I attended the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji back in 2006. The shadow of Bainimarama’s approaching coup hung over the forum but it wasn’t enough to quell the heat as we sat in our ridiculously ill-suited suits through endless, pointless meetings. Nothing was achieved and everyone clapped each other on the back for a job well done. And if you sometimes think there’s a talent deficit in New Zealand due to our small population, well a few hours in a room of Pacific ministers and officials is enough to show you the challenges really small countries face in that regard.
I expect John Key has just had a rather similar experience at his first PIF in Papua New Guinea. Although his floral shirt looked cool, at least. Again, Bainimarama hijacked the whole thing without even being there. From what I hear, there’s still no actual progress on the PIF’s childishly utopian Pacific Plan, which envisages a Pacific full of island Luxembourgs built on no discernible economic base. The Chinese are still the silent major players in the scene, quietly undermining the efforts of New Zealand and our friends to improve governance and democracy in the islands by offering largess without the morality lessons. But domestic concerns are no starting to worry the Chinese more than securing client regimes, especially ones without oil. And, as always, there was a lot of talk about grand dreams by the PIF leaders and precious little in the way of concrete plans.
I know I came back from the PIF wondering if it had been a good use of my then-employer’s taxpayers’ money and I wonder if Key is thinking the same. Well, I think it can be if it is used to do something concrete, and here’s what I suggest that should be.
The Island members have three big concerns – lack of domestic industry, oil prices (they were suffering from the mammoth cost of importing oil to scattered islands back in 2006, heaven knows what happened in 2008), and climate change, which threatens to flood some of the lower islands but, more immediately, is salinating the atolls’ water tables. The Islands have three things going for them – a tropical climate, a surprising large amount of fallow land, and lots of surplus labour.
With the right investment, you’ve got the conditions for a significant biofuels industry.
Tropical islands are great for biofuels because plants grow much faster than they do in temperate regions. There would be no need to displace food crops. Along with sugar cane the usual biofuel feedstock, research has already identified coconut oil as a feedstock and advances in second generation biofuels could open up a range of other options. The Islands’ balance of payments would be dramatically improved by cutting oil imports. They might even be able to export some biofuel to Aussie and NZ.
The PIF could be instrumental in establishing biofuel production (or rather enlarging it, there is already limited production) in the Islands by setting up a legislative and regulatory model for the members to adopt, funding a group of experts for the Islands to draw on, and providing seed capital (inevitably coming from Australia, NZ, and the PIF observers – EU, US etc).
Seems to me that would be an opportunity for the PIF to become more than a talkfest. Problem is, I think most of the leaders like it the way it is. And if it’s going to remain what it is, I don’t see why we should bother with it.