Siobhan Patia: The ocean that connects the islands

Taku kainga - my home

The Pacific Ocean has the most islands compared to other oceans in the world. Aotearoa is one of my island homes in that ocean. The others are mainly Samoa and the Cook Islands, where both my father and mother were respectively born and raised. I tend to forget that Aotearoa (or “New Zealand”) is also an island state. Life on this ‘developed’ island is distinctly different compared to the other ‘developing’ islands in the Pacific Ocean, some of which New Zealand is protectorate of or previously were.

On this notion of protectorates is the concept of territories. Over several of the island states within the Pacific Ocean are territories under the United States of America, France, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Territories have varying levels of independence from these more powerful sovereign states but what they will all have in common is control of international relations by the more powerful state. Played out at an international level, it can often appear that the ‘big brother’ is looking out for the vulnerable state. Nuances of this is in the New Zealand position statement towards the call for action for this conference. New Zealand aligns itself with the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) statements in relation to the conference however this is highly questionable. New Zealand is a protectorate of two other member states out of seventeen to the PIF. In effect New Zealand has greater political authority in PIF, without even beginning a discussion on the power imbalances that aid adds to the equation. The initial PIF statement is slim. Is this because of the power imbalance between New Zealand and the member states (other than Australia)?

 To le sua ocean trench in Samoa

To le sua ocean trench in Samoa

Sustainable development goals framework

The Ocean Conference focuses on sustainable development goal 14 (“SDG 14”) which forms part of the post-2015 development agenda. Attached to the 17 goals in total are also targets which generally are quite subjective and has flexible language. SDG 14 reads,

Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.

Compare this to SDG 15 which reads,

Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

On an initial reading, there is much more emphasis on kaitiakitanga or protection for land than there is the ocean. Although sustainable use is mentioned in both SDGs, the use of development occurs only in SDG 14 but not 15. Here-in is where the critique lies; can we actually achieve sustainable development of non-renewable resources? Particularly considering that the earth’s population continues to grow daily? Has the development agenda encroached too far into the realm of sustainability? One of my goals in attending this conference is to understand what political and personal positions our leaders in attendance think.

 Main wharf on Mitiaro after maroro (flying fish) season.

Main wharf on Mitiaro after maroro (flying fish) season.

International agreement and systemic change

Whether or not the SDG framework, including SDG 14 will bring about desirable change to the already complex-adaptive system that international law will be up for debate come year 2030. The ever-growing body of science describing the rapid deterioration of ocean ecosystems illustrates that there needs to be a wake up call for our politicians and law makers last year. Although the march for science speaks to the highly relative issue of climate change, it can be said that too ought to influence how we legally choose to address the goals and targets for SDG 14 and interdependent goals.

What we need at the end of the day is for our political leaders to genuinely and deeply agree on sustainability and protection of the oceans as a priority; and with that, maybe a serving of alcohol because not everyone will be happy with that decision (disclaimer: I do not promote alcohol as a method of addressing stress or disagreement). The reality is, if we continue focusing on short-term gains, we will only end up with long-term loss.

My goals for this fellowship and conference

Having had the opportunity to experience and volunteer with UN Youth New Zealand and UNMGCY, what you get out of these events is really the effort you put into it. I definitely think the same of this upcoming Ocean conference. One of my goals for this conference is to connect with delegates from the Pacific island nations to find out where I can add value to their position. I also want to meet other indigenous groups and learn about sustainable practices within their cultures. Alongside that, I also want to surround myself with and understand the political nuances between countries which I read and hear about but have not often seen in person. Finally, I want to learn as much as I can about the science, innovation and technologies relative to ocean health.

I have the privilege of having this experience with a close cousin on my mother’s side, Ant Vavia, whom I have grown up with. He is a marine biologist. I am a non-practising-lawyer still trying to figure it out in a completely different sector (but thoroughly enjoying it). He is working directly in this field and I encouraged him to apply for this opportunity. I admire his passion, dedication and hope he helps advance a more sustainable vision for the Pacific ocean. I also chose to apply because I want to help protect the sea that connects my island homes.

 Vai Nauri, natural fresh water cave in Mitiaro, one of the fifteen Cook Islands. 

Vai Nauri, natural fresh water cave in Mitiaro, one of the fifteen Cook Islands. 

Pacific sea of islands

My parents, for a range of circumstances, did not have the opportunity to pursue higher education. They came to Aotearoa and made this place home to give me that opportunity. Directly, that was to ensure I have a better life. Indirectly, I like to think that was to help define what a better life actually means for me, for them and navigating how we do culture moving forward. 

Growing up, it was very important to both my parents that I spent time on all these islands getting to know the family, the culture and the historical places. This constant travel between islands has forged my transnational identity. I care about Aotearoa and I care about both Samoa and the Cook Islands. I want to help protect what connects these homes for my parents, community, and the life that inhabits below our sea of islands (Ha’uofa, 1994). As they have taught me growing up, we are people of the sea. 

Samoan proverb
E lē falala fua le niu, 'ae falala ona o le matagi.
The coconut tree doesn't sway on its own, but is swayed by the wind. 
Meaning: all things are connected, beyond human interaction; for every action there is a cause and an effect. 

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.


 Paddling on the waka in the Manukau Harbour, Tamaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. 

Paddling on the waka in the Manukau Harbour, Tamaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. 

Posted on May 29, 2017 and filed under UN Ocean Conference 2017.