment of SDG 14: Life Below Water?

Our work consists of collating information and reporting on ocean actions and activities within Fiji to Government, development partners and the international community.

As the oceans unit, our work automatically creates synergies with SDG14: Life Below Water, however our work is holistic and spreads across multiple Ministries, such as Fisheries, Foreign Affairs and Environment, due to the diverse nature of the ocean.

Fiji has already taken steps to expedite work within the area of SDG 14 specifically through the SDG unit of the Climate Change and International Cooperation Division of the Ministry of Economy, which will report on all SDGs and initiate a streamlined and directed approach towards collecting data on SDG 14, among others.

How do you work with communities?

Earlier this year we held a creek clean-up in Nabukalou. This was done in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and numerous civil-society organisations and was the first of many clean-up campaigns and events organised to raise awareness of pollution management, while we continue to improve other means of waste collection to protect the marine space.

The turnout was quite significant for the creek clean-up, particularly from young people – more than 100 people attended from registered community groups, faith-based organisations and the public.

Businesses have also taken initiatives to decrease their plastic pollution, which has been further assisted by the ban on single-use plastic bags in Fiji, which came into force on 1 January 2020.


How has Covid-19 and cyclone Ana impacted your work?

I believe the paradigm shift to virtual meetings due to COVID-19 has been the biggest change. Although avoiding the long transits to attend meetings has been a respite, the lack of first-person contact has been a hurdle for many to counter, especially during negotiations and high-level meetings.

We were fortunate that the cyclone did not cause as much damage to the capital city of Suva (our place of business) as it did in the northern areas of Fiji and as a result, much of our work was unaffected. However, there have been numerous challenges posed on our economy and climate aspirations, which is constant with frequent cyclones in Fiji.

An area we are currently lacking in is advocacy, but although our work is updated and regularly reported on the international and global stage, we have only recently started campaigning more widely on climate change issues domestically.

Our hope is to align our work with the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

The team is in the process of operationalizing the National Ocean Policy, as although the Policy is robust, its implementation will require multi-stakeholder input.

Similarly, as Fiji was devastated by the recent tropical cyclones Yasa and Ana, a pilot project called the Savusavu Blue Town Model is being developed to assist in rehabilitation in the northern division and as a foundation to improve economic resilience through investment in ecological resilience.

Advice for young people

Climate ambition without climate action is ineffective. Your passion about climate change should not end at advocacy, but if you have the capacity, should also diversify into assisting the community in curbing climate and oceans issues.

This could be done through clean up and community-led programmes, pilot projects on innovative climate solutions and advocacy of these issues within communities – this will also help the drive towards resilience.

Do you believe young people are given opportunities in Fiji and globally?

Youth participation has always been key for climate action in Fiji and the world. Greta Thunberg is an excellent example of how youths can make a difference.

For Fiji, Timoci Naulusala is a similar figure in the context of climate change and international youth leadership, who at the age of 12 gave the opening speech of COP23 in Bonn, Germany. He captivated world leaders on the impacts of climate change and remarked that the ‘blaming and waiting game’ was over and it’s now time for action.

Together for change

national climate youth summit with a focus on climate change was recently organised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports in partnership with non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations and the Climate Change Division of the Ministry of Economy, to inform youths on the importance of their roles in society as first responders and advocates for climate action.

They were also consulted on Fiji’s upcoming Climate Change Bill. It is an avenue to renew commitment towards youth-led community activities that address climate change and enable youth to better communicate and network on this issue with government ministries and development partners.

This youth leadership and collaboration is critical in addressing climate change. We must all work together for real change.

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the second in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

Share this blog series on social media using hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.

Case study: Impact Investing for Marine Sanctuary “Arrecifes del Sureste” by Blue Finance, Dominican Republic

The Commonwealth Blue Charter is highlighting case studies from the Commonwealth and beyond, as part of a series to spotlight best practice successes and experiences. Share your own case study with us.

