Baron Waqa speaks of climate risk threatening to undo history of struggle and achievement in Small Island States
The story of the world’s island people is one of struggle and fortitude.
It traces the journey of our ancestors who set out across vast oceans as part of the first human migrations, and chronicles the wanderlust of some of history’s first traders and explorers who continually searched for new opportunities over the horizon.
It is the experience of stolen people brought to new lands in chains, and yet who still managed to persevere against all odds. It is the tale of villagers who helped turn back the tide of imperialism when the world was at war, and our shared experience as island people in the march to Independence.
During the International Year of SIDS, we recognize the unparalleled ecological and cultural diversity of the world’s small islands and honor the remarkable contributions their people have made to our heritage as global citizens.
I invite people from all Island Nations to celebrate this legacy by teaching your friends and neighbors about our music and poetry, our song and dance, our food and customs, and the many other ways we have left an indelible mark on history.
In that regard, I would like to share with you the memorable words of Derek Walcott, the Nobel Prize-winning author from St. Lucia (an island that has produced a disproportionate number of great writers), which powerfully evokes the sights and sounds familiar to anyone raised on an island in his poem of the same name, and I quote:
“So, like a diarist in sand,
I mark the peace with which you graced
Particular islands, descending
A narrow star to light the lamps
Against the night surf’s noises, shielding
A leaping mantle with one hand,
Or simply scaling fish for supper,
Onions, jack-fish, bread, red-snapper;
And on each kiss the harsh sea-taste,
And how by moonlight you were made
To study most the surf’s unyielding
Patience though it seemed a waste.”
From the literary giants who gave voice to our people, to the artists whose harmonies and brush strokes captured our pain and hopes, island people have forever enriched the tapestry of the human experience. In recognition of their legacy, let us remember them this year and for all years.
Such achievements, of course, are not limited to those told in history books.
The impact of island people is felt in the communities where they raise children and care for families, in laboratories where they are discovering new technologies, in villages where they teach children about their past and prepare them for the future, on sports fields where they are breaking world records, and within these walls where island leaders are finding solutions to some of the biggest problems of our generation.
But even as we celebrate these contributions, we are mindful that progress did not come easily and that our work is far from complete.
We recall that Small Island Developing States remain uniquely vulnerable to the unprecedented impacts of climate change, environmental degradation, and the cruel indifference of a globalized economy and political system.
And though we have taken important steps to address these issues at home, we know that fully meeting today’s challenges will require action from the entire international community.
Our history shows again and again how our people somehow manage to overcome insurmountable obstacles through our unique strength and dignity, but no people or country has faced the risk of total inundation from rising seas before.
Yet, that is exactly what we must contend with—losing entire languages, cultures, histories, and all the progress that came at such a high cost for those who came before us. We celebrate this special year with the somber knowledge that unless action is taken soon some islands won’t make it to the end of the century.
We also know that in our stories there is a lesson for the whole world. For though we are uniquely vulnerable to climate change, no country or region is immune from its impacts.
The onslaught of extreme weather around the world this past year shows the extent to which we are in this together. So while the SIDS year may call attention to the danger facing small islands, never forget that by protecting us we safeguard the whole world.
I will, therefore, conclude with words from another Nobel-prize winning islander.
Bishop Filipe Belo who won the Peace Prize along with Jose Ramos Horta for working to bring freedom to Timor Leste said in his acceptance speech, and I quote: “I speak of these things as one who has the responsibility to bear witness to what I have seen and heard, to react to what I know to be true, to keep the flame of hope alive, to do what is possible to warm the earth for still another day.”
These remarks were delivered on behalf of the Alliance of Small Island States at launch of the International Year of SIDS at the United Nations