VICE PRESIDENT LEO A. FALCAM
16TH ANNUAL PACIFIC ISLANDS CONFERENCE "SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
IN THE PACIFIC ISLANDS"
POHNPEI, JUNE 16, 1997
Check Against Delivery
I am very honored by the opportunity to address this important
gathering as you begin an entire week's intensive examination
of diverse, but interrelated subjects, all key elements of a
single concept - Sustainable Development. We are here to ask
ourselves how it is being, and could be better pursued in our
Pacific Islands. You are among the best qualified in the Pacific
Region, along with our distinguished colleagues here from the
United States, to participate in sharing the results of all our
efforts so as to learn and profit from this experience. Thus,
it is not necessary for me to dwell on specific issues that you
will be addressing.
It does occur to me, however, to wonder if everyone here has
a clear idea of the goal, the ideal, the concept of this thing
called "Sustainable Development." A little over a month
ago, it became clear at a meeting of the Commission on Sustainable
Development at U.N. Headquarters in New York, as delegates met
to prepare the agenda for the five-year review of Agenda 21 by
the General Assembly, that countries coming from different points
of view have different ideas concerning this seemingly simple
term. Perhaps it would be more useful at the outset of this Conference
for us to take a minute to make sure that we are all on a common
The concept of sustainable development as a global principle
was introduced at the United Nations Conference on the Human
Environment, in Stockholm, in 1972. That Conference was the first
major international gathering to look at the overall effect of
human activities on our planet as a whole. The Conference came
up with what was a substantial departure from classic thinking
before then. It was that, contrary to popular belief, environmental
goals could be pursued in concert with, rather than in conflict
with economic and social development. The motivation was that
if we don't take the trouble now to use what we have sensibly,
we run the risk of leaving our children with less than we ourselves
were given. In other words, as the US Director for the United
Nations Environment Program put it so well recently in New York,
"Let's use it as though we intend to stay for awhile."
That is the underlying rationale for Sustainable Development.
Today, twenty-five years later, people still ask what does
it really mean. This probably reflects the fact that it is a
concept, and not a thing to be seen and touched. It might
seem odd that the UN system and nations all over the world are
trumpeting their commitment to something they are unable precisely
to define. Perhaps this is because the spirit of Sustainable
Development is universally accepted, but its applications
are just too varied and diverse to permit one definition that
fits all circumstances. Another way of looking at it is that
to try to adopt an "official" definition would have
the effect of drawing boundaries and limiting the concept before
its potential has been realized.
Thus, we may have to work without a convenient, clear-cut
definition, even though we understand the underlying concept.
But still, people are still struggling to understand what to
expect from it. In other words, we ask, "What does it mean
for us, as we continue our ongoing struggle as island
states in the Pacific Ocean?"
It is one thing to recognize that Sustainable Development
implies husbanding of natural, social and human resources so
that future generations can continue to develop. This sounds
simple enough, but it is important to remember that it involves
different concerns for developing countries. In many ways, the
island country is better off, starting with a clean slate but
having access to the past experiences and technological progress
of the developed world. And, no longer being hampered by the
old "zoo mentality," we need no longer feel threatened
by environmental considerations as we plan for our future.
At the Rio Conference in 1992, the largest gathering of world
leaders in history agreed, and incorporated into Agenda 21, that
small island developing countries face special problems with
sustainable development. This led to the convening, two years
later, of a global U.N. conference in Barbados to work out a
plan of action to assist small island developing states in overcoming
these problems. It is a good plan, and it even has the support
of a special staff within the United Nations Secretariat, but
with what is now a three-year track record many are still wondering
how this highly-publicized "sustainable development movement"
is really relevant to our efforts out here in the Pacific.
In looking over the agenda for the Conference, I am impressed
by the wide diversity of topics and areas in which Pacific Islanders
have been working on aspects of Sustainable Development. We must
also be grateful for the assistance we are receiving from the
United States and other bilateral and multilateral sources. Our
strong regional cooperation through agencies such as SPREP, through
our work with the Alliance of Small Island States, and through
conferences such as this one are enabling us to leverage the
benefits of investments in Sustainable Development projects many
times over, and these are excellent opportunities.
But without intending to inject a sour note into this happy
occasion, I want to say that my highest hopes for this Conference
are to identify ways of overcoming the essentially marginal position
of the Pacific Island countries in this global movement. By that
statement I certainly don't intend to imply disrespect for the
strongly dedicated efforts of all of you here, or to take anything
away from your accomplishments. But the sad fact is that many
of us, including the FSM, have started from so far down on the
development ladder, and suffer so many inherent constraints such
as small widely-dispersed populations and small land areas, that
we are at serious disadvantage in participating on an equal basis
with other countries in advancing the global agenda for Sustainable
Development. Frankly, in many cases we have just not yet sufficiently
developed the internal techniques and capacities to claim the
share of the Sustainable Development pie that we need and deserve.
