Small island states fight back against nature loss, climate change
Many island nations are struggling to escape poverty just as climate change accelerates the degradation of the natural resources that underpin their economies
We need transformative initiatives like this to make sure the compounded impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change do not lead to irreversible loss and damage
Day was dawning over the Comoros when two self-described eco-guards found the great bulk of a sea turtle motionless on the beach. The animal had laid its eggs in the sand and was gathering the strength to bury them before hauling itself back to the sea.
Had the men discovered it earlier in their patrol, they would have stayed to keep the turtle and its shallow nest safe until dawn, whether from natural enemies such as snakes – or nocturnal hunters lured by the turtle’s meat.
“This one has laid its eggs and is just trying to protect them,” said Chamse Said Mansoib, the leader of the patrol and chairman of a local development association. “But it is nearly half past five now, and people are up and starting to go about their work. So we can safely move on and let it return to the water on its own.” With daily life beginning on the island, chances are lower that people or animals would take the precious eggs.
Safeguarding endangered turtles in the Comoros is just one part of a gathering effort in small island developing states (SIDS) across the globe to protect and restore their unique and precious ecosystems for the benefit of both people and nature.
Many island nations are struggling to escape poverty just as climate change accelerates the degradation of the natural resources that underpin their economies. Coral reefs and fish stocks are in decline. Sea level rise is leading to the salinization of rivers and lakes, thus making freshwater scarce on the islands. Rising sea levels are also eroding coastlines battered by intensifying storms.
Being at the frontline of climate impacts, island nations are leading by example in tackling global environmental crises. For example, SIDS leaders pressed the international community to set the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C, the most ambitious target under the Paris Agreement. They have also turned chunks of their territorial waters into marine protected areas, making them vital players in global conservation, delivering on the new Montreal-Kunming Global Biodiversity Framework.
"To some, these islands are mere dots on the map," said Sai Navoti, chief of the SIDS unit at the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA). "But together they show that they are not only small and vulnerable, but indeed are large ocean states."
In recognition of the frontline role played by SIDS, the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration has chosen an initiative covering three island states – Vanuatu in the Pacific, Saint Lucia in the Caribbean and the Comoros in the Indian Ocean – among its first 10 World Restoration Flagships. These ambitious initiatives, announced during a star-studded ceremony in December 2022, are designed to showcase the far-reaching benefits that come when communities revive degraded natural spaces.
A grand vision
The UN Decade seeks to scale up and accelerate ecosystem restoration in order to address the interlinked environmental crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste. Flagship initiatives are chosen to showcase best practices and demonstrate long-term results.
Rather than launching new on-the-ground projects, the SIDS flagship seeks to significantly strengthen and expand existing restoration programmes. Coordinated by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and UNDESA, it aims to restore whole landscapes, accelerate the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and show how island nations can build sustainable “blue” economies around healthy marine ecosystems.
The bricks and mortar of this integrated approach – plugging knowledge gaps, bringing together governments, communities and businesses, crafting policies and laws, and securing sustained financial support – can take years to assemble and implement fully. But experts say it can deliver benefits on a scale that matches the size of the challenge.
“We need transformative initiatives like this to make sure the compounded impacts of biodiversity loss and climate change do not lead to irreversible loss and damage, which the world is not yet ready to cope with,” said Mirey Atallah, head of UNEP’s Nature for Climate Branch. “For island communities, that means securing sustainable benefits from their rich natural heritage, while shielding themselves from the climate impacts that their ancestors did so little to bring about.”
Her comments come just ahead of World Wildlife Day, which falls on 3 March. This celebration of the natural world casts a spotlight on the planet’s wild animals and plants, including the contributions they make to humanity and the health of the Earth.
The SIDS restoration initiative is expected to benefit embattled communities and ecosystems in all three target countries.
Across the archipelago of Vanuatu, coastal communities are finding ways to reduce the pressure on their coral reefs, which are suffering from storm damage and bleaching events, so that fish stocks can recover. Efforts are under way to restore species such as the giant clam and endangered palm trees.
On Saint Lucia, the restoration of mangroves and seagrass beds is protecting coastal areas used for sea moss cultivation. Communities are being empowered to produce charcoal sustainably and earn alternative income from eco-tourism and beekeeping, while the government has designated marine protected areas the size of Germany.
In the Comoros, where low incomes and a growing population are adding to the pressure on natural resources, building up sustainable fishing and tourism sectors are at the core of this initiative.
Mansoib and colleagues patrol several beaches on Mohéli (also known as Mwali), one of the Comoros’ three main islands. Community-led conservation efforts like the turtle programme in Itsamia village, are supported by the expanded Mohéli National Park, whose 64,000 ha cover most of the island’s land and coastal waters. Comoros recently added several more protected areas.
Green and hawksbill turtles are a big draw for overseas visitors staying in the islands’ villages and hiring guides, boats and gear to explore the park’s reefs and forests. Other attractions include dugongs and humpback whales. But securing this income stream while restoring ecosystems also means enforcing restrictions on fishing and preventing pollution.
Adifaon Mchinda, a ranger in Mohéli National Park, motors back and forth between the small fishing boats, recording the catches and chatting with the fisherfolk. He said catches were increasing and becoming more diverse because fish stocks were rebounding thanks to the protection measures.
“We try to convince them by saying ‘Think about future generations. If we don’t take care of things, will our grandsons find anything to eat?’” said Mchinda. “Some of them understand.”
Turtles, tourists and residents alike are also benefiting from a cleaner, greener environment.
Local communities have halted the mining of sand from the beaches where tourists enjoy watching dozens of baby turtles emerge from a nest and take their daunting first swim in the ocean. Community groups are gathering trash on which turtles can choke and replanting mangroves to counter coastal erosion.
“We are doing this to restore our environment because we believe that is something good and important,” said Mdra-Aty Mihidjay, a leader of a youth group that carries out beach clean-ups as well as mangrove restoration near the village of Itsamia. “The next generation will see that we did what we could.”
Across the Comoros, Saint Lucia and Vanuatu, some 110,000 ha are already under restoration. By strengthening ecosystems and livelihoods – and developing a “toolbox” of effective approaches – the initiative hopes to catalyze restoration in more island nations.
“Restoration will become unstoppable when people can see and feel how a healthy environment gives them a better life and future. We hope this initiative can spread that conviction and create a hunger for restoration in every ocean and along every coastline,” said Benjamin de Ridder, Forestry Officer in the Forest and Landscape Restoration Mechanism of FAO.
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).