By Hiroshi Yamazaki UPI Correspondent Published: May 25, 2009
Tokyo, Japan — While Japan's global economic edge is being shaken, the world's No. 2 economy is turning to environmental initiatives to retain its leading role, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region.
At the Fifth Japan-Pacific Islands Forum Summit held last week in Tomamu, Japan, Prime Minister Taro Aso declared his country’s commitment to building an eco-friendly and rich “Pacific Environment Community,” which includes helping Pacific island nations combat the effects of climate change.
Summit participants included leaders and representatives of 16 Pacific island nations, for whom climate change is a critical issue that affects their economic, social and cultural well-being, as well as their physical security under the threat of rising sea levels. At a joint press conference Saturday by the meeting’s co-chairs – Taro Aso and Prime Minister Toke Talagi of Niue, the world's largest coral island – Aso said Japan would provide a total of 50 billion yen (US$525 million) over the next three years under the PEC initiative. It will also train 1,500 environment-related specialists as well as 2,000 experts in health and education fields.
The funding will support projects including solar power generation, seawater desalination, waste management and biodiversity protection programs. Aso announced that Japan had fulfilled all the commitments it made at the previous summit in 2006, including providing 45 billion yen (US$473 million) in official development assistance, training 4,000 individuals and arranging exchange programs for 1,500 people.
Talagi expressed appreciation for Japan's increased contribution to the Pacific Island Forum, despite the current unfavorable economic conditions that are badly affecting Japan. The theme of this year’s summit, which has been held every three years since 1997, was "We are Islanders." All 16 PIF nations were represented, many by their heads of state or government. The venue was Tomamu, a ski resort in Hokkaido where the G8 summit was held last July.
Aso said that Japan deems the Pacific island nations "very important." Japan administered certain islands in Micronesia under a League of Nations' trusteeship following World War I. In Palau, where Japan had its administrative headquarters, some facilities of those days still remain intact, while the island has leaders of Japanese descent. Many PIF nations – except for Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea – have populations in the tens of thousands. But they occupy disproportionately large maritime areas as their U.N.-recognized exclusive economic zones, which gives them rights over marine, seabed and deep-sea resources.
Kiribati, for instance, which consists of 33 islets and atolls, is entitled to more than 3 million square kilometers, or the world's third-largest EEZ space. But their ocean-bound existence has produced a frightening scenario – their lands are in danger of being submerged in the sea, possibly the most dramatic effect of climate change and rising water levels. "I heard very serious situations directly (from the leaders)," Aso remarked at the press conference.
Several representatives described theirs as a "life or death" situation. One case in point, the island of Tuvalu, once requested at a U.N. conference that its people be recognized as "water refugees." The islanders must face the negative impact of a situation for which they are not responsible, Aso pointed out, and therefore deserve the world’s support.
Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials said that some leaders asserted that developed nations and emerging economies, the major emitters of greenhouse gases, had a "moral obligation” to tackle these problems. Modern life has brought a variety of nuisances to the islands, especially masses of floating garbage that wash up from the sea, affecting marine life and spoiling the beaches. Disposal facilities have been built to handle such unburnable trash in Samoa, Palau and Vanuatu under the Japan International Cooperation Agency.
“As the world population increases steadily, Mother Ocean may end up becoming the huge garbage dump," warned Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of the Nippon Foundation, which has assisted maritime programs in the Pacific nations.
Through such groups as the PIF, the island nations are seeking ways to cooperate and protect themselves from environmental calamity. As an island nation itself, with historical bonds to the region, Japan is committed to strengthening this Pacific community.
The nations that make up the PIF are Australia, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.