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“Quite simply, MPAs [Marine Protected Areas] are one of the best tools we have right now for improving the health of the marine ecosystems. We can’t depend only on governments and grants to pay for marine conservation. We need a new source of financing that will allow for proper management – sustainable financing – and that is our role, to find investment opportunities that will contribute to better marine reserve management.” 

– Nicolas Pascal, Founder and Director of Blue Finance


The Marine Sanctuary Arrecifes del Sureste (“the Sanctuary”) in the Dominican Republic provides for the sustainable use of almost 8,000 km2 (800,000 ha) of highly biodiverse marine park, covers 100 km of coastline and supports the livelihoods of approximately 15,000 households. The Sanctuary is one of the largest Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in the Caribbean, consisting of the Eastern, Central and Southern Marine Management Areas. It encompasses vibrant coral reef ecosystems, several major urban centres and two of the country’s primary tourism centres that receive over 4 million visitors annually and consists of fisheries, tourism and conservation areas.

However, protection of the Sanctuary has not been implemented (essentially relegating the Sanctuary to the status of a “paper park”) as the Dominican Republic’s government struggles to deliver and enforce effective protection measures. The problem is not restricted to the Dominican Republic or the Caribbean: inadequate budgets and staffing are problems for many MPAs, making it difficult to meet even basic management needs.

Partners gather to launch the partnership for Marine Sanctuary “Arrecifes del Sureste.”

Blue Finance is a social enterprise that has partnered with the Dominican Republic’s government, communities, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), investors and entrepreneurs to design a novel co-management framework to enable the conservation of the Sanctuary. The co-management framework is a system of carefully crafted public–private partnership agreements that deliver social, environmental and economic outcomes to benefit all parties.

It is a 10-year renewable agreement that involves the creation of two co-management bodies (NGOs) that are expected to be financially sustainable and to generate their own incomes from a mix of sources such as user fees and innovative tourism models. The approach relies on the concept of innovative management leases for MPAs by co-management bodies that rely on tangible revenue models, leveraged by blended finance, to empower local communities. 

Blue Finance designed the co-management agreement with the government of the Dominican Republic, developed an investable model and the necessary secured blended finance from impact investors and philanthropic sources. Blue Finance is supported by the UN and has forged strong partnerships with impact investors Mirova-Althelia and other partners such as the Paul Allen Foundation.  

The issue 

Establishing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) is still one of the best ways to protect and manage coral reef ecosystems that can benefit coastal and wider communities. MPAs, when well managed, can support and improve ecosystems, thereby enhancing food supply, resulting in incomes for local and indigenous communities from (traditional) fishing, nature-based tourism businesses and protection of shorelines, leading to better resilience to climate change. A 10 per cent conservation target has been set as part of UN Sustainable Development Goal 14, with several nations supporting a 30 per cent target by 2030.

Funding for MPAs is often piecemeal, insufficient and short-term, and, without the necessary starting capital and basic social entrepreneur skills, MPAs cannot become financially sustainable on their own and over the long term. Meanwhile, impact investors and donors have communicated a clear need for a pipeline of viable investable projects in marine conservation. 

The Sanctuary Arrecifes del Sureste was created in 2009 but its protection has remained mostly inactive because the government does not have the required financial or human resources to manage the area. The region faces a number of challenges, both ecological and social in nature. Local impacts include degradation as a result of coastal development, tourism activities (especially diving), vessel groundings, anchor damage and fishing (recreational and subsistence). Meanwhile, the area has immense aesthetic value, resulting in a proliferation of coastal development. There is an urgent need for the Sanctuary to start the process of zoning and defining regulations with local stakeholders through a participatory approach. 

The response 

Two non-profit co-management organisations have been established, one each to look after the Eastern and the Southern sections of the Sanctuary. The co-management bodies develop the management plan and zonation of their areas with local stakeholders. They are also responsible for hiring and managing staff and purchasing the required equipment to carry out the activities agreed to by the government. 

The co-management organisations comprise local conservation non-governmental organisations (NGOs), local foundations of the major tourism holdings in the country and other associations.

