Pacific Island launches crowdfunding to protect its waters

New York | AFP

For less than US$150 (R$737), it is possible to support the protection of 1 km² of water in Niue, a small island in the western South Pacific with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants.

Located between Fiji and the Cook Islands, the area known as the “Rocks of Polynesia” is home to coral reefs and seamounts that are home to sharks, dolphins, turtles and other species.

But for one of the world’s smallest nations, finding funding to protect these habitats from the threats of illegal fishing, climate change and pollution is a challenge.

“We have been attending conferences to tell our story for a long time, but it seems like we are getting nowhere,” the island’s prime minister, Dalton Tagelagi, said in an interview at United Nations headquarters in New York. He sees summits between heads of state and government in the UN General Assembly as “solemn talks without action.”

The new plan is an attempt to reverse this scenario. Ocean Conservation Commitments (OCCs) allow companies and individuals to pay as little as 250 New Zealand dollars about US$149 (R$732) to protect a 1km² unit of the country’s water surface. Anyone who contributes receives a certificate and an annual progress report.

The government’s idea is to protect 127,000 km² of marine area, or 40% of its waters, based on estimated revenues of US$18 million (R$88.4 million) over 20 years. According to Tagelagi, the government itself is financing 1,700 housing units, one for each resident.

One of the politician’s concerns is the threat posed by fishing in protected areas.

Today, much of this activity is carried out using traditional canoes as a means of making a living. But as food refrigeration equipment and technology improves, the amount of fish caught is also increasing, says Brendon Pasisi, project manager at Niue Ocean Wide, a publicprivate entity responsible for the financing initiative.

There are fears that this context increases the risk of foreign fishing fleets in protected areas and that plastic pollution and the influx of industrial waste are contributing to the deterioration of the marine environment.

“It is a huge area that needs to be covered with patrol boats. That’s why we’re looking at drones,” says Prime Minister Tagelagi.

The island is approximately 60 meters above sea level at its highest point and is not at risk of being covered by sea level like many others. But climate poses a threat in many ways: Ocean acidification and warming threaten marine life, including corals, and rising sea levels could contaminate the island’s freshwater sources.

Climate change is also increasing tropical storms, which Niue has already suffered from. The island struggled for years with the aftermath of Category 5 Cyclone Heta in 2004.

The model is “very innovative,” says Angelo Villagomez, a researcher at the Center for American Progress and an expert on nativeled conservation. “If we want to combat climate change and protect marine resources, we must give money to these frontline communities,” he said.

Villagomez added that this is crucial to the entire process from purchasing ships and fuel to developing management plans and paying salaries for rangers and scientists.

Success can be measured using key indicators, says the researcher. “Are there more fish? Are climate protection measures being implemented?” he explains.

However, a communication effort may be required so that the public understands the protection of marine areas in the same way as that of natural parks. Something real and tangible, he says, not just on paper.