Protecting the global commons: Ngedikes Olai Uludong

by Lisa Williams-Lahari | 9 March 2021 | Moana Voices

Ngedikes Olai Uludong, Palau's Ambassador on Climate Change to the European Union, among other international roles

FFA’s Moana Voices series on women shaping the future of oceanic fisheries is edited, researched and produced by Lisa Williams. This interview for Moana Voices 2021 edition is with Ngedikes Olai Uludong, of Palau. She is Palau’s Ambassador on Climate Change to the European Union and the FAO, and lead negotiator on climate change for the Alliance of Small Island States. The interview is published here to mark International Women’s Day.

“The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was a big step forward for our developing Pacific nations when it was agreed in the 1980s, but right now it’s even more important with the BBNJ negotiations to fill in gaps since it was adopted … it can seem like a lot of UN-speak and negotiations, but it all comes down to the whole point of keeping our ocean home in order.”

Why is oceans work important for me? If one looks at my country’s (Palau) flag, that says it all. There are 193 flags at the United Nations for its members, and the only flag in the world that has a backdrop of an ocean with a full moon is Palau. For me, the ocean is firmly at the centre of who we are as a country and as a people. On an unfurled flag flying against a New York skyline, it is literally our highest statement of identity and ownership. 

The ocean is our culture, our heritage, and our tradition; and in Palau we see that a healthy ocean is part of the birth right of every child. For these reasons, oceans work is at the centre of what I do here in New York as a United Nations ambassador. This work for a healthy, productive, and resilient ocean is especially important now with major negotiations taking place at the UN, for example the work on a new treaty on biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction [BBNJ]. And, having that flag at the UN with me keeps me grounded and reminded of why it’s important. 

And then there is the personal connection to seeing that flag. Back home in Palau, there is the traditional knowledge that every full moon, there’s a known, predictable cycle and circle of renewal which links all life across land and sea. Every full moon, the fish spawn. It’s a knowledge common across the Pacific small islands. The moon cycles affect ocean life, and how we harvest food from the ocean is part of our ancestral history. It’s like carrying a library in our heads that has survived colonisation; it’s separates from political agendas and is an important part of our lives even today. The connection between moon and tides and people is all tied up into who we are as coastal states and islanders. 

As a livelihood resource for the world, the ocean is what drives me professionally. But that professional passion comes from a very deep and personal love for the sea.

Growing up, the ocean was literally my backyard. I loved to go to the rock islands, swimming in the ocean and fishing. Even now I still make a point when at home to go out and bottom-fish and get my dose of vitamin sea, because being in the ocean for me is very relaxing. It’s my happy place. I love the way I feel when I’m in my blue ocean environment. It’s both an energising and peaceful way to be. 

And I dive because I believe when you go out in the world and talk about the oceans, you must know close-up what you are talking about and what you are working to protect. By the age of 30, I became a certified diver. And that allowed me to know truly what the depths of the ocean are like, not just the view from the top. This defines my ocean work both personally and professionally. 

That was my first love, even though my career began with climate change. I took an interest in climate change because of the impact it is having on oceans and marine life. I have a Master of Science and a postgraduate [qualification] in climate change, both from USP which I obtained after completing my undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree in criminal justice at the University of Guam and an Associate of Science degree as well. My daughter thinks I have too many degrees. She is probably right in this, as education can only take one so far and it is the experience that gets one further. This leads to when my work on environment straight into climate change and international diplomacy, doing work for Palau and the Pacific region before heading internationally.

Palau’s very strong stance on illegal fishing is part of that legacy. In my personal view, there are two countries in the world that feel so strongly about illegal fishing in our waters that we seize and make a public point of burning these ships instead of simply sending them out of our waters. Palau and Indonesia have done this. 

Burning boats is not looked upon favourably by the countries where these illegal boats come from, which underlines the stamina and leadership required by President Tommy Remengesau and Indonesia’s former Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti. Burning or blowing up these ships stealing from our exclusive economic zones (EEZs) is what is needed to make a statement, because illegally plundering from within a nation’s boundaries really robs the entire ocean. Illegal fishing and rebalancing ocean governance are so important for Pacific nations and the world right now. This is a main reason I’ve taken on several roles beyond national responsibilities, such as serving as one of the co-facilitators for the BBNJ treaty negotiations covering marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdictions, serving as a co-facilitator for the UN Ocean Conference political declaration, and as a member of the Group of Friends of the Ocean and Seas. 

Because the fight for the future of our Pacific Ocean is a part of the fight for the future of all the world’s oceans beyond the Pacific. Outside of every Pacific nation’s EEZ is no man’s territory, the high seas, and therefore very few rules on what you can and can’t do. And yet fish and other marine migratory species know no borders, so we can’t keep our work on sustainability to just our own EEZs. 

So, how do you then produce that global framework to manage the common heritage of humanity? It’s so important for our Pacific people to understand this critical work that’s happening on the BBNJ and that process of protecting the global commons, the oceans, and high seas. 

If you look at the Pacific Ocean from outer space, you will only see one body of water across the entire planet. There is no separation, and that global reality for our Blue Pacific really proves the scale of the task when it comes to managing what we have. We have the world’s largest exclusive economic zones, but also the largest high seas areas on the planet, all within our Pacific Ocean. 

