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PRIMM expansion a critical step towards healthy Pacific region

With a bold vision backed by strong science and important cultural leaders in the Pacific, President Obama could create a unique cultural and conservation legacy at the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.

Epeli Hau‘ofa, the famous Pacific Island anthropologist, once wrote: “… the sea is as real as you and I, … it shapes the character of this planet, … it is a major source of our sustenance, …it is something we all share in common wherever we are in Oceania…. the sea is out pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.”

Never has there been greater opportunity or greater need to act upon these sentiments. President Barack Obama has before him the option of expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument (PRIMM) to include not only the remote islands and their near shore waters, but also the deep waters, which are life sustaining for seabirds, sharks, sea turtles and whales.

If he does so, it would create the largest marine protected network on earth. 

It isn’t just environmentalists who support this unique chance to create the largest strongly protected marine network on earth; the moment has gained steam with the inclusion of respected political and cultural leaders across the Pacific islands who support preserving this area of our ocean as part of their heritage. Within a matter of days, over fifty political and cultural leaders from across Oceania signed on to support this proposal by writing to the President calling for “Greater protections of our beloved ocean are long overdue; we welcome these acts that protect our sea from misuse and abuse while honoring and protecting the subsistence and cultural traditions that have been a part of our livelihoods and seafaring traditions since the beginning of time.”

In addition these same leaders in Oceania have reminded the president that Oceania is a “Pacific family, it is our ancestral honor to protect the endangered, threatened and over-exploited species currently insufficiently protected by the current boundaries.”
This is an unprecedented movement in that it has unified both cultural practitioners and conservation scientists in a vision for a protected Pacific.  Some of the Pacific’s leading conservation scientists who work on one of the islands, Palmyra Atoll, support this expansion stating,

[The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument] PRIMNM is a truly unique and special place, of global significance for conservation. It contains some of the last pristine tropical ecosystems that remain intact and undisturbed by humans. Our years of research in this area suggest that the significance of increased protection for the marine biodiversity in this area cannot be underestimated. There are only a handful of other places in the world, such as Chagos Island in the Indian Ocean, where this type of protection currently occurs. Just as the establishment of Yellowstone National Park was an ambitious action in its time that created a legacy of protection for wide-ranging terrestrial species like bison, grizzly bear, and elk – so will the establishment of PRIMNM serve as a lasting monument for protecting America’s sharks, marine mammals, sea turtles, manta rays, tuna – and many more.

In this enterprise President Obama will stand with several presidents of Pacific nations that would be benefit from the expansion. These presidents include: President Tong of Kiribati, President Remengasau of Palau, and Prime Minister Puna of the Cook Islands. These leaders have all pledged to establish transformative marine protected areas in collaboration with the purposed expansion by the United States in response to this era of overfishing and climate change.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in address given in Honolulu on Wednesday further articulated the Obama Administration’s plan for the Pacific:

The Pacific Islands across the entire Pacific are vulnerable to climate change. And just yesterday, I saw with my own eyes what sea level rise would do to parts of it: It would be devastating – entire habitats destroyed, entire populations displaced from their homes, in some cases entire cultures wiped out. They just had flash flooding in Guadalcanal – unprecedented amounts of rainfall. And that’s what’s happened with climate change – unprecedented storms, unprecedented typhoons, unprecedented hurricanes, unprecedented droughts, unprecedented fires, major damage, billions and billions of dollars of damage being done that we’re paying for instead of investing those billions of dollars in avoiding this in the first place.

That’s why we are deepening our partnerships with the Pacific Island nations and others to meet immediate threats and long-term development challenges. And we’re working through USAID and other multilateral institutions to increase the resilience of communities. And we’re elevating our engagement through the Pacific Islands Forum. And we’ve signed maritime boundaries, new maritime boundaries with Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia in order to promote good governance of the Pacific Ocean and peaceful relations among island nations. And we’re also working on a Pacific Pathway of marine protected areas that includes President Obama’s commitment to explore a protected area of more than a million square miles in size in the U.S. remote Pacific.

