Environment and development
in coastal regions and in small islands

Coastal region and small island papers 16




Replica of traditional
men’s meeting house
(bai) next to a modern
statue, Koror, Palau,
July 2002

Transporting goods with a handcart 
against a background of modern 
government buildings, Male, Maldives,
December 2002

The world’s small island nations and territories are special places providing unique lifestyles for their residents and exotic destinations for many tourists. Caught up in a world where small is beautiful, but small is also marginalized, they face many problems. As they try to hold on to the old traditions, while at the same time striving to develop and provide better lifestyles for their populations, they appear as if caught between two worlds, the old and the new. The poem ‘Unchaffed Hands’ from Cook Islands in the Pacific sums up their dilemma.

While every island is unique in its own way, small island nations have come to realize that strength lies in solidarity and that by forming alliances among themselves, they have an important role to play on the world’s stage.

Small islands working together

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the world’s nations prepared for the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (or the Earth Summit as it is also known), the similarities among small island states became apparent. Island nations share several characteristics including: small size; remoteness and isolation; susceptibility to natural disasters and environmental change; limited economic diversification and access to external capital; poverty; income volatility; and limited human capacity (Commonwealth Secretariat, 2000). The island nations recognized that their strength and international lobbying power lies in working together and the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) was established in 1990. This is a coalition of small island and low-lying coastal countries that share similar environmental challenges and environmental concerns, especially their vulnerability to the adverse effects of global climate change. The Alliance has played a central role in shaping international policy on climate change. The 40 countries making up AOSIS are mainly small island developing States, and there are two observer countries1. AOSIS functions primarily as an ad hoc lobby and a negotiating voice for small island developing States within the United Nations system, where it makes up 19% of the world organization’s total membership. Member States of AOSIS work together primarily through their diplomatic missions to the United Nations based in New York.

Low lying coral atolls such as Vlingilli in the Maldives, above, are 
particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels

The island of Male,
above, capital of the
Maldives, is completely
protected with sea
defences; April 2003

While the Alliance is still working on the preparation of a formal charter, one of its most important founding principles is a commitment to a global reduction in the emission of greenhouse gases that affect climate, particularly carbon dioxide emitted by the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas. AOSIS countries have played very little part in the production of these gases that now threaten their survival. By working together, these small and relatively powerless (in real economic and population terms) developing states have managed to exert a profound and continuing impact on global climate policy. One of the most significant factors affecting the emergence of AOSIS as the powerful and widely heeded conscience of the international community on climate policy, has been the recognition of the truth and justice of its cause by the rest of the world (Davis, 1996). The issue of environmental justice and the moral power of the Alliance’s position are extremely important.

Almost every year a cyclone or
hurricane severely damages one or
more small islands, as seen here at
Maunday’s Bay in Anguilla after
Hurricane Lenny in 1999

Water resources are often limited in
small islands and it is particularly
important to monitor their use – here
the flow of the Layou River in Dominica
is being measured, 1987

Indigenous Carib Indian (right) explains
the craftsmanship of basket-making to
visitors, Dominica, July 2001

Preserving historical heritage, as seen
here at the Cabrits National Park in
Dominica, is an important part of
sustainable tourism, July 2003

Small islands have established marine
 protected areas to conserve their
 marine resources, as seen by the
above sign in Rarotonga, Cook Islands, 
November 2003

During the Earth Summit in 1992, the world community adopted Agenda 21. This represents a global consensus and political commitment at the highest level on development and environment cooperation. Following on in 1994, the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, held in Barbados, attempted to translate Agenda 21 into specific policies, actions and measures to be taken at the national, regional and international level. The resulting Declaration of Barbados and the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States lists 15 priority areas for specific action.2

This list was further refined at the Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in 1999 (Barbados + 5), when six problem areas were identified as being in need of priority attention for the next five years, specifically:

At the fifty-seventh session of the United Nations General Assembly in December 2002, a decision was taken to convene an international meeting in 2004 (rescheduled to January 2005) with a high-level segment, to undertake a full and comprehensive review of the implementation of the Programme of Action.

During 2003, small island developing States began to prepare for the review of the Programme of Action by compiling national assessment reports and taking part in regional preparatory meetings. As this process progressed, it became increasingly clear that the populations of small island nations had not adopted, in any comprehensive manner, the Programme of Action as their own.This may be due to a lack of information, a lack of interest, or an absence of a concerted effort to get the general public involved.

