“We are Not Small Islands. We are a Vast Oceanscape.”

Interview with Maureen Penjueli, Coordinator of Pacific Network on Globalization

Maureen Penjueli. Photo: Rucha Chitnis

“We believe in trade justice for everybody” is the tagline of Pacific Network on Globalization (PANG), a research group that advocates for the economic self-determination of Pacific peoples.  PANG was founded after a regional conference on trade, globalization, investment and debt in Fiji in 2001 to challenge the onslaught of mining and extractive industries and neoliberal agendas seeping in the region.
According to PANG, the Pacific region has become the final frontier for the grab of marine resources by multinational corporations.  The rush for the rich abundance of the Pacific has threatened customary land systems that are a lifeline of Indigenous communities.  Free trade deals pose as a clear and present danger to the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples and their culture, livelihoods and food security.  Maureen Penjueli was a speaker at IFIP Pacific Hui, where she shared what was at stake for Pacific Island communities and how they are building a movement to protect their homelands and waterways.
Q: What is the mandate of PANG?
Maureen:   We were set up specifically to act as a watchdog on economic development that has the potential to affect Pacific peoples, particularly Indigenous Peoples. Our role is largely to undertake research and analysis around major trends that directly affects the rights of Indigenous Peoples. We work in three areas: 1) Free trade agreements that our countries negotiate, in particular to understand how customary land tenure systems might open up through free trade agreements.
Land in the Pacific is life; we are one of those unique regions in world, where our people still have the right to land, and they still own those lands in a communal way. 2) We also look at foreign investments. There is a big push in our countries to attract foreign investments and mining is the new frontier. We call it a Gold Rush. The state believes it has control over the ocean floor. So even with due consultation with Indigenous Peoples, this area is largely missing. 3) We try to promote alternatives that are Indigenous ways of knowing. There is a big perception in the Pacific that Indigenous ways of doing and knowing have little influence in policymaking. Our role is also to improve the knowledge base of our people around micro and macro economic issues and make our governments respect and acknowledge that we make major contributions to our the wellbeing of our countries and economic performance
Q: What are some of the human rights instruments that communities can use to affirm their rights?
Maureen: Our land rights are one of the impediments to economic growth and are consistently under threat. We work closely with Julian Aguon, an Indigenous human rights lawyer from Guam. There is very little understanding in the Pacific on United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples or Free Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC). We are working with him at the governmental level and to help communities understand these instruments. FPIC is now recognized, and people can use it to demand that governments abide by it.  Mining and extraction is such a big part of our development landscape, and it’s necessary for our people to be aware of FPIC. Overall human rights as an instrument is understood but rarely applied to Indigenous Peoples in the Pacific. It’s key for Indigenous human rights lawyers to educate our people.
Q: What are some of the milestones and victories achieved by the mobilization of Pacific peoples?
Maureen: Being very clear about our wins is necessary in struggles that are long term. We have consistently been able to slow down the signing of agreements. There is a perception that we are small island nations, but we are working hard with governments to slow down these processes. Papua New Guinea has withdrawn from a major trade agreement with New Zealand and Australia. This is because of the long-term advocacy of our people in this issue. Seabed mining companies should have started mining in 2016. The fact that our communities have been able to disrupt this since 2009 and companies have not been able to begin exploitation of resources on a commercial basis is a significant win for communities that are on the frontline. Maintaining long-term struggles but also paying attention to day-to-day subsistence living by customary practices has been fundamental for our wins so far. We have a chance to really pursue this at a global level and that’s why global Indigenous movements and struggles should pay attention to the Pacific. We will be the first regions to undertake seabed mining, and so support from big international movements will be valuable. We think we can have a major win if we stop this.
Q: How can philanthropy respond to support the long-term nature of these struggles for land and ocean sovereignty?
Maureen:  Philanthropy, particularly the kind that supports Indigenous movements, is really important and significant. If it weren’t for the likes of the Christensen Fund, the work that we are doing at a small scale wouldn’t be possible. We need more foundations like the Christensen Fund to engage for the long haul. That commitment is necessary in the Pacific. We consistently see ourselves as small numbers. We suffer from the trends of funders leaving the Pacific. There must be philanthropists who can see the Pacific more than just as small. We see ourselves as a large oceanscape. If we are talking about conservation and climate change, Pacific peoples are central to this conversation. Philanthropists have to see us as part of a bigger narrative on climate change. We also have to be more strategic to inform philanthropists and that’s why this Hui is important. Pacific small islands states are very under-represented when people are taking about climate change. When people say 2 degrees Celsius, for Pacific islanders it means disappearance of our culture and people.  This is an existential threat, which is very real for us.