Location of Marine Sanctuary “Arrecifes del Sureste” in the Dominican Republic

The co-management organisations are guided by an Advisory Committee comprising public and private members. An independent, internationally recognised institution will audit the performance of the co-management groups annually. Implementation will be guided by annual work plans, prepared by each co-management body, reviewed by the Advisory Committee and approved by government.

These activities, with collaboration from existing institutions, include the following: improving the health of marine habitats; monitoring, zonation and enforcement; community engagement and livelihood enhancement; support to tourism activities; and maintenance, management and marketing. 

The Sanctuary is divided into different conservation zones, a No Take Zone and recreation, fishery and transport areas. Each zone has its own regulation framework and management strategies. Currently, the Management and Marine Spatial plan is being developed.  

One of the co-management bodies has arranged major financing for initial capital expenditure (purchase of vessels, buoys, tourism facilities, etc.) through an eight-year loan from the Sustainable Ocean Fund. The Sustainable Ocean Fund is an impact investment fund managed by Althelia-Mirova. It is dedicated to creating, accelerating and executing sustainable fishery, aquaculture and coastal conservation projects globally, while applying best-in-class social and environmental governance. 

Partnerships and support

The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (Dominican Republic) has spearheaded the co-management project. The co-management company for the Eastern part of the Sanctuary (the Allianza Arrecifes del Este) includes Fundación Grupo Punta Cana (FGPC), Clúster Turístico Altagracia, Asociación de Hoteles Altagracia, Asociación Deacuáticas and Blue Finance Dominicana.

The co-management company for the Southern part of the Sanctuary (the Consorcio Arrecifes del Sur) is formed by Fundación Grupo la Romana, Clúster Turístico Bayahibe, Asociación de Hoteles Bayahibe, Fundación Dominicana des Estudios Marinos (FUNDEMAR) and Blue Finance Dominicana. 

Several NGOs that are part of the co-management organisations played a role in setting up the co-management bodies, as outlined below.

FGPC was integral in drafting the co-management plan for the protected area and getting approval for a co-management agreement. FGPC is an NGO with extensive experience in marine conservation. It has pioneered one of the Caribbean’s largest coral reef restoration projects and created several market-based community development projects, such as Zero Waste, the Dominican Republic’s first and largest corporate recycling programme. FGPC has also successfully implemented several innovative alternative livelihood programmes for local fishers and their families.

FUNDEMAR is another NGO partner that is dedicated to promoting the sustainable use of coastal marine ecosystems and resources through research, education and support for the development of conservation projects. It has a multidisciplinary technical team of biologists, ecologists, social scientists and educators capable of carrying out actions and projects with scientific rigour. 

CODOPESCA (Consejo Dominicano de Pesca y Acuicultura) is the Dominican government agency in charge of regulating, developing, promoting and supervising the management (including research) of fisheries and aquaculture. CODOPESCA establishes policies, strategies, norms, regulations and other instruments related to the use of fishery resources, based on participatory processes that encourage changes in user behaviour, leading to more responsible and sustainable development. 

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) SPAW-RAC is the Regional Activity Centre implementing the Protocol on Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife in the wider Caribbean region, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Caribbean Sea. The SPAW Protocol has a focus on marine and coastal biodiversity, such as sea grass beds, coral reefs, marine species (such as cetaceans and turtles), MPAs, etc.

One of its objectives is to promote and assist in the development and implementation of the guidelines on protected area establishment and management under the SPAW. 

Results, accomplishments and outcomes 

The co-management agreement was signed between the Ministry of Environment (Dominican Republic) and the co-managers of the two co-management bodies (the Allianza and the Consortio) in February 2018. The agreement prescribes which organisation is responsible for the delivery and management of the various social, environmental and economic outcomes. The Marine Spatial Plan under development and in the co-management bodies is in the final stages of preparation for investment. 

The early-stage activities are funded through direct cash and in-kind support from the founder members as well as grants from international institutions. Initial fees collected from users are expected to bring additional funding. The early-stage activities involve planning and strategic work – namely (i) completion of the management plans of the Sanctuary with stakeholders, (ii) design of the business plan of the co-management bodies, (iii) financial arrangements and (iv) legal arrangements.