1 The member countries of AOSIS are: Antigua and Barbuda,Aruba,The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cape Verde, Comoros, Cook Islands, Cuba, Cyprus, Dominica, Fiji, Federated States of Micronesia, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Kiribati, Maldives, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Singapore, Solomon Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname,Tonga,Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.
Observer countries of AOSIS are Netherlands Antilles and US Virgin Islands.

2 The 15 priority areas for specific action identified in the Barbados Programme of Action are: climate change and sea level rise; natural and environmental disasters; management of wastes; coastal and marine resources; freshwater resources; land resources; energy resources; tourism resources; biodiversity resources; national institutions and administrative capacity; regional institutions and technical cooperation; transport and communication; science and technology; human resource development; implementation, monitoring and review.

Small Islands Voice

Early in 2002, the ‘Small Islands Voice’ initiative was started by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). One of the main objectives of this initiative is to encourage people in small islands to take part in the small island developing States’ Programme of Action and other regional and inter-regional initiatives. Another important objective is to encourage people in small islands to exchange their views on environment and development using different forms of communication ranging from the tried and tested methods, such as community meetings, to the newer internet-based modes.Within the scope of this initiative, environment has been defined in a very wide sense to include the natural, social, cultural and economic environment. And finally, Small Islands Voice encourages people in small islands to work together to solve their problems.


The number of internet cafes in small
islands is growing; these range from
new modern facilities in Male, 
Maldives to more modest facilities in 
Basseterre, St Kitts and Nevis, as
seen above in 2003

This is an inter-regional initiative involving in the first instance islands in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific regions. It started off on a small scale with activities on the ground in just one island in each region, but has since expanded to include eleven small island territories. Furthermore, a much larger number of islands are involved through internet discussions. Table 1 shows a list of the islands involved.

Since one of the main objectives is to encourage people to take part in the small island developing States’ Programme of Action, a starting point for Small Islands Voice was to find out what issues people in small islands are concerned about and whether these relate to those in the Programme of Action. For whatever the outcome of the 2005 review of the Programme of Action, its future advancement will be dependent on how widely it is adopted by island populations.

This publication discusses the issues that concern islanders through their own words. Chapter 2 describes the methods used to determine the issues, while Chapters 3–7 discuss key issues. One of the key characteristics of islanders, whether young or old, is the pride they have in their island home (Chapter 3). This appears to be a universal trait, even among islanders who have lived abroad for decades. The changing structure of island society is discussed in Chapter 4, and here there are unfortunately many negative features such as declining moral and traditional values, increases in crime and violence, and a loss of that ‘sense of community’ that is so much a characteristic of island living. The improvement of lifestyles brought about by new infrastructure such as roads, hospitals and schools is balanced by worries about the economy and jobs (Chapter 5). Environmental changes are the subject of Chapter 6, while Chapter 7 concludes with some ideas on ways to support sustainable island living.

Public meetings are one way of finding out about issues and exchanging 
views, St Kitts and Nevis, April 2002


Caribbean Sea

Islands with activities on the ground and also taking part in the internet discussions:
Bahamas, Dominica, St Kitts and Nevis, St Vincent and the Grenadines, San Andres Archipelago (Colombia)

Islands taking part in the internet discussions:
Anguilla, Antigua and Barbuda,Aruba, Barbados, British Virgin Islands, Cuba, Grenada, Haiti, Jamaica, Netherlands Antilles, St Lucia,Trinidad and Tobago,Turks and Caicos Islands

Indian Ocean

Islands with activities on the ground and also taking part in the internet discussions:
Maldives, Mauritius, Seychelles

Islands taking part in the internet discussions
Chumbe Island (Tanzania), Rodrigues

Other islands from the AIMS (Atlantic, Indian Ocean, Mediterranean and South China Sea) region taking part in the internet discussions
Ascension Island, Azores, Cape Verde Islands

Pacific Ocean

Islands with activities on the ground and also taking part in the internet discussions:
Cook Islands, Fiji, Palau                                                                                                          

Islands taking part in the internet discussions:
American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia, Hawaii, Kiribati, Kosrae, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Solomon Islands,Tonga,Tuvalu,Vanuatu



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