HSA at SIDS4 (Daily Updates): Small Islands, Large Ocean Ambitions

Date: 25th May 2024

Welcome to our SIDS4 Daily Updates blog! Stay tuned for regular coverage of our activities during the 4th fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States in Antigua and Barbuda.

Small Islands, Large Ocean Ambitions

By Nathalie Rey, senior policy advisor at High Seas Alliance. 

On 27-30 May 2024, world leaders will convene for a once-in-a-decade United Nations conference on the small Caribbean Island of Antigua and Barbuda. Their mission is to spotlight the challenges and opportunities for small island developing States (SIDS) and create an ambitious 10-year global Plan of Action towards “Resilient Prosperity”.

It is often said that small island States should better be known as large ocean States, given the immense size of their ocean territory compared to their land mass. Surrounded by the ocean, these countries have formed a special relationship with it over generations. Ocean health is central to their way of life. Their history, culture, and identity is inextricably intertwined with our blue planet. It is, therefore, no coincidence that SIDS have played an outsized role in championing ocean and climate action on the international political stage.

While they represent less than 1% of the world’s population, SIDS are home to more than 20% of the world’s biodiversity, and 40% of coral reefs. Yet they are also at the frontline of the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. Their unique geographic characteristics – remoteness, limited land size, and small populations – not to mention their vulnerability to extreme weather events and natural disasters, all come with specific challenges that this SIDS4 conference aims to address. In particular, climate change and disaster risk reduction, building resilience from the damage caused by climate-related disasters, and the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean will be at the top of this week’s conference agenda.

To drum up the urgent, collective action for our ocean, the High Seas Alliance team will be in St. John’s this week, working with key partners and governments to highlight how the new High Seas Treaty offers a landmark opportunity for SIDS to achieve sustainable blue economic development, improve the protection of ocean life, contribute to climate action and improve ocean justice and equity.

Throughout the negotiations of the new High Seas Treaty, SIDS were key in championing the need for an ambitious Agreement. Now the #RaceForRatification is underway, they continue to lead efforts too: three of the five countries that have ratified the new High Seas Treaty are SIDS: Palau, Belize, and Seychelles, with the Maldives’ ratification pending formalization at the United Nations.

The global High Seas Alliance team (that continues to grow from strength to strength with Leneka Rhoden, our new Caribbean regional coordinator just on board!) is set for an action-packed week, featuring events with youth partners and civil society, and important discussions to advance equitable partnerships for ratification and implementation and to build bridges between local and Indigenous Peoples, scientists and policymakers. The week will culminate with a high-level event that we’re convening with the governments of Antigua and Barbuda, Maldives, and Vanuatu to help amplify the urgent need for all nations to strengthen protections for our shared ocean and build its resilience to the global crises of global heating and biodiversity loss by prioritizing the ratification and implementation of the High Seas Treaty.

And last but not least, from the sparkling blue waters of the Mediterranean during Our Ocean Conference in Athens to the crystal waters of the Caribbean, our eight-meter high giant Octopus tentacle is BACK (with some new colors!) to remind us all that there is just one ocean and that we need to work together across the globe to ratify the High Seas Treaty now!

Wrap-up of 4 days defending the High Seas

By Rebecca Hubbard, Director, High Seas Alliance

The High Seas Alliance team held six events over just four days at the SIDS4 conference – and the final day was packed with leadership on all fronts. 

We started with an early morning Race for Ratification high level event, with leaders from the Republic of Maldives, Vanuatu, Palau, Fiji, Belize, Singapore, Monaco, Mauritius, and the Federated State of Micronesia (FSM) all speaking to the centrality of the ocean to SIDs’ lives and cultures, and the importance of protecting the High Seas. The President of Palau, HE Whipps, appropriately renamed Small Island Developing States as ‘Big Ocean States’ (BOS), reflecting both the enormous size of their national waters relative to their land, and their leading role in ocean and climate action. 

Mauritius and FSM both announced they would ratify the Treaty the following week in New York – sparking a proper race and enthusiastic applause! (In the end, Mauritius managed to beat FSM by depositing their ratification to the UN on Friday 31 May, with FSM following on 3 June).

Ghazali Ohorella, BBNJ advisor to the International Indian Treaty Council, clearly stepped out the reasons why including traditional knowledge will improve our protection and sustainable management of the High Seas, while Stephanie Lachman reminded us that young people will inherit what we leave behind, and must therefore be at the table making decisions with others on the future of the High Seas, which support life on Earth.

