President Ramkalawan addresses conference focusing on the plight of island peoples in the face of climate change and other dangers
21 May 2021 | Environment
Your Eminence Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson,
Rt Revd Michael Burrows,
Archbishop Ian Ernest,
It is a great honour to be invited to present the keynote address at this joint ecumenical event. It is even more so that the invitation has come to me as the leader of one of the world’s smallest nations, and as an ordained and practising Anglican priest. Nothing shows better that in the search for global peace and justice, all voices count.
Small island states seek recognition and it is heartening that the theme of this online conference includes the words, ‘challenges and opportunities for insular peoples’. Too often, simply because we are small, we are ignored on the world stage. But, as I will show, we share the unique experience of being islanders surrounded by the great seas that cover most of the planet. And, living in close proximity one to another, our peoples have gained a keen sense of the importance of community, of finding ways to co-exist and to respect our precious environment, across our limited land areas as well as at sea.
Global warming, rise in sea level and every other new term coined in relation to
nature and the environment are directly felt by us. Coastal erosion means not only the loss of our land mass, but it also has direct economic impact as our once beautiful beaches that attracted tourists to our shores are turned into graves of dead trees.
Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letters Laudato Si’ and Fratelli Tutti, provide the setting for this joint exploration of ideas. Who could disagree, as the Pope contends, with
the view that the world is beset with problems? Humanity has made so much progress in many ways. Yet new technology and unprecedented material wealth in global terms have not yielded the kind of utopia we might have expected.
Too many of our fellow humans still live in poverty, and are oppressed in other ways too; our environment has been degraded without thought for future generations; and not a day goes by without hearing of conflict in one part of the world or another. That, very sadly, is where we are now.
One can only be inspired by the way Pope Francis looks at humanity and the challenges we face. It is obvious that there has been a constant manipulation and deformation of concepts such as democracy, freedom and justice. Selfishness and indifference have pushed humanity in the opposite direction of building a more fraternal world where we support each other instead of looking down on my neighbour. We are englobed by so many negatives that we forget we are all on the same Titanic and that the iceberg staring us in the face will destroy all of us. Based on that we are all religiously called to be part of a vision of rebuilding our communities as we patch together a broken world.
As believers, we share and identify ourselves in the words of the eighteenth-century poet, Alexander Pope, ‘hope springs eternal in the human breast’. Without hope we would be lost, which is why I have called my presentation, ‘Islands of Hope’. Different islands in the world have learnt to live with the threat of hurricanes and tsunamis; with volcanoes and earthquakes; they have been exploited by greater powers for their natural resources and even for their labour; they have faced famines when supplies have failed; and they have been drawn into wars that were not of their making. Yet they have never lost hope.
We have stood our ground and have not only produced great minds, but have also been world examples. My brother, Archbishop Ian Ernest, comes from the small island of Mauritius, and here he is today as a leader in ecumenism in Rome.
The Seychelles today leads the world in the Covid-19 vaccination programme. We have fully vaccinated over 60% of our population and furthermore we pride ourselves as being a stable and peaceful country, respecting the rights of every citizen. So, what can be done, what example can such places offer?
Seychelles: A Small Island State
For my part, I am President of the Republic of Seychelles, an archipelago in a remote stretch of the western Indian Ocean. Some of our islands rise sharply from the sea while others are low-lying idylls. The combined land area of the 115 islands covers fewer than 460 square kilometres, half of which is protected from development and takes the form of tropical forests and nature reserves. But the land is miniscule compared with the vast area of oceanic space, some 1.374 million square kilometres, within our jurisdiction.
We are small in terms of land mass but bigger than Germany, France, Turkey, Poland and many other countries in terms of our territory. Little wonder that we see ourselves as an oceanic state and know that our future depends on the sustainable use of the sea. Of greater interest to the theme of this conference is our unique human history. Some 1500 kilometres from the nearest point on the African continent, these remote islands attracted few visitors until the arrival of the French in the second half of the eighteenth century. Until then, the archipelago was uninhabited and the French lost no time in claiming the territory as part of their own burgeoning empire. With the subsequent demise of their leader, Napoleon, control was passed to the British, who retained the colony until independence was ceded to Seychelles in 1976.
Under the French, and then the British, slaves were brought from the African mainland and the large island of Madagascar. When this practice was ended, indentured workers arrived from India, providing more labour to work on the plantations. To add to the mix of ethnic origins, a small but influential population of Chinese traders started their own small businesses. If some of this colonial history sounds familiar, we all share a sense of pride that, in the post-independence period, the ethnic mix has been harmonious. Following fifteen years of single party rule, often brutal and ruthless in its suppression of dissenting voices as I can personally attest to, multi-party elections were restored and a new Constitution written.
