Monday, February 25, 2008

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Kiribati

As was reported last week, Kiribati is working with international conservation groups to create the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, the largest marine protected area in the world. The project has been in the works for a couple years.

It's worth looking at a map of Kiribati to make sense of the announcement. The NY Times called Kiribati a 'tiny island nation'. Yes, the islands themselves are tiny; the 32 atolls plus Banaba Island have a total area of ~729 sq. km (depending on the tide). The nation is not. It covers 3.5 million sq. km, which is about the area of India, and includes three distinct island chains.

The 410 000 sq km Phoenix Islands Protected Area will encompass the central island chain in Kiribati, to the east of the International Date Line. Around 30-40 people live on Kanton Atoll and serve as informal caretakers for the island chain. Otherwise, the Phoenix Islands are uninhabited. In fact, you could argue they are uninhabitable.

The majority of the 100,000 i-Kiribati live in western "Gilbert" Islands chain, particularly the capital of Tarawa Atoll (*).
Previous attempts by the British to (forcefully) resettle i-Kiribati from the more crowded Gilbert island chain to the Phoenix Islands failed because of prolonged droughts and the lack of groundwater resources.

Most of the Kiribati government revenue comes from foreign fishing licenses. The protected area status will limit large-scale commercial fishing around the Phoenix Islands and any marine resource development efforts. So the real key to this plan is the creation of an international endowment raise funds to offset the lost revenues for the Kiribati government. If successful, PIPA may serve as a model for the creation of marine protected areas in the developed world.

Some of the news reports have suggested that tourism will also help offset lost fishing revenue. While that's not impossible, don't get the idea you'll be able to book a seat on the 747 direct from LAX to Kanton and spend a week at a posh eco-resort. The Phoenix Islands are very remote, very inaccessible and have limited local resources. The only likely tourists are scientists on research expeditions and maybe people with the resources to spearhead a multi-week boat trip from Fiji.
This announcement is very much about conservation, not tourism.

* I use quotations because the word Kiribati (Keer-ee-bas) is a local transliteration of Gilberts. The country was not really renamed upon independence from the UK in the 1970s. It simply adopted the spelling and pronunciation of Gilberts in the local language.


Anonymous said...

As of the summer of 2008, Kanton had 28 caretakers, of which all but 12 are children. The population can't actually be very effective as caretakers other than showing Kiribati maintains a population there as the group does not have any resources to oversee the other islands in any capacity or even to know a boat has arrived at their own island except by hearing it arrive. There is also significant harvesting of sea cucumbers on the island to bring in much needed extra cash to supplement the very meager government support for this very isolated community.

Maranne222555 said...

Just a question, May I travel to PIPA and derivd stretch? is permit need? if yes, how to apply