James Tremlett: Embarking

It’s an honour to be here in New York with such an astounding group of young folk from Aotearoa.  Having spent the last eight months away from our islands, it’s wonderful to be among familiar accents and perspectives.  All are deeply committed to our oceans and the peoples who depend on them.

Yesterday our delegation had two very different meetings.  We began with high-level policy dialogues with the permanent representative of the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) to the United Nations, talking about the history of the Sustainable Development Goals and their relationship to practical changes at a local level.  For someone sceptical about whether international agreements such as the SDGs can truly influence environmental practice at the level that matters (on the ground, or in the water), it was useful to think through their potential and their limitations.

It’s encouraging to see the breadth of the ten targets under SDG14, the goal relating to life under water: addressing marine pollution, fisheries subsidies, poor institutional frameworks and other contributors to declining ocean health.  At both national and international levels, there is a frustrating tendency for oceans issues to be reduced to discussions around spatial targets for Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).  At last year’s IUCN World Conservation Congress, for instance, marine discussions were dominated by controversial proposals for a new global target to incorporate 30% of the world’s oceans into MPAs.  While important, MPAs are in many ways an easy win that do nothing to address many of the major causes of degradation to our oceans - diffuse impacts such as plastic pollution, climate change and ocean acidification.

Our second meeting was with WE ACT, a grassroots organisation based in Harlem which organises communities in north Manhattan around environmental justice.  Their dedication to their own place, and their deep sense of responsibility for the wellbeing of their community, was inspiring to many of us.  In Aotearoa it’s less common to consider ecological damage as a justice issue, at least within the mainstream environmental movement.  I came away thinking that this is something we are missing, and that we would be strengthened as a movement by the sense of direction and energy present in justice organisations like WE ACT.

This afternoon I sat in the sunshine in Central Park, thinking about how this conference intersects with questions of justice.  The official plan is that there will be very little actual negotiation over the coming weeks.  The Call to Action, the primary outcome document, has already undergone several drafts and revisions – before most of the delegates from States and civil society organisations have even arrived in New York.  An indigenous delegation from Aotearoa is arriving this weekend to emphasise the need to align both SDG14 and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  It’s hard to see how the omission of indigenous rights [A11] serves any purpose other than vested interests in the status quo, and it is certainly not in line with any meaningful conception of justice.  The indigenous peoples of the Pacific continue to lead the world in responsible stewardship of the ocean, as they have done for centuries.  It makes little sense for the parties to the SDGs to disregard this.

I write while listening to news reports that the US is likely to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.  This is sad news, although it’s heartening that other governments are stepping forward into the responsibility and mana of true global leadership.  Some of us convening in New York hold a broader hope: that considering the collective solutions for our oceans will encourage dialogue across the arbitrary lines that increasingly shape our world.  Protecting our oceans is necessary for all our futures, but we cannot do this by retreating behind borders.  We’ve got plenty of work to do here.

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

Posted on June 1, 2017 and filed under UN Ocean Conference 2017.