Blue Finance seeks to upscale the approach used here to other five MPAs by 2021 in developing countries (with a final aim of 20 MPAs by 2030). The five MPAs have relevant works already underway, including late-stage developments in Belize, Cape Verde and Philippines. 


Developing complex co-management strategies for MPAs has taken much longer than initially anticipated, and this has been exacerbated by COVID-19. While the co-management agreement was signed fairly quickly, getting agreement from the co-managers has taken time. NGOs are not accustomed to dealing with financial instruments that require repayment, relying instead on government subventions or grants. Considerable effort is still needed to instil an entrepreneurial mindset among local stakeholders and to educate them in such approaches. 

The investment required for a single MPA is usually much less than the investor’s minimum investment size. Blue Finance had to assemble a portfolio of projects to make MPAs attractive for investors. As this is a new approach, information on financial performance and expected returns from MPAs is limited, resulting in some hesitation by governments and investors. A very thorough financial feasibility assessment was carried out to ensure that adequate revenue would be generated. Key Performance Indicators have yet to be agreed to by both parties. 

Key lessons learnt 

The co-management approach represents a type of public-private partnership, an undertaking known for being complex and time-consuming. However, the co-management approach can be replicated and scaled, making the time and effort invested in the developing the project and negotiating contracts applicable in other situations. 

The experience illustrates the value of using blended finance wisely, such as leveraging public funding (grants or philanthropic) to assist early-stage development. 

Developing and fostering entrepreneurial skills among local communities will remain vital to the success of the Sanctuary. These skills will need to be developed among locals to operate tourist visitor centres and other small tourism businesses to benefit from the conservation of the MPA.

Lead contact 

Director of Blue Finance: Nicolas Pascal: [email protected]


  • Avery, H. (2018) “Blue Finance: Why Marine PPPs Could Be a Win-Win-Win”. Euromoney, 5 June. 
  • Gill, D., Mascia, M., Ahmadia, G., Glew, L. et al. (2017) “Capacity Shortfalls Hinder the Performance of Marine Protected Areas Globally”. Nature 543: 665–669.

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Mangrove Blue Carbon for Climate Change Mitigation

NAIROBI, Oct 7 2021 (IPS) – Smelly, boggy, and full of bugs, mangroves’ superpowers are well hidden. However, there is rising confidence that mangroves are the silver bullet to combat the effects of climate change.

“Mangrove ecosystems are a habitat and nursery grounds for various plants and animals and can absorb three to four times more carbon than tropical upland forests, helping to mitigate the effects of climate change,” Dr Sevvandi Jayakody, a senior lecturer at Wayamba University of Sri Lanka, tells IPS.

A natural line of defence

Mangrove forests also act as a natural defence against storm surges, including mitigating the effects of cyclones and tsunamis, says Dr Nicholas Hardman‑Mountford, Head of Oceans and Natural Resources at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Within this context, he says, Commonwealth countries are working together under the Commonwealth Blue Charter, an agreement made by all 54 member states, to actively work together to tackle ocean-related challenges and meet global commitments on sustainable ocean development.

The Blue Charter works through voluntary action groups led by ‘champion countries’, who rally around marine pollution and the sustainable blue economy.

The Mangrove Ecosystems and Livelihoods Action Group consists of 13 countries, including Australia, Bahamas, Bangladesh, Guyana, Jamaica, Kenya, Maldives, Nigeria, Pakistan, Trinidad and Tobago Vanuatu, and the United Kingdom, is championed by Sri Lanka.

Hardman‑Mountford tells IPS that countries exchange knowledge centred on mangrove protection, management, and sustainability within the action group. Shared knowledge includes a wide range of topics, including policy, legislation, and regulatory frameworks.

Leveraging on the protective power of mangroves, Jayakody says that Sri Lanka is actively building its second line of defence. The country’s first line of defence, the reefs, were heavily compromised by the deadly 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami – one of the worst disasters in modern history, killing nearly 230 000 people across dozens of countries.

