The Cook Islands has announced the creation of the world’s largest marine park, as the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) opened with a spectacular Polynesian welcoming ceremony.
Heralded by traditional drummers and blaring conch shells, leaders of the 15-nation grouping were carried to the summit venue in the capital Avarua on litters while flag-waving locals cheered enthusiastically.
Prime Minister Henry Puna capitalised on a rare moment in the international spotlight to declare his nation of 11,000 people had created an enormous marine park almost twice the size of France.
The 1.065 million square kilometre (411,000 square mile) reserve would help save one of the last pristine ocean eco-systems, Puna said.
“(It is) the largest area in history by a single country for integrated ocean conservation and management,” he said.
While some leaders such as Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard looked somewhat sheepish as they were paraded aloft before the crowd, Puna burst into song after greeting them, delighting the locals with an impromptu lounge tune.
Gillard and her New Zealand counterpart John Key wore garlands of flowers around their necks, before a spear-carrying chieftain in a headdress decorated with shells and feathers performed a customary welcoming ceremony.
Dancers in grass skirts added to the Polynesian pomp for an event organisers said was one of the largest in the nation’s history, rivalled only by a visit from Queen Elizabeth II in 1974.
“This is certainly the biggest thing to happen here for decades,” one official at the ceremony told AFP.
Once the festivities were done, Puna turned to the serious issue of marine conservation, saying the new marine park was the Cooks’ major contribution “to the wellbeing of not only our peoples, but also of humanity”.
“The marine park will provide the necessary framework to promote sustainable development by balancing economic growth interests such as tourism, fishing and deep sea mining with conserving core biodiversity in the ocean,” he said.
Australia announced in June that it was creating a network of marine parks covering 3.1 million square kilometres, more than a third of its territorial waters. However, they are dotted around its huge coastline.
The Cook Islands protected zone will be the largest single marine park in the world, taking in the entire southern half of the nation’s waters.
The nation’s 15 islands have a combined landmass barely larger than Washington DC but its waters include environmentally valuable coral reefs, seagrass beds and fisheries.
Marea Hatziolos, the World Bank’s senior coastal and marine specialist, said the Cook Islands’ initiative was a win for both the environment and the country’s economy as it would help save fish stocks and promote tourism.
“There’s definitely an economic dimension to this, apart from protecting biodiversity,” she told AFP. “It allows small Pacific nations to generate revenue.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the summit later this week, in a move seen as sending a message to China that Washington intends to re-engage with the South Pacific to counter Beijing’s influence in the region.
The absence of Fiji, which was suspended from the PIF in 2009 in the wake of a 2006 military coup, will also be a major topic of discussion.