Cook Islands Prime Minister and Chair of the Pacific Islands Forum Mark Brown, said that as a proud steward of two million square kilometres of exclusive economic zone, his country has strived for sustainable management of marine resources for centuries.

Brown made the remarks at the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4) in Antigua and Barbuda.

The Pacific region leads the way in establishing marine protected areas. The regional management framework on tuna fisheries ensures sustainability, better economic returns and effective monitoring and surveillance to protect this resource.

“Many of us have passed legislation to reduce single-use plastics in our countries — even though we did not put plastic in the ocean,” he said, drawing attention to the creation of model regional laws that protect the wealth of Pacific genetic resources and associated traditional knowledge.

Pacific leaders recently endorsed the creation of a regional Pacific Centre of Excellence and Deep Ocean Science, he said, adding that in November 2023, they approved the operationalisation of the Pacific Resilience Facility — a transformative regional financing mechanism created “by the Pacific for the Pacific”.

The Group of 20 countries represent 80 per cent of all carbon emissions.They are the only ones that can effectively shift the dial on reducing carbon. Given their dismal emissions reductions to date, they must shift the dial on their financial contributions as well as on the rules of multilateral development banks for debt management and debt restructuring and access to concessional finance, allowing for longer terms, lower interest, greater concessions, for small island developing States.

Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi Sovaleni, associating himself with statements delivered by the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS), the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the Group of 77 and China, spotlighted the unique vulnerabilities that such countries face.

These include “being remote, small, fragmented, surrounded by vast ocean spaces and acutely vulnerable to climate change”, he said, adding that “the small size of our economies brings with it that global events have disproportionate impacts on us”.

As the cost of goods rise, energy costs spiral and inflation increases, more and more families are pushed into poverty. Further, extreme weather events — ever more frequent — destroy costly infrastructure and precious agricultural land is ruined by saltwater intrusion. “This is the day-to-day reality for our island nation and people,” he said, adding that such reality is faced by “all other SIDS”.

But Tonga, and others across the Pacific, “will not passively wait for more disasters to strike us”, he stressed.

Recalling his championing of a regional funding facility — the Pacific Resilience Facility — he said this entity will specifically target adaptation measures to strengthen small island developing States’ resilience to climate shocks. Nevertheless, he underscored that such States need increased, expeditious access to concessional financing to support development efforts and enhance their ability to withstand external shocks.

Among other key priorities, he urged the adoption and operationalisation of a multidimensional vulnerability index, a tool that would facilitate the provision of “meaningful and effective assistance where and when needed”. Adding that inequalities resulting from trade imbalances are magnified when vulnerability —such as that experienced by small island developing States — is present, he detailed national efforts to boost economic diversification by improving trade regulations.

Vanuatu Minister for Climate Change, Adaptation, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards, Environment, Energy and Disaster Management, Ralph Regenvanu speaking for the Pacific Small Island Developing States, said that such States “embody resilience and stewardship”.

Yet, despite their minimal contribution to global greenhouse-gas emissions, they are on the front lines of that crisis.

He therefore called for accelerated global efforts to comprehensively address climate change, including significant increases in financing for adaptation, mitigation and loss and damage that “recognize the specific vulnerabilities of SIDS in the context of climate change”.

He added: “The polluters must pay.” Further, he emphasised that small island developing States must build economic resilience on the pillars of innovation and sustainable practices, and that economic diversification will empower communities and reduce dependence on external markets.

Also necessary, he said, are robust frameworks that promote the sustainable use of marine resources, combat illegal fishing and preserve the marine environment, as the health of the ocean is directly linked to that of people and economies.

Additionally, small island developing States’ path to development requires renewed commitment from international partners, he stressed, calling for global financial architecture to be reformed “to meet our unique needs”.

He also called for predictable, timely support to address the multifaceted impacts of climate change on such States, as well as for the integration of their perspective into relevant global policies and frameworks.

Adding that Pacific small island developing States are committed to leading by example — but that such efforts will be insufficient without international solidarity — he urged that the Conference be a moment to translate “words into action, and promises into results”.

Fiji’s Minister for Rural and Maritime Development and Disaster Management, Saiasi Ditoka, underscored that “the next 10 years are critical for SIDS”, spotlighting emerging economic, social and geopolitical challenges.

In this context, he said that three questions arise — “where are we, where do we want to get to, and how do we get there”. Recalling a Fijian proverb — “a canoe will sink if the bailers do not draw water out fast enough” — he said its meaning is that, while solutions exist, they must be “catalysed with adequate resourcing”.

The world is “at a point of no return”, he stressed, noting that 140 coastal communities in his country will be displaced by 2050 as a direct result of sea-level rise.

Further, small island developing States face significant risks from frequent, climate-induced disasters, which have multiplied fivefold over the last 50 years. Urging that the Conference’s outcome document reflect the ambitions of those present, he underlined the need to address “fragmented finance”.

This will ensure that resources are channelled effectively, and he also called for debt sustainability and other measures to achieve a global financial architecture tailored to the needs of small island developing States.

Timor Leste Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, said that together, small island developing States are not “small”, and with a shared vision and ambition, they are “big ocean States” working for the resilient prosperity of all. The list of their challenges is long but this conference provides the opportunity to speak with one voice to chart a development agenda for the next 10 years.

Timor-Leste is a small country, with only 1.3 million people. Since its independence 25 years ago, “we have overcome daily challenges to build a peaceful and democratic State, brick by brick, from the ashes of war,” he said, adding that the United Nations recognised the unique challenges faced by small island developing States and committed to assisting their sustainable development three decades ago.

Countries have since adopted three frameworks for action, he said, citing the Barbados Programme, the Mauritius Strategy and the Samoa Pathway.

This week, they will adopt a new blueprint to complement the previous commitments. Timor-Leste supports these instruments. However, “these commitments are meaningless without effective implementation and the necessary financial allocations”, he said, calling on all States to deliver on their commitments to support small island developing countries.

For its part, Timor-Leste is developing a Blue Economy Policy and Action Plan to address marine pollution and conservation of the marine environment and biodiversity, while developing a sustainable blue economy. These initiatives require cooperation and support from the international community that aligns with national priorities.