Such was the devastation that the government of Sri Lanka estimated losses of over $1 billion in assets and $330 million in potential output.

Worse still, approximately 35 000 people died or went missing. In Sri Lanka alone, property damage included 110 000 houses, of which 70 000 were destroyed. In all, at least 250 000 families lost their means of support.

Combatting the impacts of climate change

Experts say that mangroves have immense capacity to prevent such catastrophes and combat other devastating effects of climate change.

Bolstered by growing scientific evidence, Trinidad and Tobago, the dual-island Caribbean nation, has made significant strides in building its defence using mangroves.

Dr Rahanna Juman, Acting Director at the Institute of Marine Affairs, a government-funded research institute, tells IPS that in 2014, the government of Trinidad and Tobago commissioned an aerial survey of the country. Using this data, an estimate of carbon in mangrove forests across the country was ascertained.

“This information illustrated how mangrove and other hardwood forests could offset emissions and was incorporated into the Greenhouse Gas inventory of Trinidad and Tobago. Importantly, the survey conclusively demonstrated that mangrove forests store more carbon per hectare than other hardwood forests,” Juman expounds.

In 2020, the Institute of Marine Affairs received funding from the British High Commission to fund a mangrove soil carbon assessment project involving Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago.

Dr Juman indicates that the assessment found that “the amount of carbon in the mangrove soil was many times larger than the amount of carbon above the ground. This is an assessment that could be replicated in other Commonwealth countries because we have developed a low-cost technique of undertaking this important assessment.”

Adding that Mangroves are starting to be incorporated into the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) programme, which means countries could potentially earn money from protecting and restoring mangroves.

Mangrove blue carbon

Meanwhile, Hardman‑Mountford cites various challenges in exploring blue carbon because it is still an evolving area of science and policy.

Sri Lanka understands this challenge all too well. After the Tsunami, Jayakody says that the government launched vast mangrove restoration projects covering over 2 000 hectares in partnership with other agencies.

Due to limited information on mangroves, she tells IPS that a majority of these projects failed. Undeterred and leveraging on scientific research over the years, Sri Lanka is today a success story in restoring and conserving mangrove cover estimated at 19 600 hectares.

Other challenges facing countries keen on mangrove blue carbon include a lack of protection for mangroves because approximately 75 percent of mangrove forests globally remain unprotected and overexploited.

Over the years, Jayakody indicates that mangroves have been at a very high risk of destruction because their power to prevent coastal erosion, protect shorelines, and provide livelihoods for coastal communities through fisheries was not fully understood.

Hardman‑Mountford agrees, adding that mangrove forests have declined globally with a loss of between 30 to 50 percent over the past 50 years from over-harvesting, pollution, agriculture, aquaculture, and coastal development.

The Commonwealth has a huge role to play in reversing this decline. Overall, there are 47 Commonwealth countries with a coastline.

“Nearly 90 percent of Commonwealth countries with a coast have mangroves, and at least 38 of these countries with mangroves have provided some level of protection to their mangroves. In all, 16 countries have protected about half or more of their mangroves,” he says.

Image credit: Joyce Chimbi/IPS

This is a challenge that Sri Lanka is successfully overcoming. With an estimated 40 percent of the population in Sri Lanka living along the coastline, Jayakody says that there was an urgent need to protect both livelihoods and coastlines from further degradation.

“In 2015, Sri Lanka established the National Mangrove Expert Committee, and through that, all mangroves were mapped. More so, several new areas were brought under protection, and there have been relentless efforts to improve the communities’ understanding of the importance of mangrove ecosystem,” she says.

Further, Sri Lanka recently validated the Best Practice Guidelines on the Restoration of Mangroves in Sri Lanka and the national mangrove action plan, in line with the mangrove policy adopted in 2020.

Other countries making strides in the right direction include the Australian government’s involvement with blue carbon and especially ongoing efforts to build capacity in blue carbon science, policy and economics through multi-sectoral partnerships.

