Government of the Federated States of Micronesia




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 wavelength.

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 than most.

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 will succeed.