The Hon. Minister Thoriq Ibrahim, Minister of Climate Change, Environment and Energy of the Maldives, signing the ‘Octavia Declaration’

Our final event was on Connections that Matter: Building Bridges between Local and Indigenous Knowledge holders, scientists and policymakers. This event brought many of the lessons and messages together that had featured strongly throughout the week, and was truly inspirational. 

There are no borders in the ocean – what happens in the High Seas affects our coastal and national waters, the marine life, and the people and cultures that have depended on – and cared for – that marine life for time immemorial. The traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) is a living body of knowledge, practices, skills, and innovations passed down through generations and in locally meaningful contexts by people who act as creators, developers, preservers, guardians, and custodians. As such, it has a significant role to play in the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity, including marine life beyond national jurisdiction. By finding a way to put this traditional knowledge on a level playing field with scientific values, and collaborating across stakeholder groups and policymakers, we can create a more resilient, respectful outcome that better protects marine life and sustainably manages resources in the High Seas.

Speakers from right to left: Olive Vaai, High Seas Alliance Oceania-Pacific Coordinator; Ghazali Ohorella, BBNJ Advisor, International Indian Treaty Council & scientist rep-International Union for Conservation of Nature(IUCN); Matai Zamuel, Youth Ambassador for the Republic of Suriname Sala; Barkha Mossae, Regenerative Blue Economy Manager; Dr. Siaosi Carter- Senior Fellow and Deputy Head of Department of Pacific Affairs ANU; Peni Suveinakama, Office of the Pacific Ocean Commissioner (OPOC), Oceans Analyst and Manager

SIDS – or Big Ocean States  – comprise 37 UN member nations, around 20% of all UN member states. Despite the many geographical, economic, logistical, and other challenges, their action and leadership in the race to protect our High Seas, contribute to climate action, and improve ocean equity and justice has already been exemplary. It was utterly inspiring and invigorating to have the HSA team collaborating with and celebrating the leadership of so many impressive leaders during the four-day conference. 

We urge other SIDS who have not yet ratified the High Seas Treaty to do so as soon as possible in order to secure a seat at the table at the first Conference of the Parties (CoP1), where many important decisions will be made on how the Treaty functions. 

We ended the SIDS4 conference by encouraging Small Island Developing States to continue their strong leadership on High Seas protections, and by calling on all countries in the global north to join the effort for universal ratification, so that we can ensure the High Seas Treaty most effectively protects marine biodiversity and improves ocean justice and equity. 

We are excited to build on the work of the SIDS4 conference and continue to work with SIDS/BOSS to achieve the 60 ratifications required for the Treaty to enter into force by June 2025 at the UN Ocean Conference in France!

Day 2 – An insight by Ghazali Ohorella, an indigenous Alifuru from Maluku

By Ghazali Ohorella, BBNJ Advisor, International Indian Treaty Council

Good morning from the beautiful island of Antigua!

Today is my chance to check in with the High Seas Alliance crew. I’m Ghazali Ohorella, an Indigenous Alifuru from Maluku. If you’re wondering where Maluku is, don’t worry: you’re not alone.

We are an Indigenous nation of 2.2 million people distributed over 999 islands located between Australia and the Philippines. And yes, we’re still looking for the elusive 1000th island! But with climate change on our doorstep, who knows…

I’m here at SIDS4 with several hats on High Seas Alliance of course, but I’m also representing the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC), which is an NGO that includes over 100 affiliated Indigenous Peoples from North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, the Arctic, and the Pacific. They are united in the common battle for self-determination and the acknowledgment and preservation of Indigenous rights, and it’s the same IITC that has given me the honor of advising and representing all of them in the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction (BBNJ) process since before IGC1.

I wanted to dedicate my blog post by providing something that is not only essential, but really necessary and that’s Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge. Because it is substantial, deeply embedded, and contains complex information.

On Tuesday morning at the High Seas Alliance Virtual Press Briefing, I shared five compelling reasons for including Indigenous Peoples and our wisdom in global treaties like the BBNJ, and why it’s not just a nice-to-have but actually essential for our planet’s future. It was a bit off the cuff so I am sharing it again, in written form for you.

1. Custodians of biodiversity

Let me kick off with a question. Did you know that indigenous territories support 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity?

For millennia, our ancestors have protected marine ecosystems by using traditional fishing methods and practices such as rotational fishing and seasonal closures to preserve the delicate balance of marine life. It’s not just about conservation. It is about ensuring that future generations inherit a healthy, thriving environment.