“To support its efforts in blue carbon advocacy and outreach, the Australian government launched the International Partnership for Blue Carbon (IPBC) at the UNFCCC CoP in Paris in 2015,” says Ms Heidi Prislan, a Blue Charter Adviser at the Commonwealth Secretariat.

Australia is also one of the 28 countries that refer specifically to the mitigation benefits of carbon sequestration associated with coastal wetlands in its National Greenhouse Gas Inventory. In comparison, 59 other countries mention coastal ecosystems as part of their adaptation strategies.

To increase opportunities for blue carbon to participate in the national emissions reduction scheme, the Emissions Reduction Fund, the Australian government has supported research into potential mitigation methodologies that could be implemented to generate carbon credits from domestic projects.

Equally important, she says that Commonwealth member countries have collectively made 44 national commitments to protect or restore mangroves.

As the world stares at a catastrophe from the devastating effects of climate change, the massive potential of blue carbon and, more so, mangrove blue carbon to bolster climate change adaptation, mitigation and resilience efforts can no longer be ignored.

This article was originally published by IPS.

How one young scientist is tackling plastic pollution in The Bahamas

A blog by Metolo Foyet, Commonwealth Correspondent

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us.

By 2025, it is estimated that The Bahamas will have around 687 million metric tons of plastic debris on its shorelines. This is more than the combined weight of the people who live on the islands.

One islander who wants to change this is Kristal Ambrose, environmental scientist and founder of The Bahamas Plastic Movement.

The Movement educates local people about plastic pollution through youth camps that use arts and data science to encourage policy change.

Meeting Kristal

I had the opportunity to speak with Kristal, an enthusiastic young islander who has been driving awareness of marine debris for over a decade and was recognised for her tireless work in 2020 with a Goldman Environmental Prize.

Kristal first learned about the dangers of plastic pollution in 2012, when she was on a sailing expedition in the Pacific Ocean to study the Western Garbage Patch, a 1.6 million square kilometre floating mass of plastic debris.

Isolated in the middle of the ocean, no aeroplanes flying over, no island in the distance, no boats passing by – just her, wildlife and: waste.

Kristal saw things that shouldn’t be in the middle of the ocean. Toys; a plastic comb that looked like one she had at home; a toothbrush of the same brand as that in her bag. And dead coastal animals tangled in plastic.

In particular, a sergeant major, the fish she had learned to identify when she first got into the field of marine science. Seeing that fish killed by plastic triggered a self-realization for Kristal: “I was the biggest plastic consumer that I knew. I was a huge part of the problem, and equally I felt I could be a huge part of the solution.”

Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Engaging youth

Soon after her trip, in 2013 Kristal started the Plastic Beach Project – a citizen science initiative which studied the concentration of plastic on local beaches.

Then, in 2014, she initiated the Plastic Pollution Education and Ocean Conservation Camp, a tuition free, summer-intensive program that engages young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. The program is funded through individual donations and small community grants from local and foreign organisations.

As the only member of staff, Kristal does all the logistics, fundraising, communications and research herself, but runs the summer camp with counsellors and volunteers.

Each year, the camp closes with a community show where students create songs, skits, poetry and dances related to plastic pollution.

“Whether you like it or not” – Poem by DeAnntae Hepburn, 7 years old, Plastic Camp 2019

Whether the sea be fine or whether the sea be not

Whether the sea be clean, but we know humans still haven’t fought

Not for the sea, not for the sand

Not for Bahamians’ gorgeous land

We have to change, whatever it takes

Whether we like it or not.

Success stories

Through beach clean-ups, school visits, citizen science projects and camps, Kristal has encouraged thousands of young people locally as well as globally to get into plastic pollution activism.

Some of her proudest achievements include:

  • Creating a ripple effect

One of the biggest impacts of plastic camp is the confidence young people leave the programme with. Kristal says they go home with “seeds of hope” that they plant in their communities through friends and families, which then blossom into new collective behaviours in society.

