“The drastic decision that had been made poses a risk of sending the message to the world that Kiribati wants to isolate itself and no longer want to be part of the global village” - Kiribati Minister of Environment Ruateki Tekaiara.
Battle lines have been drawn in the central Pacific as a group, led by the Kiribati Environment Ministry, dedicated to protecting one of the world’s largest marine reserves, goes head-to-head with a Cabinet bent on extinguishing it.
Under threat is the Phoenix Islands Protected Area or PIPA, a World Heritage site stretching over 400,000 square kilometres. It’s home to more than 500 species of fish, 120 different types of coral, is a successful tuna spawning ground and holds a wealth of marine and bird life.
1News has obtained confidential documents which show the Kiribati cabinet decided in mid-September to ditch PIPA and open it up to commercial fishing.
It would delete it as a World Heritage site, use all uninhabited islands in the area for “fisheries and other development”, and repeal the PIPA Conservation Trust Act.
The shock decision hasn’t impressed Minister of Environment, Lands and Agricultural Development (MELAD) Ruateki Tekaiara, who played no part in it and wasn’t consulted.
In a hard-hitting Cabinet information paper, he writes, “the drastic decision that had been made without any proper consultation is a clear disregard of the significance of inclusive consultation to ensure a well-informed decision”.
In the 20-page secret report that’s been leaked to 1News, there’s startling revelations that Cabinet’s decision was based on a belief that PIPA international donors and scientists created the protected area and misled the Government of Kiribati “in order to lock us out from our maritime zone and are slowly taking away our sovereign right from something that is rightly ours”.
This has been met with a strong response, with the Minister recommending that his own Cabinet “note the gross falsity, incorrectness and injustice of the unfortunate assertion” and warning “such unwarranted accusations not only do great damage to the intentions of Kiribati’s historic friends and partners in PIPA but they also risk poisoning international interest in partnering with Kiribati in the future”.
The cabinet information paper which is a collaboration between the Environment Ministry, PIPA Trust, scientists and donors questions the Government’s assumption it could make $200 million a year in fishing licences if PIPA opens up.
The Environment Minister says he hopes the decision to ditch PIPA “will not be analogous to the well-known legendary tale of the killing of a golden goose that had one golden egg every day because of the misconceived belief that its killing would result in hundreds of golden eggs stored in its belly”.
The report argues that sustainable fishing is still possible in the PIPA area without affecting its status. This is backed up by an email from UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre on October 2, 2021 to the Ministry of Environment.
“It is critically important not to move to a deleting of PIPA from the World Heritage List. This would be very serious and is not a way forward. This would be totally unnecessary as well as it is possible to have sustainable fisheries inside a World Heritage area.”
But the Kiribati Government appears to be firm in its decision to date. While it has promised to consider the 20-page Cabinet paper on a number of occasions including as late as last week, 1News understands that has yet to happen.
WHY TAKE SUCH RADICAL ACTION?
Since 2019, when Kiribati cut its relationship with Taiwan and signed up with the People's Republic of China in exchange for funding to the tune of NZ$68.90 million, Chinese influence in the island country has rapidly expanded politically and economically.
It’s believed geopolitical reasons are a major reason behind the ditching of PIPA. The area is strategically valuable to China given it borders US waters and is close to their military installations. There is already a joint Kiribati-China plan on the table to develop Kanton Island, which lies within the PIPA area, starting with upgrading the runway.
That’s prompted concern it will be for military use, although the Kiribati Government says it’s just to improve tourism and provide transport links.
However tourism plans were based around the marine reserve – now it’s being abolished and the fact there is a real shortage of fresh water in Kanton makes tourism an unlikely scenario.
Anna Powles at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies says there will be strong concerns from the US.
“Given the move to increase the military capabilities in the North Pacific within the Micronesian state, Kiribati has real strategic value to China if it could potentially develop some strategic infrastructure on Kanton Island which has commercial fisheries usage but potential military usage as well,” she says.
Director of Canterbury University’s MacMillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies Steven Ratuva agrees the PIPA issue will redefine geopolitics and a lot will change.
“It is assumed China is pushing it - it is the biggest fishing nation not only in the Pacific but the world… a lot of fishing fleets in Fiji, Samoa and so forth cannot compete with the highly subsidised fleet from China,” he says.
The ball is in the Kiribati Government’s court. To start the process of ditching PIPA it needs to be tabled in Parliament so the PIPA Conservation Trust Act can be repealed.
The Government also intends to remove management of offshore areas from the Ministry of Environment and hand it over to Fisheries. With Parliament next sitting on November 22, time is running out.
The Cabinet information paper is clear what the impact will be, with the Environment Minister saying the “drastic decision that had been made poses a risk of sending the message to the world that Kiribati wants to isolate itself and no longer want to be part of the global village”.
PIPA supporters and donors are still hopeful the Kiribati Government will do a u-turn.
Anything short of that will be disastrous for the country and the region.