• By Louella Losinio

Back to the basics: Covid-19 pushes Pacific islands to take a harder look at sustainability developm

Small island developing nations continue to find ways to navigate toward long-term sustainability. Many small islands, whether located in the Pacific, Caribbean or the Atlantic, share similar challenges posed by their unique geographical situation such as their reliance on imported food and energy sources, vulnerability to natural disasters, climate change and other environmental issues that include the presence of invasive species

Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has added another dimension to the discussion of achieving sustainability among island nations. The most recent University of Guam Island Sustainability Conference shed light on this emerging challenge and how island communities can adapt to these changes.

Most Pacific Island territories and countries also rely on tourism to build their economies. The Covid-19 pandemic has once again proven the volatility of this industry that prompts a fresh look at their lands to cultivate agriculture to develop a homegrown industry that does not rely on outside elements.

The virtual conference itself has adapted to the times by using a platform that has gained traction during the pandemic: the virtual or online conference.

Dr. Thomas Krise, UOG president, set the mode for the discussions by saying that the pandemic highlighted sustainability issues and also offered opportunities for enhancing community resiliency and adopting sustainable practices on island.

Krise noted that the pandemic has called so much attention to Guam’s dependence on outside food sources. “Ninety percent of what we consume on Guam is imported and I’m sure that is a similar figure from the other islands,” he said.

He also centered on the university’s role in facilitating the process by providing research and training, and how multisectoral alliances within the community and across island borders could make this happen.

The role of multisectoral and international alliances has been repeatedly emphasized across sustainability forums, according to the Local 2030 Islands Network, which brings together island nations, states and communities from all over the world. The network aims to promote solutions to unique island issues and supports the local or community-based implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. In fact, the formation of the Network was announced during the U.N General Assembly in September 2019.

The network recently launched a Covid-19 online platform, which seeks to “connect island communities and partners working on various dimensions of sustainable development as they meet urgent challenges posed by Covid-19.”

So far, the network has convened several virtual conferences focusing on topics such as technology access, responses to crisis and risk reduction, economic recovery and resilience, building a resilient tourism economy, and strengthening food security. Agriculture is essential in providing for food security, population growth and surplus social production on Pacific Islands.

Food security is particularly important for a small, isolated island economy where a stable supply of food is often interrupted by natural disasters such as typhoons, tsunami, climate change, and most recently, Covid-19. Quite often, for these small islands, domestic food supply is the last resort for survival when natural disasters occur.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has noted that agriculture in the Pacific Islands is on small acreages, often using subsistence farming, with access to limited processing and packing facilities. “Communities currently are reliant upon imported foods, making food security a large concern. Regulatory and communication barriers exist between local communities thousands of miles away from program managers in Washington D.C.,” USDA.

Dr. Spencer Thomas, ambassador of Grenada and interim steering committee chair of the network, spoke during the virtual conference about the new platform. “Covid-19 has led us to modify our plans,” he said.

“In these times of unprecedented challenges and uncertainty, islands could use a space to come together for mutual solidarity, support and engagement, sharing and solutions. While the immediate need is to secure life and livelihoods, we also need to put in place plans for recovery and for resilience.”

He said islands have common challenges and it would be beneficial to see what the other islands are doing to address these challenges. “In Grenada— with the lockdown that we have right now — as we seek to address the loss of biodiversity, as we seek to prepare our national determined contributions in response to the Paris Agreement, and as we continue to reel in the socioeconomic constraints of fiscal imbalances, high external debt, unemployment, the closure of the tourism industry….we seek to do this while being reminded of an active 2020 hurricane season, which begins in a few weeks’ time,” he said.

Thomas added that the network is indispensable to this journey and is critical to forging alliances and solidarity among other island nations in order to build the national resilience necessary to address development needs in the context of the sustainability goals.

Celeste Connors, executive director of Hawai’i Green Growth, said island economies benefit from thousands of years of systems thinking toward sustainable resource management. She shared how the Green Growth model worked in Hawai’i.

Connors spoke about their experience and the connection of public-private partnerships and the ability to measure progress played a part in achieving their goals and implementing concrete actions.

She said these have been integral in providing a framework that allows Hawaii to pivot in response to the Covid-19 challenges.

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In Hawaii and elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic has caused disruption at a scale of a natural disaster although it is not yet disrupting physical infrastructure,” Connors said, adding that it is not only a public health crisis but an economic crisis that has affected their supply chains, tourism, business and social activities.

The outbreak also revealed both vulnerabilities and strengths in Hawaii’s ability to withstand the Covid-19 crisis.

Connors said it helped that the Green Growth was conceptualized as an economic strategy back in 2009 when the state was experiencing a financial crisis.

At that time, leaders of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development gathered to strengthen efforts to pursue green growth strategies a part of their response to the current crisis. She said it was an acknowledgement that “Green” and “Growth” go hand in hand. So, these include a variety of strategies from pursuing green investment to sustainable management of resources. It also involves using efficient and effective climate policy that makes the transition to low carbon economy in the way that increases security and create new source of economic growth and employment.

Closer to home, the freely associated states are now feeling the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic. Just recently, the Department of Interior-Office of Insular Affairs announced the publication of three technical notes from the Graduate School USA’s Economic Monitoring and Analysis Program (EconMAP).

The technical notes provided an initial assessment of the economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and Palau. The global pandemic forced all three governments to implement strict travel and border regulations to protect its citizens, but at the cost of losing tourism and other related revenues.

“While each of the three freely associated states continues to remain free of Covid-19 cases, the slowdown and near termination of transportation across the region has had strong repercussions on their economies,” said Assistant Secretary Doug Domenech. “It is hoped that the data and analyses in these technical notes can help illuminate impacts as FAS leaders draft fiscal measures and implement mitigation strategies to maintain financial and economic stability now and as they emerge from the impacts of Covid-19.”

The EconMAP projections, “assumes that travel will remain limited for all three of the FAS through fiscal year 2021 or until a Covid-19 vaccine is developed,” according to the Department of Interior.

According to the report, Palau is projected to experience a 22.3 percent decline in GDP and a loss of 3,128 jobs, primarily in the private sector. Meanwhile, Palau’s fiscal deficit is projected reach $40 million. Compact grants and trust fund revenues are also expected to alleviate the losses.

Like many island nations, a huge chunk of Palau’s labor sector — around 20 percent— work in tourism or tourism-related industries. During the last fiscal year, nearly 100,000 visitors traveled to Palau but with the Covid-19 pandemic. For this current fiscal cycle, the report projects a 51 percent reduction in arrivals.

In the FSM, the hotel and restaurant industries are projected to fall by 46 percent in FY 2020 and then an additional 75 percent in fiscal year 2021. The FSM is projected to see a 6.9 percent decline in GDP and a loss of 1,841 jobs. According to the report, this represents an 11 percent reduction in employment levels from 2019.

While the Marshall Islands’ economy is not too reliant on tourism, the report projects losses in public sector revenues, which includes the fishing industry. The report mentioned that the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority is already seeing declines ranging from 30 to 50 percent across aquarium fish exports, the tuna loining plant operations, purse seining operations, and shore-based support to the longline fishing industry.

The Marshall Islands also continues to implement a travel ban in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. According to the report, this impacts wholesale fuel operations and aviation fuel sales, which is projected to drop by 45 percent.

While the Marshall Islands is projected experience a 6.9 percent decline in GDP and a loss of 716 jobs, the report notes that it will benefit from outside donor assistance.

On top of the long-term goal of achieving sustainability and addressing other challenges, all three nations are battling the new challenges brought on by the global Covid-19 pandemic.

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