She says: “In 2019, I randomly saw one of the students from the camp. He was with his mother and had the exact same metal straw and metal cup that we gave him at the camp two years prior. His mother said he takes it everywhere and refuses to use any plastic. And that is just one isolated example, there are so many others.”

  • Taking the initiative

Another achievement Kristal is proud of is her resourceful networking. She was working at a field station on the island of Eleuthera when she first heard of the expedition to the Western Garbage Patch. By telling everyone about this $10,000 a seat trip, she eventually received support from a donor.

  • The Plastic Warrior Feedback Loop

The Bahamas Plastic Movement’s theory of change shows how graduated students come back into the programme to share their knowledge with other students.

Diagram designed by Metolo Foyet, based on model conceptualised by Kristal Ambrose

The Movement is also creating a ‘programmes manual’ to facilitate replication. But despite scaling her success, Kristal remains cautious: “I think having slow growth but high impact is important and once I am done with this chapter, we can get the board going. But right now, I am okay with the slow.”

  • Changing policy

At the end of the 2017 UNEP General Assembly in Nairobi, Kristal noted that most countries made a commitment to ban single-use plastic. But not The Bahamas.

Once home, she pulled her camps’ brightest students for a three-day workshop. They conducted a survey in the community to see if people would support a ban or tax on single-use plastic.

Next they worked with a local lawyer who taught them about legislation. Then in March 2018, students ranging in age between 10 and 14 years old, went with Kristal to the office of The Bahamas Minister of Environment and Housing.

Their efforts worked. On Earth Day 2018, April 22, the Minister announced that The Bahamas was banning single-use plastic, starting from January 2020.

  • Plastic Warriors Try

In 2021, alongside the regular camps, Kristal launched a sustainability and media communication program called ‘Plastic Warriors Try’. The fun, educational vlog series documents students’ journeys as they discover how to make their own products instead of buying new.

Kristal describes the week-long programme: “In the morning we learn about a new subject such as menstruation and look at how much waste is generated from that and what alternatives can be used. Looking at personal care products – all the toothpastes and deodorants and things that come wrapped in plastic – how can we make our own?

“In the Caribbean and Africa, we use a lot of synthetic hair, which is made from plastic. All of the gels come in plastic bottles. But there is a Black-owned company that makes hair out of plant-based material, and they take fibers from a certain type of plant and dye it, and you can braid your hair with it. It’s also compostable.

“Working with a local agricultural engineer, we’ll extract banana fibers from local banana trees to make our own hair. We are going to make our own gel from flax seed. We’ll learn about it in class, and the students will document how to make these things together when they are at home and will do their own video journal, and our editors will put them all together.”

Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

Facing challenges

While Kristal has seen much success, she still faces problems in her mission to raise awareness of plastic pollution locally. These include:

  • Ineffective waste management

The plastic ban in the country is just specific to single-use plastic, but other types of plastic are still making their way through, including water bottles, snack packaging and plastic films. This is because as a small island development state, The Bahamas relies heavily on imports.

More than 90 percent of everything consumed in the country is shipped in, leaving behind a lot of waste from foreign sources, such as food, batteries, light bulbs, cars and building materials.

A lot of this waste could be recovered and circled right back into the economy or into other projects, but for the most part it goes to landfill.

Kristal explains: “We need to really look at waste management because the reality is we are replacing one waste over another. We need to get plastic out of the supply chain. The landfills in The Bahamas make this even more complicated: we have so many islands, and right now it is hard to regulate these in a uniform way.

“On the smaller islands in The Bahamas, everything is landfill. It is all mixed, not separated, not properly engineered. They just burn it. This causes health and social justice issues because those toxins go into communities. It is a big issue there. We need more synchronicity and better strategies for our waste management in the country.”

Then there is the plastic that is washed in from the southern Caribbean, west coast of Africa and the tourism industry.

The Bahamian population is just under 400,000, but every year, 5 million people visit, bringing and generating a lot of waste. Cruise ships also leave their waste in the country.

