British Environment Minister Richard Benyon described his attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum in Raratonga, the Cook Islands, as being on the frontline of climate change. In many meetings with ministers from the region, he heard about the vulnerability of low lying island states to sea level rise, and about how many Pacific islands are already experiencing significant erosion from more extreme climate events.
This annual gathering of PIF members (Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu) and a range of dialogue partners including the UK¸US and China, is a great opportunity to engage with this remote and varied region. We were reminded of Britain’s long history here by the fact that at least five of the national flags contained a union jack, and by the picture of HM The Queen which graced the Cook Islands’ cabinet room when we called on the Deputy Prime Minister. Nowadays our significant financial support for the region is delivered through the European Union. But it is an area where we continue to take a close interest and work closely with our Australian and New Zealand partners who play a leading role in the region.
Key themes for the meeting included sustainability, conservation of marine resources and gender. Australian PM Julia Gillard launched a major initiative on empowering women around the region. Sadly she had to leave the meeting a day early because of the tragic loss of five Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. Delegations to the meeting expressed our deep condolences. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton also spoke on the theme of gender and announced additional funding to promote opportunities for women in the Pacific. Oxfam New Zealand launched a report, funded by the British High Commission in Wellington, on how Pacific island countries can access international climate finance.
The British delegation, which comprised our five high commissioners from the region supporting the Minister, organised an excellent side-event to mark the opening of the Paralympics, 10,000 miles away in London. There was a video on the London Paralympics and on Pacific-based Paralympians, and a dance performance by disabled and able-bodied dancers from New Zealand. For me it was a particular pleasure to meet some members of this year’s Cook Islands’ Olympic team and hear from them what a great time they had in London last month. These islands are about as far from London as it is possible to travel, but many people told us how much they’d enjoyed watching the Games on TV.