But this is a concern that all nations should share - not
just ourselves. All States, large and small, developed and developing,
at last have begun to realize how closely the world's oceans
are linked with the well-being and long-term survival of mankind.
the previously-unimagined fragility of oceanic eco-systems is
being seen now in frightening ways. Coral reef structures - the
rainforests of the seas, are being seriously damaged and in many
cases destroyed. Fish stocks once thought to be inexhaustible
are disappearing. And even in distant oceans, scientists are
finding alarming evidence of degradation in water quality traceable
to faraway sources of human pollution. These discoveries are
undeniable evidence that all have a stake in assisting small
island states to develop wisely, and to reexamine previous practices
globally in order to minimize human-induced damage to the world's
indispensable and all-pervasive resource, the oceans. These discoveries
also speak to the fact that, as former FSM President Bailey Olter
reminded the Rio Delegates in 1992, when speaking on behalf of
the South Pacific Forum:
"The Pacific is both valuable to future generations for
its vast resources and home to present generations of peoples
who have never willingly accepted that their backyards be made
dumping grounds or testing and disposal areas."
To the rest of the world, the map may look pretty empty on
this side of the globe, but to all of us it is as much a homeland
as any continental landmass. We must treat it accordingly, and
we must defend it just as strongly.
Earlier I said that there is a need to overcome a certain
marginalization of our region in the so-called "big picture"
of international efforts toward Sustainable Development. If my
feeling is correct, I don't think it is because Pacific countries
have dropped the ball in the greater international scramble triggered
by the Rio Conference. Quite the contrary, it is obvious that
over the next few days there is to be a very impressive sharing
of efforts and experiences across a wide spectrum of developmental
concerns which will show a deeply sophisticated knowledge and
appreciation for the emerging principles of sustainability. After
all, as our FSM delegates pointed out both in Rio and in Barbados,
our ancestors in the islands have a centuries-old tradition of
sustainable practices without which none of us would have survived.
Thus, we Pacific islanders can grasp the concept of sustainability
and its relevance to modern-day island development more readily
Just in our own country alone, the FSM, I am deeply respectful
of the wide-ranging work that has been coordinated since Barbados
by our Presidential Council on Environmental Management and Sustainable
Development under the leadership of President Nena. As the new
Chairman of that body, I will do my very best to continue to
advance that vital program. But it is clear that even our best
efforts utilizing the tools at our disposal are not enough. We
need to be much better positioned, individually and collectively,
to assert the needs and interests of the Pacific Island community
as the global community proceeds down this historic pathway.
It is not a good sign that at the recently concluded meeting
of the Governing Council of the Global Environmental Facility
there was not one single new project presented by a Pacific Island
country to this global funding mechanism that supports the Climate
Change Convention, the Biodiversity Convention and projects having
to do with international waters. Granted, there have been significant
projects pursued in all our behalf before that agency by SPREP,
as well as a few country-specific projects. One of the former,
a watershed protection project, will be implemented here in Pohnpei,
so I do not wish to appear ungrateful.
But on the overall scoreboard, the Pacific Islands have not,
in my view, claimed our rightful share of the global resources
being brought to bear. I think there is a very important reason
for this, and it is no reflection whatsoever on any country or
intergovernmental body. We, as islanders, have found ourselves
immersed rather suddenly in a global process that is entirely
new to us, but not necessarily unfamiliar to many other developing
countries in other parts of the world who have been running along
the so-called "development circuit" at the UN and elsewhere
since long before Rio. Simply put, we are not up to speed.
The standard answer to this problem within the UN community
is something called "Capacity Building." The view is
that you have to start small in underdeveloped areas, because
we can only absorb so much, and that initial support has to be
given to help us build our capacities, not only to conceive and
apply for projects, but to absorb them.
However well-intentioned that attitude may be, I strongly
feel that it is holding us back unfairly in the context of Sustainable
Development. I think that some, if not all, of the developed
countries have been all-to-willing to continue to work with their
familiar developing country partners in these new areas of climate
change, biodiversity and international waters while the rest
of us are politely shuffled off into a limbo called, "Capacity
Building." This is not a mean thing, it is just human nature.
So what do we do about it? What can we do about it?
I think we need to start with our many good friends within donor
governments, such as our U.S. EPA friends here, as well as our
supportive international agencies, and say that we need something
more. If this movement is truly global in nature, and if it is
based on a sincere global concern, then everyone, both
North and South, has an interest in seeing that no major region
of planetary resources is marginalized in this exercise.
I am just yet a little too new to this area to suggest technical
approaches, whether in the nature of allocations to regions or
otherwise, but I do know that as Pacific Island countries our
efforts must focus on strategic considerations at the same time
as we concentrate on our regional and country work.
I truly believe that the nature of this region should command
more concern, attention and support from the rest of the world
than it has been given. But at the end of the day, only we ourselves
can press that case, and we must begin from a solid base of united
regional effort that is represented by what each and every one
of you are engaged in doing.
Forbearance, discipline, concern for others, commitment, action.
These are the building blocks of sustainable development not
only for small island developing countries, but for the world.
What we succeed with here obviously will have critical value
to all Pacific Island countries, but should we fail to
achieve our greater purpose, it will be a grave loss for all
humankind. With common resolve and God's will, this Conference