The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was a big step forward for our developing Pacific nations when it was agreed in the 1980s, but right now it’s even more important with the BBNJ negotiations to fill in gaps since it was adopted. The biodiversity negotiations to set global targets for the next decade are also vitally important to support our national targets and encourage others to match our ambitions to protect and sustainably use the Blue Pacific. 

Often, it can seem like a lot of UN-speak and negotiations, but it all comes down to the whole point of keeping our ocean home in order. Because it’s one thing for Palau to close 80% of its EEZ to fishing, as we’re doing in the Palau National Marine Sanctuary. It’s one thing to create marine protected areas and declare national marine parks. But if the world does not address what happens in the high seas, all the fishing boats just drop their lines on the edge of your EEZ and fish as much as they can. They love to come and fish on our borders because we are protecting and holding our ocean territories as safe ground– so the fish are thriving, and stocks are healthy – but they are on the move, being the migratory species that they are. 

And there’s no law to stop any fishing vessel from parking their vessels on our borders, using all the latest tech and radar gadgets to show them where the fish are, then putting down their thousands of kilometres of lines, and taking all they can. Because they can. This is the gap in international law. We are already seeing lots of that kind of activity. 

I am also Palau’s Ambassador to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and when it comes to their fisheries conferences, I sit in on negotiations, with fishing industry partners, and share our perspectives on all the dimensions of sustainable fisheries: aquaculture; illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing; on EEZs; and port state measures to deny port access to unscrupulous fishing fleets. 

At the FAO table, in all the conversations around coastal and oceanic fisheries, we need our Pacific voices to be there. To talk about the importance of sustainable oceans, what’s working in our fisheries and aquaculture systems, what needs fixing, and how the international community can and should support us. 

Pacific leadership at those tables makes a difference. So do high-level political champions who play a key value-adding role when it comes to taking the positions of Pacific nations to the world. I’m so proud to work for a leader and president who really gets it. He understands his influence and role and does not take that platform lightly on spreading the oceans message to the world. He’s one of the few leaders who can really share that depth of understanding of the ocean and the challenges many small developing islands nations face. 

The ocean negotiations and political space is critical for the Pacific Island States and the political will needs to be there, at the forefront of the agenda. It’s our oceans, it’s our fish, it’s our protein, it’s our source of livelihood, and if we are not there decisions will be made affecting the extent to which we are able to use our own resources, or whether they’ll be unsustainably extracted and no longer available for our children and grandchildren. For countries like Palau, it’s an opportunity to show what a bold decision to close 80% of the EEZ and leave 20% to domestic fishing looks like and how it can work for us economically and environmentally. In turn, it helps others to learn from our experiences. 

So, engaging, rather than being spectators, in the international organisations and forums is important to be able to align our policies and partners so we can drive global decision-making and collaborate with willing international partners on issues which will affect our national futures. These goes in hand with the fight on climate change.

My advice for other women or young people out there seeking career options in fisheries, climate change and even international policy is the same advice you may find from those promoting a new, innovative way of thinking. I’d say, sure, you can go into fisheries, oceans, or climate change directly, but you can get there through global diplomacy or other paths – culture, heritage, climate change, mathematics – whatever you do, can bring you into fisheries because it’s a social problem that needs all sorts of different skills and mindsets.

Do come and join me! Oceans and climate are the new nexus that will shape the rest of the century, and no one knows them like we in the Pacific do. When it comes to climate, we have known it’s been changing and the Paris Agreement target of keeping global warming to below 1.5 degrees has been our warning to the world: “1.5 to stay alive”. When it comes to oceans and fish, we know something is wrong when we go fishing and find that those fish are not there in the numbers that they used to be. 

And I say: come at fisheries (ocean) as an advocate for your countries and our region, too. Because our nations are all independent. We are some of the youngest independent nations in the world. Our leaders chose and struggled for that independence from years of colonial administration and external power and our futures being shaped by others who were far away and did not understand our lives, our identities, our desires. That alone should inspire more young women to understand what being independent means and fighting to keep that alive. Not just fighting for our islands, but for our ocean. Not just for tradition and your culture—but for the ocean and climate which supply the context for tradition and culture. 

With the future of the planet and the oceans being so tied up in climate change, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the gloomy news headlines and ignore the warning signs. I am aware of the warning signs, but it’s not too late. There is hope. The sense of urgency for the Pacific has been what has given us impetus to fight for change and getting results. From Paris in 2015, when we had to battle hard for the stronger, more ambitious language we wanted on climate change, we got it, because we are living it. And we were able to show our partners that we were serious about this. 

The IPCC report on 1.5 degrees in 2019 validated what we have been saying all along. Now the IPCC report does say that it can be done, but only if it is done fast. What I mean by done and done fast, and what the IPCC also shows, is a massive transitional shift to zero-carbon economies. It’s sort of ushering in a new age of solar-powered cell phones – and the economic shift needed to make those batteries and cell phones accessible for consumers. That would unlock this Rubicon of renewable technology, this alternative energy world beyond fossil fuels that we’ve been tiptoeing around, but we are not yet on the right path. That remains to be done.

But I still have hope. Whether its oceans, fisheries, climate change, we know what needs to be done before it’s too late. We just need to do it now and do it fast.