Pacific Islands : the emergence of a regional cooperation on environmental migrations.

A month after COP23, Youth On the Move’ s team interviewed Dalila Gharbaoui, a researcher for the Observatory Hugo in Liège and the MacMillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies in Canterbury (New Zealand). Dalila is currently doing a thesis on relocalization policies and land management in the Pacific Islands, focusing on Fiji, New Caledonia and Solomon Islands.


YOTM: Dalila, you have just come back from the COP23, organized by Fiji in Bonn. Can you give us a little feedback about the main questions you addressed there ?


Dalila: Overall, negotiations remained quite superficial. When COP21 took place in Paris two years ago, it had been agreed that there would be formal negotiations every five years. Unfortunately, today the international community deeply ignores this principle. Despite the urgency of the situation, COP22 in Marrakesh and COP23 in Bonn have been way too symbolic. This is a shame. There should be more tangible deadlines to advance in these negotiations realistically.
Regardless, many topics have already been discussed. First of all, the impact of climate change on women has largely been addressed. Also, as Fidji was organizing the COP, all oceans-related stakes have been tackled. For instance, as many territories are predicted to disappear, the legislators make use of the existing maritime laws to design solution to these issues.
One needs to know that Fiji is not threatened to disappear under waters, unlike Kiribati or Tuvalu. However, its shores are damaged by natural hazards and erosion. There is therefore an urgent need for relocalisation of the hundreds of persons affected. This question has only been superficially addressed during the negotiations. No decision has been made for these people.
Another very crucial point that has been touched upon, in my opinion, is the question of cooperation and regional processes. At the international level, there is a great legal gap that will probably never get filled. Rather than focusing exclusively its efforts on furthering negotiations at the international level, one should rather build regional cooperation in places that share common cultural specificities. Once again, very little concrete decisions have been made at the COP, and we simply remain with light discussions at the moment.


YOTM: How does regional cooperation take place in the Pacific region ?


Dalila: The Pacific region has just started developing regional cooperation. Some frameworks begin to emerge, such as The Resilience Framework, thanks to the Pacific Island Forum and the Secretary of Pacific Communities. This setting is quite innovative as it promotes the idea that the local level shall prevail. It currently advise to act at the regional level first.

For example, following this Framework, the Fiji government has secured guidelines for planned relocalisations and aims at implementing them at the national level. This is happening for the first time. It’s pioneering. Even if these guidelines are not yet finalised, they can already be used as a basis by other countries faced with the same challenges.


YOTM: How do these relocalizations operate at the moment ?


Dalila : Until now, communities were leaving because they were left with no other choice and nobody could help them. Regional leaders were asking for some governmental financial help in order to support their communities. International Organisations were sometimes intervening. However they did not pay enough attention to the customary law, thereby creating massive disruptions in traditional land management.
The collective organisation of the land needs to be negotiated. Let’s take the example of the Matawalu village in Fiji. Matawalu is an interesting case because even if people there are not striving for survival, there are still living in very poor conditions. UN Habitat is in charge of supervising and financing this relocalisation project. In a situation of cultural relativism where relocalisation is a very sensitive topic, the village’s leader is often called upon and asked: “We are going to relocalise your village. Can we negotiate your land?”. The chef finds a piece of land 1km away, which he negotiates with another landowner. The latter accepts on the condition that half of the funds given by UN Habitat will be given to his own population. Only the other half will be used for the delocalised population. UN Habitat neither intervened nor followed up on the situation. As a result, the village inhabitants do not know who is going to move or not. This causes major tensions and threatens cultural cohesion. Taking into account the customary law and local interests is crucial but this has to happen in an informed context where all the interests at stake are taken into consideration.


YOTM: According to you, which solutions could be imagined to improve these relocalisation policies ?


Dalila: I think there are three major challenges to negotiation between these countries: Fostering regional cooperation, including local researchers in the context assessment, and considering land issues. There is a real lack of implication of local researchers in the process of planned relocalisation. Although they are the most competent to conduct this research, they are brushed aside for the benefit of Western researchers.
To get out of this rationale, we need to give up the current global approach and reinforce the existing local level. States need to show creativity without awaiting for UN institutions’ fundings.
The ideal would be, in my opinion, to create relocalisation offices in each departments at risk, so that each of them can identify issues linked to their territory, their resources and the proper financial and compensation mechanisms.

Each customary leader could come make a request. He would then manage the rest of the process. This small-scale framework, in line with each State standards, could help make relocalisation efficient, taking into account the customary law.
Unfortunately, Fiji is quite unstable politically as it has been faced with many coups d’états . A solid, grounded legal framework can only work in coordination with good governance.


YOTM: New Zealand has recently created a visa for “climate refugees”. Can you tell us a bit more about it ? Could this idea be replicated in other countries ?


Dalila : The visa that is being developed at the moment in New Zealand is a temporary experimental visa. This is a long-time promise made by the Green Party, which is today in power. This visa program will be exclusively addressed to Pacific Islands’ populations.
There is already a lot of working economic agreements in the region, specifically between Small Island States and New Zealand, or Australia. From there, they have tried to adapt these agreements to climate change concerns. The label given to the climate-displaced people is a very important challenge as many presidents from Small Island States are hostile to the idea that their populations be labelled as refugees. They would rather prefer economic migrants. We obviously have a very different perception of this issue in Europe.
This experiment is quite interesting but only addresses environmental migrations lightly. It however shows that it is possible to protect these populations by law, and of course, it does serve as a model for the rest of the world.


Interview conducted by Lucie Pelissier and Marine Denis. Translation by Morgane Ollier.