Yet, for all convincing scientific and conservation reasons to protect this glorious and pristine ecosystem, the most compelling ones for the Hawaiian community are ultimately personal and cultural ones.  Intermittently, over the last century, hundreds of Native Hawaiians lived on these remote islands.  Among these were Uncles Eddie Kaanana and Walter Paulo, both from the Hawaiian fishing village of Miloli‘i.  Both men would come back to Hawai‘i and dedicate their lives to teaching Hawaiian children about cultural and sustainability. 

The first Native Hawaiians to live on these islands in modern history were a group known as Hui Panala‘au, as the first colonists of these islands for the United States, it is safe to say that this highly significant monument would not be possible today without their tremendous contribution.  In a letter to President Obama regarding the expansion artist and scholar Noelle Kahanu wrote:

This is my dream. That you would care as much about the cultural and historical significance of the islands in the Pacific Remote Islands Monument as you do about their scientific value.

That you would care as much about those whose sacrifice made these islands U.S. territories in the first place, such that they are even under consideration for expansion today.

That you would care enough to recognize the contributions of the men of Hui Panala‘au, which consisted of over 130 young men from Hawai‘i who were sent by the Federal Government to colonize Howland, Baker, and Jarvis from 1935-1942.

That you would care enough to officially recognize the sacrifices of these men, including three young Hawaiians who lost their lives—Carl Kahalewai, of a ruptured appendix in 1938, and Joseph Keli‘ihananui and Dickey Whaley, from a Japanese air attack in 1941.

That by an act of good faith recognition, you would undo the silence and finally address nearly 80 years of injustice—including the denial of death benefits to the families of Keli‘ihananui and Whaley.

That you would understand that before we can preserve island and ocean ecosystems, we must fundamentally understand their significance to the peoples of Oceania.

That in the name of preserving the “world’s most valuable ocean ecosystems,” you would not whitewash colonial expansionist and militaristic policies that resulted in the targeted use and misuse of young Hawaiian men.

And finally, while such preservation today cannot undo the exploitation of the past, thoughtful, inclusive, honest dialogue and action can aid in healing as we build towards tomorrow’s future.

I stand before you today as the granddaughter of George Hawae Kahanu, Sr., who at 96, is one of the last three colonists still alive.

As such, I call upon you, President Obama—if you truly care about extending protections to the Pacific Remote Islands Monument, that you recognize that it is equally a memorial. And that the men of Hui Panala‘au deserve to be recognized before the last of them leave this earth.

In the expansion of this monument the United States has an extraordinary opportunity to step forward, retracing the steps of its colonial past to help secure a sustainable future.  If the commitments made towards a safe and secure Asia Pacific region are sincere, then the full expansion of this monument, both in geographic size and historic, cultural integrity are necessities.  And historic and cultural integrity demands that honors called for in Kahanu’s letter be fulfilled; the sacrifices made by Native Hawaiians to this monument must not be forgotten. 

Further, lessons from other large scale Marine Protected Areas should also be heeded.  While many of the claims of special interests groups opposing the expansion and other conservation activities are unfounded and akin to the rhetoric of climate-change deniers, conservationists would be remiss if they did not take this opportunity to better engage local communities and traditional cultural practitioners. It is abundantly clear that the region, and perhaps the world, is counting on the President to institute better cultural leadership and management in this Monument than the Monument created by his predecessor.  Subsistence rights should be fully protected, planned and granted, guided by sound and established practices and traditions.   

The hope is that a peaceful and healthy Pacific will teach the rest of the world to see the planet as we do: calm, bountiful, and boundless. The ocean does not divide us; it binds us. These were the pathways of our ancestors; they can surely be again for our descendants.  For Pacific Islanders, our genealogies are not found in roots but on waves.  We are, in our heart, one Oceania, and the full expansion of this monument helps move us all closer to ensuring for our future generations the opportunity to perpetuate the abundant natural and cultural heritage of our proud, shared past.