On top of that is disaster debris. As climate change intensifies, storms are becoming more frequent and stronger. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian struck the islands of Abaco and Grand Bahama, leaving behind 1.5 billion pounds of debris. While it is a complex issue, it is all related to plastic.

Image credit: Dorlan Curtis Jr. and Jawanza-Small

  • Lack of ownership

Kristal has realised that although the health, environmental and economic impact of single-use plastic is well known, the convenience of plastic is embedded in society.  She also recognises that the narrative accusing locals for trashing the beaches is problematic, because a lot of plastic comes from other remote locations.

“Connection is key. I could go there and say ‘don’t litter, save the coral reef’, but if I haven’t been on that coral reef and not experienced the magic, I am not going to be as inclined to truly commit to it.

“Ownership is achieved by getting people outside of their comfort zone and getting them in nature, in the ocean, in these natural spaces, and getting them to really tap into what it does to their psyche. Getting them to love it and then they protect what they love.

“Through that connection you start fostering things like eating only certain fish when it is in season or using eco-friendly products.

“Shaming, blaming, and forcing people to do things doesn’t work. Communities effortlessly protect their habitats once people feel connected, listened to, engaged in dialogue and associated to decision-making.”

  • Tackling the problem at source

We keep talking about recycling plastic, but someone keeps producing it. Adopting sustainable manufacturing could help resolve the plastic issue.

Kristal explains: “Plastic is oil which is a big-money industry that does a lot of lobbying to overturn plastic bans. To properly turn off the tap to plastic pollution you need to turn off the tap to production.

“The production level of plastic is going to skyrocket by 2050 to billions of pounds, which is more than we produce every year. Industry is a big part of the conversation that is often left out.”

  • Social media

The changing culture due to globalization and the growth of social media have made it easier for young people to express their opinions.

Kristal believes young people are given more opportunities to speak up today, but warns that talking about plastic could be depressing and overwhelming, so mental health support is critical to effective activism.

“Growing up, I don’t remember seeing any young children on the frontlines fighting for change, and often it is because our voices were suppressed.

“Today, I see social media spaces where young people are encouraged to speak, step up and tackle so many issues. It is really empowering to see that.”

Image credit: Kristal Ambrose

Following a dream

Working with young people is rewarding Kristal believes, because they learn fast, bring new perspectives and are powerful and effective in their leadership.

Bringing passion, energy and creativity, young people think outside of the box, as well as being good with technology and social media.

“They think about things in different ways that I may not consider, and sometimes it takes the student saying ‘I don’t think this is going to work, what if we try it this way’.”

Kristal’s story shows that resilience and optimism are ingredients for success. It sends a message to everyone – especially Black and brown children in The Bahamas – that they can do it too. That there are no limitations.

She offers useful advice to young activist entrepreneurs: “It is going to be hard. People can project their fears onto you. You are going to have to remember your why and always come back to it. Be fearless and lead with the heart.

“My purpose is beyond plastic, it is really about representation and showing that you could be from a small community, a poor family, a non-Ivy League graduate, and still be a source of inspiration.”

To successfully empower communities to act on climate and environmental issues like plastic pollution, Kristal’s movement shows that we must help young people understand that they have the power to make a difference.

As we close our conversation, Kristal says: “The science is as simple as picking the plastic and counting it and using it as a tool of empowerment to say that science is for everyone.

“You don’t have to look a certain way to be a scientist. Our work is truly rooted in the hopefulness of engaging young people in education and activism around plastic pollution. It is challenging, but so fulfilling and joyful.”

To learn more about Kristal Ambrose’s innovative plastic pollution programmes, visit the Bahamas Plastic Movement.

This Commonwealth Secretariat blog is the first in a series launched during Youth4Climate and continuing in the lead up to COP26 and beyond, featuring young people from across the Commonwealth who are leading the way on local climate action. View the full blog series.

The blogs are written by fellow youth citizens from the Commonwealth Correspondents network. To be part of this series, contact us

You can share this blog series on social media with the hashtags #CommonwealthForClimate, #CommonwealthYouth and #BlueCharter.