2. Resilient Practices.

Second, Indigenous knowledge has withstood the test of time, demonstrating extraordinary resilience to environmental change. For example, many SIDS cultures use fish ponds and agroforestry systems to naturally filter water and restore resources. These strategies provide essential lessons for current conservation efforts, particularly as we confront the growing difficulties of climate change.

3. Holistic Approaches

Third, our knowledge is not segregated or siloed. It is comprehensive, including cultural, spiritual, and environmental considerations. Conservation initiatives based on Indigenous knowledge attempt to safeguard whole ecosystems rather than individual species. Rituals and taboos help us maintain ecological balance and preserve our cultural legacy, maintaining the health of the environment and our communities.

4. Adaptation

Fourth, Indigenous knowledge is well adapted to local contexts, providing essential adaptation techniques for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). In the Pacific we have traditional navigation skills that, for example, show a deep awareness of the ocean that may be applied to current practices in maritime navigation, disaster planning, and climate adaptation.

5. Participation by Indigenous Peoples

Finally, when Indigenous Peoples have an active role in decision-making, the outcomes are more effective and lasting. We have a strong, vested stake in the health of our environment. Indigenous Peoples’ direct participation in conservation initiatives not only taps into our vast knowledge base, but it also fosters social cohesiveness and resilience, which are critical for solving environmental challenges.

Can you imagine how effective ocean policies would be if Indigenous Peoples were at the table and informed decision-making directly? Can you picture a BBNJ SBSTA that includes Indigenous Peoples, allowing the global community to directly learn and benefit from the depth of knowledge held by Indigenous Peoples across the world?

I can.

You’ve probably realized by now that Indigenous knowledge isn’t a remnant of the past but that it’s complex, sophisticated, and ever-changing. By incorporating this knowledge into the High Seas Treaty, you are not only appreciating Indigenous Peoples’ contributions. You are using a treasure of expertise that has been honed over thousands of years. And, that is why I am here in Antigua. Not to catch rays on the beach, but to highlight how Indigenous knowledge can strengthen the High Seas Treaty, benefitting SIDS and protecting our seas for future generations.


Q: Why is Indigenous knowledge essential to the BBNJ Treaty?

A: Indigenous knowledge provides time-tested traditions and a comprehensive approach to conservation, which may improve the efficacy and sustainability of global treaties.

Q: How can Indigenous Peoples influence decision-making processes?

A: Indigenous Peoples’ participation in decision-making may be accomplished via direct representation, discussions, and partnerships that respect and incorporate Indigenous knowledge and customs.

Q: How can incorporating Indigenous knowledge help Small Island Developing States?

A: Integrating Indigenous knowledge may boost resilience, promote sustainable livelihoods, and conserve cultural legacy, all of which are critical to SIDS’ long-term viability.

Q: How can we equalize scientific and traditional knowledge?

A: Value and include all viewpoints equally into study and policy to achieve well-rounded, culturally sensitive judgments.

Day 1 – CSO BBNJ 101

A blog by High Seas Alliance Caribbean Regional Coordinator, Leneka Rhoden

“A sick sea equals a sick society” is a quote from Dr. Patricia Northover, a participant in the Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) BBNJ 101 Workshop hosted by the High Seas Alliance. The workshop, held on May 27, 2024, at the Department of Blue Economy within the Ministry of Health, Wellness, Social Transformation, and the Environment in Antigua, aimed to raise awareness of the BBNJ among regional NGOs. It was attended by NGOs from Barbados, Trinidad, Antigua and Barbuda, and Jamaica, including the Sustainable Ocean Alliance, the Caribbean Network of Fisherfolk Organizations, and Stronger Together Caribbean. 

Participants were introduced to the four pillars of the BBNJ and the benefits for Small Island Developing States (SIDS). During the session, CSOs called for an educational campaign to support the promotion of the BBNJ’s ratification in the region and emphasized the importance of linking the treaty to its impact on livelihoods. “High seas can seem abstract,” noted one participant, Nesaba Browne of the PADI Foundation and Barbados Blue Scuba.  

CSOs are excited about the benefits the treaty will bring, such as establishing new sectors for SIDS, the opportunities presented by equal access to and benefits from marine Genetic Research, the prioritization of including traditional knowledge and engagement of indigenous peoples, and the opportunity to protect High Seas biodiversity that will in turn reinforce protection of marine life and sustainable marine management in national and coastal. This will ultimately enhance local economies and strengthen the relationship between communities and their marine environments, ensuring a healthier future for both society and the sea.

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