The Pacific: Missing in action at Perth III?

[Originally published as, 26 November 2015]

The Perth III: Mountains of our Future Earth conference was notable for the absence of Pacific researchers. Pies summarising the geographical representation of the 400+ conference presentations in 2010 and in 2015 showed that Pacific participation remained steady at a feeble 1% (Plate 1). In 2015, I and a single researcher from New Zealand were responsible for this weak statistic.

Plate 1.
Plate 1. Geographic representation of abstracts at the Perth II and III conferences.

Does this tiny proportion reflect the real state of mountain research in the Pacific? Of course not. In Australian, New Zealand and US institutions, Pacific geosphere-biosphere studies are very well covered, though the poor turnout at Perth III highlights the fact that researchers may not be connected through the particular networks represented at the conference. Areas of particular strength include sustainable agriculture, biosecurity, earth sciences of all kinds, the social impacts of resource extraction, human ecology, Indigenous studies, land care, climate science, oceanography, and Antarctic and subantarctic[1] research. Specifically mountain research is more likely to be found in sub-departmental research centres like the University of Otago’s Alpine Ecology Research Group and or cross-institutional centres like the Australian Institute for Alpine Studies.

More broadly in the Pacific, individual researchers of many origins and disciplines may have put in decades of mountain research in vulcanology, in the alpine zones of West Papua and Papua New Guinea, or in the highland valleys of these jurisdictions, where around 5 million people live. Unfortunately, this picture of strength in geosphere-biosphere studies is not replicated in Pacific universities and research institutions.

Pacific Island countries and territories form a complex patchwork of jurisdictions that are themselves grouped in networks of political cooperation.

Some of the groupings are:

The presence of ex- (or current) colonial powers in these groupings is variable and politically charged. The pre-war colonial powers founded the South Pacific Commission (SPC) in 1947. Four remain active in the modern incarnation, renamed the Secretariat of the Pacific Community in 1997. The EU Pacific Group includes none of the large economies. The PIF includes Australia and New Zealand, while the Fiji-sponsored PIDF was created as a snub to Australia and New Zealand (and as a rival to PIF) following the suspension of Fiji from the Commonwealth after Fiji’s 2009 military coup. Confusingly, all five of the PIF, PIDF, SPC, Delegation of the European Union for the Pacific, and CLGF are headquartered in Suva, the capital of Fiji.

Three additional jurisdictions have adjunct statuses: New Caledonia as an Associate Member of the SPC; Timor Leste as a Special Observer in PIF; and West Papua with a somewhat ambiguous status in MSG.

It is necessary to enter into this detail because squabbling about which pieces should be on the Pacific chessboard, rather than what they should do, sucks oxygen away from any substantive game-play and – in terms of science – sustained, internationally credible research programs.

Four current problems illustrate the urgent need to transcend barriers to Pacific science cooperation in the area of mountain studies.

The first is the 2015 El Nino event. The Pacific is severely affected: frosts in August 2015 killed the sweet potato crop in Papua New Guinea and West Papua in areas above 2000 m; severe drought conditions are expected to persist across the Pacific well into 2016, meaning that several million people will be facing extreme food shortages for many months. You would think El Nino would be a regional science priority, recurrences coming round like clockwork every 12-20 years, and given that the last one, in 1997, brought famine for months on end and, in Papua New Guinea, caused exports to crash and triggered 50 million Euros in Sysmin funding under the Lomé IV convention.

The second is the state of climate science in Pacific Island countries. The most strident calls for action have come from the lower-lying countries like Marshall Islands and Kiribati, but climate effects on things like Nothofagus dieback, crop pests, and human diseases with insect vectors means that environments, livelihoods and human health at all elevations are vulnerable. Again, you would think this would be another urgent priority.

Plate 2.
Plate 2. Who monitors the extractive industries in the Pacific? Glenn Banks of Massey University, Councillor Sukul Tupia of Panadaka village and a mine worker look over the Porgera gold mine at 2000 m in the Papua New Guinea Highlands in 2006.

The third is the state of resource governance and of ESIA studies of the extractive industries that already dominate the economies of Papua New Guinea (gold, copper, nickel, oil and gas – most in highland areas) and New Caledonia (nickel), and appear set to have a wider scope in the Pacific in coming years. Here too, the impacts on local communities are profound and it might be imagined that this should be a priority area (Plate 2).

The fourth problem, instigated to combat the effects of uncontrolled development, is the state of the region’s Protected Areas. Papua New Guinea now has 60, most in mountain areas. West Papua’s World Heritage-inscribed Lorentz National Park at 2.3 million hectares is one of the biggest protected areas in the Asia-Pacific and extends from the glaciers of Puncak Jaya, 4884 m, to highly bio-diverse marine habitats in the Arafura Sea. The wealth of natural reserves in these jurisdictions is of global significance and merits a multi-partnered, multi-disciplinary research and management effort to create high quality science and monitoring data, and to safeguard the areas for future generations.

But, in fact, science capabilities in the Pacific countries have stagnated in recent decades. Never mind a Global Mountain Observatory network: Papua New Guinea’s National Weather Service has lost most of its observatories and weather stations (it currently lists just two for the entire country, highest altitude 73 m); there is no dedicated research centre for resource industry impact studies, and a possible candidate, the PNG University of Natural Resources and Environment, is currently incommunicado with a defunct website and derisory funding. The 50-year-old Wau Ecology Institute – a gift of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu and which, at 1200 m, was one of the country’s handful of research stations at altitude – lies unstaffed and defunded. In West Papua’s spectacular glacier-to-mangroves Lorentz National Park, a February 2015 assessment by the IUCN found ‘concerns’ including road-building in the park in breach of park regulations, poaching, and underfunding and weak capacity in the park’s management. Fiji has 48 terrestrial protected areas and aims to protect 100% of remaining upper montane and cloud forest but, by its own assessment, no department or agency has the technical and financial resources to undertake proper assessments and manage the areas into the future.

Some new initiatives may repair this. With help from UNESCO and an initial 3 years of funding, ten Pacific universities collaborated to form a Pacific Islands University Research Network in 2012. Its latest aim is roll out a Research Skills Development Framework (RSDF) in all ten signatory universities from 2015. In Papua New Guinea, a new Science and Technology Secretariat held a ‘Science and Innovation Strategic Plan’ workshop on 5 November, to ‘align … all research agencies … and priority research needs of the country’ (not the first attempt at a plan, it should be added). With a PACE-NET Plus (Pacific-Europe Network for Science, Technology and Innovation) seed funding grant, my colleagues and I came together for a workshop in Suva 17-19 November to design a Pacific Centre for Social Responsibility and Natural Resources within the Geoscience Division of SPC. An MRI Oceania is also on the wish list, but you can’t do everything at once.

Like all previous networks, initiatives and plans, none of these is going anywhere unless what follows is the commitment of real funds to credible research projects and to address the long-term science infrastructure problems of the Pacific. We shall see – collaborators welcome!

[1] Both Australia and New Zealand have island archipelagos in the Southern Ocean, in both cases UNESCO World Heritage sites