The words of the Constitution are so pertinent to the theme of this conference that I would like to read an extract to you. Thus, in the Preamble we say: We, the People of Seychelles, GRATEFUL to Almighty God that we inhabit one of the most beautiful countries in the world; EVER MINDFUL of the uniqueness and fragility of Seychelles;CONSCIOUS of our colonial history before becoming an Independent Republic;AWARE and PROUD that as descendants of different races we have learnt to live together as one Nation under God and can serve as an example for a harmonious multi-racial society; HAVING attained national stability and political maturity despite the pressures of a sadly divided world; DESIROUS to build a just, fraternal and humane society in a spirit of friendship and co-operation with all peoples of the world; RECOGNISING the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation for freedom, justice, welfare, fraternity, peace and unity; REAFFIRMING that these rights include the rights of the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness free from all types of discrimination; CONSIDERING that these rights are most effectively maintained and protected in a democratic society where all powers of Government spring from the will of the people EXERCISING our natural and inalienable right to a framework of Government which shall secure for ourselves and posterity the blessings of truth, liberty, fraternity, equality or opportunity, justice, peace, stability and prosperity; INVOKING the blessings of Almighty God…
In a nutshell, we have encapsulated the many elements that are essential in building the ‘Fratelli tutti’ Pope Francis aspires to. We are in it together, insular states, landlocked countries and sea bordering ones. The human race, created in the image of God, marches on with hope. Seychelles is not alone. We are one of fifty or so similar jurisdictions in various parts of the world, the main clusters being in the Caribbean and Atlantic, in the Indian Ocean and in the Pacific. Traditionally, geographical dispersal has made it difficult to promote common interests but this problem has been eased by vastly improved communications (of the kind that is enabling this international conference).
The voice of these small states can now be heard, and loudest of all is the call to mitigate climate change, which in some cases threatens the very existence of low-lying islands. There is also, in all that they say, a constant emphasis on sustainability. Development of these islands cannot come at any cost: it must be sustainable.
Oceans are beautiful. But are we respecting them? The pillage that is happening without proper awareness that removing all the resources will lead to dead oceans will destroy our existence. I’m scared when I realise that even with scientific knowledge at our disposal, we are simply not following the forecast. We condemn ourselves to further destruction when we tear down forests, change the course of rivers and massacre species to a state of extinction. Humanity has to change course or else we are headed for the iceberg. We are constantly reminded of the vulnerability of our mere existence daily. What will the planet look like in another 100 years at the pace we are going?
The Maldives may no longer be in existence, Seychelles will no longer be an archipelago of 115 islands, the coastline of Mauritius will be further inland, but so will that of many continental countries. It will indeed be a catastrophe as far as population displacement is concerned with less land mass. Much awaits us, thus the time to act is now. Humanity has to come together not as a matter of choice, but rather for survival. Covid-19 has merely been an alarm bell, worse will hit us, unless we accept the promise from the Almighty, as Prophet Ezekiel reminds us “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.”
Each of the island states has its problems but are also models of exemplary practice. In my own region, for instance, each of small island states now has its own university. Some of these places of learning were formed barely more than a decade ago. Invariably, they are small institutions, reflecting their population catchment, but all can point to the enthusiasm of young people who want to improve their own life chances and those of their countries. There is hope embedded in this inspiring trend. Thanks God for the spirit of youth who see knowledge, protection of the environment, peace and solidarity as basic tenets of living. They are the ones disrupting old destructive cultures. We have to listen to our youth.
Good policies will help to translate hope into material improvement. But my presentation is less about policies and more about the human energy that gives rise to hope in the first place. Where does that come from? What is it about Small island states that nourishes this energy? The answer, I believe, comes from the nature of islands themselves and the resultant character of islanders.
Geography is the obvious starting point, the simple reality of pockets of land surrounded by sea. And when these places are inhabited, they become natural communities, in one sense separated from the rest of the world. The people who live there were traditionally on their own, responsible for their own actions and united in finding ways of survival. Thus, islanders are remarkably independent in spirit and inventive in what they do. Had they not been, they would not have survived.
It is not surprising that islands have intrigued outsiders and that a succession of writers offer their own accounts of what is different. ‘Big places are blurry but small islands are pin sharp’, writes one observer.Separated from other lands by the sea, islands have lent themselves easily to myth and folklore. But for those who live there they are real places, as I can myself testify as a lifelong islander.
In spite of generations of dreamers, who imagine islands in one way or another, islands are real places. I live and work with people in Seychelles who grew up when there was less contact with the outside world. I also minister to them. Now it is very different, with phone lines and the internet, with planes arriving at the international airport from all parts of the world, with our very existence in the shadow of major powers.
We retain a strong sense of identity and our sovereignty is jealously guarded. We are Seychellois. But, like every other human, wherever they live, we are also citizens of the world. The challenges we face cannot be met on our own. Climate change is a global issue, and so is food security; national security depends on what others do, as well as what actions we take ourselves; our access to science and technology cannot rely on our own practitioners. Collaboration is the key to survival, cooperation the spirit we must bring with us.
We are an island people but we live in an interconnected world. Dreamers who once thought they could cut themselves off from the rest of society were mistaken. To use a much-cited line by the seventeenth-century poet, John Donne, ‘No man [nor, indeed, woman] is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent’.
From the small island states we can bring values and characteristics born of our traditions, challenges and the unique livelihood that islands have bestowed. Our voices should be heard. But we would be misguided if we believed that we, alone, had all the answers to the world’s problems. The only way forward, to champion the values of fraternity and justice, is to do so alongside others.
Dear Friends, it has been a great privilege and an honour to share my thoughts with such a committed network of believers. Networks such as this offer our greatest source of hope. No island is too small to be a part of this endeavour, no country too large to claim a monopoly of ideas.
Let us continue with humility but also with greater determination in our joint efforts to secure a better world, one which is fair and where all humans and nature feel as one. This ecumenical dialogue shows how it can be done.
I thank you