Press Conference to Mark World Oceans Day

10 June 2013

Press Conference to Mark World Oceans Day

10 June 2013
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference to Mark World Oceans Day


Rising sea levels, inundation of salt water and more frequent severe weather events had made life on some low-lying islands “untenable”, an anthropologist specializing in the peoples of the Pacific islands said at Headquarters today.

“Many islanders are having already to relocate from their islands,” Jenny Newell said at a press conference to mark World Oceans Day, describing communities’ preparations to migrate and efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Ms. Newell, Assistant Curator of Pacific Ethnology in the Division of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, was accompanied by her colleague Alex de Voogt, Assistant Curator of African Ethnology, and Annebeth Rosenboom of the United Nations Division for Oceans and the Law of the Sea.  Ms. Rosenboom outlined the history of World Oceans Day and explained how her office worked with other organizations to mark the observance around the world, including last Saturday’s projection of various shades of ocean colours on the Empire State Building in New York City.

Mr. de Voogt said he would later deliver a lecture focusing on the Indian Ocean, describing how recent research had made some interesting connections between the various highly diverse peoples of the Indian Ocean that had previously gone unnoticed because that body of water was not studied as a single area.  He said he would provide a historical perspective on the existing connections, including those relating to migration and cultural exchange.

Ms. Newell said that, although the peoples of the Pacific were also very diverse, with the region making up almost one third of the global population, it was characterized by much sharing of cultural traditions and practices, in particular the shared rootedness in the soil.  The ground was “like the blood” of the people, she said, describing how islanders from Kiribati had been culturally resilient since being forced to move to Fiji due to phosphate mining destroying their island.

They had maintained their strong connection to the land and provided insights into how other communities might respond to losing islands today, she continued.  Traditional ecological knowledge was of great importance to the indigenous peoples of the Pacific, who were striving to adapt to nature’s growing unpredictability.  Despite the changes, their close and detailed observation of the species around them positioned them well to adapt.

Asked about a recent dispute over the Arctic region and China’s refusal to agree to arbitration on Asian waters, Ms. Rosenboom declined to answer, saying the focus today was on World Oceans Day.

When asked whether Hurricane Sandy was related to climate change, Mr. de Voogt said that, to an anthropologist like himself, the most interesting thing was that a discussion was taking place.  Ms. Newell, meanwhile, while stressing that she was not a scientist, said it “seemed fairly clear” that the change in ocean humidity and temperature did indeed increase the intensity of tropical storms around the world.

Asked about the relocation of people from Nauru to Australia, Ms. Newell said many Pacific islanders were heading to that country, as well as to New Zealand and the United States, though wholesale moves of entire communities had not yet occurred.  The President of Kiribati was preparing that island nation’s population for relocation with an emphasis on education, she said, adding that he wanted them to “migrate with dignity”.  The term “climate change refugees” was not yet an accepted term in the international community but estimates suggested that up to 75 million people from Asia and the Pacific would have to leave their homes by 2050.

When asked about a press release in which Somalia had rejected a filing by Kenya under the Law of the Sea, Ms. Rosenboom said she could not comment on press releases, but any such submission received via note verbale would be placed on the website of the Division for Oceans and the Law of the Sea.

Replying to a question about the impact of climate change on the East Coast of Africa, Mr. de Voogt said some cultural impacts were visible.  The East African maritime trade by dhow, long a major form of contact between East Africa and the Middle East as well as India, was affected by both climate change and piracy, which could lead to dramatic changes and influence cultural trade.  However, more basic research was needed, he said, noting that studies carried out in the last 10 years had uncovered links which he had “never dreamt of”, or even looked for before.

In response to a question about United Nations support for residents of the Caterite Islands, Ms. Newell said she was not aware of any.

Responding to a question about how long it would take for researchers to understand the impact of climate change on islanders and the ocean, Mr. de Voogt said it was impossible to answer because research would throw up more questions, adding that “years and years” of research would be necessary.

Ms. Newell added that local island managers were studying biodiversity and reefs while working with communities to establish how they were adapting to different fish stocks or new plant life.  Lots of material was being generated within the islands themselves, she added.

Asked what she would recommend for the large number of Asia-Pacific residents likely be forced to leave their homes due to climate change, Ms. Newell said it was important to talk to the people themselves and to support islanders in their choices.  In Tahiti, for example, some were planning to “stay put” because of their relationship with the land, while others were already planning for post-relocation.  The international community could help by providing resources.

When asked about existing partnerships with engineering firms, she said it was more important to work out how to accommodate islanders in other countries, emphasizing that there was no real technical solution.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.