Rarely has a long-planned conference been more timely than this one, which comes less than three weeks after the tsunami that killed more than 150,000 people and destroyed millions of lives and livelihoods around the Indian Ocean basin. The Tsunami brought home the vulnerability of small islands to natural disasters by taking its heaviest toll in lives and property in island countries.
The road to the Mauritius conference began long before this latest disaster. Some progress has been made to improve living standards in SIDS countries, but much remains to be done to strengthen their economies and their capacities to better withstand the shocks of both globalization and natural disasters.
The effort to recognize and assist SIDS as a special group of states began in 1994 with the Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of SIDS in Barbados. The conference adopted the Barbados Program of Action, which calls for specific actions and measures to be taken in support of the sustainable development of small island countries.
The 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development reaffirmed small islands as a special case, adopting a series of SIDS-specific issues and concerns in the Johannesburg Plan of Action. In a follow-up to the summit, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution that called for a comprehensive review of the Barbados Program of Action at an international meeting in Mauritius in 2004, 10 years after its adoption.
While the threat from environmental changes, hurricanes, cyclones and typhoons is widely known, these islands face many other lesser known, but no less serious, challenges to the health and livelihood of their people and economies.
The 1996 World Food Summit declaration and the Millennium Development Goals call on the world community to cut the number of hungry people in the world in half by 2015, recognizing that hunger and malnutrition are the leading causes of poverty and underdevelopment.
Hunger and malnutrition pose a particularly serious threat for developing island countries, which were until the early 1990s, mostly self-reliant in food with their people enjoying healthy lives and lifestyles. Islanders lived in harmony with nature, preserving and harvesting their forestry and fishing resources and raising their livestock and crops.
In recent years, all that has changed. Poverty, nutrition-related diseases and dependency on food imports are increasing at an alarming rate. The proportion of undernourished islanders is high. In 2002, 13 percent of Caribbean and Atlantic islanders were undernourished, while developing islands in the Pacific faced undernourishment rates of 14 percent.
With the successful development of tourism and ensuing economic growth, including many lifestyle changes, islanders face a growing epidemic of chronic diseases linked to poor nutrition, such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Micronutrient deficiencies are widespread and directly related to poor diets that are high in energy dense foods and low in fruits and vegetables, partly the result of expanding fast-food restaurant chains. Such traditionally cultivated species as taro, sweet potato and yam are now neglected. Uniform food production and consumption patterns, coupled with decreasing investment in agriculture and forestry, adversely affect the health and self-reliance of islanders and damage the natural resource base. The adoption of a few modern cultivars and the introduction of species alien to the islands are eroding biodiversity. Environmental vulnerability to natural disasters is increasing.
To feed their growing populations, small island countries now depend on trade to feed their people, importing on average more than 30 percent of their cereal consumption needs. For several of these island countries, more than 50 percent of the calories consumed daily by their people comes from imported food products. In islands where tourism is the dominant activity, 50 to 95 percent of foods and beverages are imported.
Globalization of the economy and the concentration of super and hypermarkets over the last five years are affecting what islanders grow and even the demand for their products in developed countries. To break out of this cycle of hunger, poverty and underdevelopment, sustainable agricultural development is vital. In almost all SIDS, 80 percent of agricultural export earnings are generated by the top five commodities including, sugar, bananas and fish products.
At the same time, the availability of food in island countries is threatened by excessive dependence on food imports and the rising cost of these imports, which is increasing in proportion to total export earnings, low domestic production and productivity levels, and the inefficiencies of local markets.
Since 1994 the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization has assisted Small Island Developing States to increase food security by improving the efficiency of their food production systems. At FAO we believe that sustainable agriculture, including forestry and fisheries, has an important role to play in an effective strategy for growth in small island states. Soundly managed agriculture, forestry and fisheries increase self-reliance for island people and protect the environment in which they live.
Improved agricultural diversity and better farming practices will not only improve food security for islanders, but will reduce the ravages these countries face when struck by natural disasters. Diversified agricultural production systems, effective fisheries management and planting hurricane-tolerant crops, together with good forestry practices, would all combine to improve the lives of islanders.
This year, the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture entered into force. The legally binding treaty will help preserve agricultural genetic resources and the rights of farmers and indigenous communities. It will also ensure that plant genetic resources are conserved and used sustainably and that the benefits derived from them are shared equitably. These are advances that will serve SIDS countries well in their efforts to preserve food diversity for improved nutrition.
While land resources on small islands are small, these islands govern large tracts of ocean. The FAO project Responsible Fisheries for Small Island Developing Countries focuses on the implementation of the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries, to help SIDS strengthen the capacity of fisheries administrations in order to promote and facilitate responsible fisheries in support of social and economic development.
FAO's National and Regional Food Security projects promote increased food security for islanders by increasing the efficiency of their food production systems and by facilitating the production of value added agricultural products. Because the islands depend on exports of primary commodities for a large share of their export earnings, they face serious challenges in this era of trade liberalization.
Small Island Developing States are committed to the WTO reform process for agriculture, and many need special provisions to address their developmental goals and vulnerabilities. Trade liberalization must not be an end in itself, but rather a means to advance the development of small island countries. The FAO is providing trade facilitation support and policy assistance to developing islands, as well as promoting technology for increased productivity and competitiveness and improved institutional and technical capacities as a basis for trade expansion.
The International Conference of SIDS in Mauritius, which continues in Port Louis till Friday, will gather the international community around the challenges that SIDS face in a rapidly changing world. It will be an opportunity to put things in perspective, to reflect on achievements and bottlenecks since the Barbados Agreement and to forge a long-term vision based on partnerships.
Jacques Diouf is Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)
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