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Executive summary

Sustainable development in small island developing States cuts across the whole spectrum of economic activities, and particularly agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Agriculture has been the backbone of the economies of all small island developing States, providing the main source of livelihood for the population as well as being a major export earner.

Small island developing States face a number of constraints in seeking to fit into the global economy while managing their environment sustainably. Their populations, and therefore their markets, are small, their resource base narrow, fragile and prone to disruption by natural disasters, they depend for foreign exchange on a small range of primary product exports, and they have limited local capital for productive investment. This leaves the public sector with a heavy burden of responsibility for development while the base for revenue generation is narrow.

The recently-concluded GATT trade negotiations will strongly influence the freedom of small island developing States to decide on the agricultural support and trade regimes they consider necessary in their pursuit of sustainable agriculture and rural development and will affect both prices of foods imported (which are likely to rise) and markets for their exports (which could stagnate). The GATT Agreement on Agriculture does, in fact, imply that support to agriculture, as well as export subsidies would be limited in the future therefore leading to higher product prices. As nearly all small island developing States are net food importers, this will have a negative impact on their balance of payments and increase costs, including the possible need to establish food security stocks or finds as a safeguard against world market instability.

Sustainable agriculture and rural development has three essential goals: food security through an appropriate and sustainable balance between self-sufficiency and self-reliance; employment and income generation in rural areas, particularly to eradicate poverty; and natural resource conservation and environmental protection. Achieving these goals implies a long process requiring a comprehensive approach and heavy investments of labour, capital, technology and research, all of which are rare in small island developing States.

Substantial international assistance (both technical and financial) is likely to be needed to facilitate adjustment to changing macro-economic conditions at a time when: the level of development aid is being eroded, preferential arrangements are being dismantled, and opportunities for work abroad are becoming scarcer.

The chief assets of small island developing States are agriculture, fisheries and, to a lesser degree, forests. Managing these rationally is crucial to sustainable development and they must play a central role in development planning. Among these assets, coastal resources are especially important for subsistence, trade and tourism. Increasing and competing demands are being placed on coastal resources which are under severe strain. In many cases, this is threatening the island environment as a whole. Integrated coastal area management (ICAM) offers the means to balance the competing demands of different users of the same resources and to manage the resources sustainably. As agriculture, forestry and fisheries are the chief users of coastal resources, guidelines are being developed by FAO to assist line ministries in their task of integrating the agriculture sector in ICAM. The concept of integrated coastal fisheries management has also been pioneered as part of ICAM.

Fisheries resources are of great significance to small island developing States for food security and especially as a means of promoting and financing national economic development. The management of fisheries resources is made difficult by their open access nature, competing uses and the inability of small island developing States to control catches, especially by foreign vessels, even when the latter have signed fishing agreements. Controlling fishing within the FEZ is particularly problematic due to the small size and capacity of the islands and the large area of their EEZs, together with the migratory and straddling nature of the fisheries resources. Regional collaboration can give small island developing States the extra clout needed to defend their interests in this regard.

Land resources available for agriculture are usually very limited and a substantial share is taken up by export crops, leaving mainly fragile marginal land for local food production. Urban and touristic encroachment are further eating into land resources. Water is similarly scarce and threatened by pollution and sea water intrusion. Development of land and water information appropriate for planning purposes, cropping systems which maintain soil fertility, suitable water harvesting methods, and rational use of biomass residues are among the keys to sustainable land and water use.

Forests and trees are, if anything, more important in small islands than elsewhere for their role in watershed management, environmental Protection, provision of wood and non-timber resources, and as reserves of biodiversity. Similar to other small island resources, forests are under stress due to over-exploitation. Regenerated and protected forests, apart from their environmental function, can contribute to the promotion of eco-tourism (which could include marine eco-systems). Forest protection must also extend to research on woody species which are resistant to cyclones and other extreme weather conditions suffered by small island developing States.

Biodiversity embedded in crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries as well as wild species provide the basis for crop improvement and adaptation to meet future human demands and unforeseen environmental change. Cooperation between small island developing States will be needed for the evaluation and conservation of existing generic resources, particularly for capacity-building regarding crop cultivars. Within the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources, FAO has developed the concept of Farmers Rights to protect and enhance traditional knowledge and germplasm developed by farmers and rural communities.

Most small island developing States today depend on imported fuels for most of their energy needs. Domestic sources such as geothermal and wind energy are sometimes available but, on purely economic grounds, they cannot compete with imported fuels. Rural people still depend largely on biomass for energy. Crop residues could be better exploited, both as a thermal and animal energy source. Bagasse and whole sugarcane have a particularly good potential.

Small islands developing States could increase their degree of food security and self-reliance by exploiting their resources more rationally and sustainably. Alternative use for export crops, or more elaborate processing of local food crops, are serious options in this regard which could be exploited given appropriate research, training, exchange of experience and public education. Viable alternative uses exist for land, water, agricultural, forest and marine resources. Diversification is one means of improving resource use, though implementing diversification policies (return to home-produced foods to substitute some imports, cultivation of export crops for niche markets, radical changes in farming systems, alternative uses of forest products) will be a slow process and far from easy to introduce.

In the new trade context created by the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture and by changing conditions in food markets in importing countries, small island developing States will have to pay much more attention to the diversification of agricultural commodities into new products (both primary and processed), the quality of their export products (fruit and vegetables, fish, traditional crops such as coconut products) and to regularity of supplies.

Small island developing States have a good potential for tourism and many already have strong tourist industries, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages. Among the latter are increased food imports, conflicts for resource use, threats to fragile terrestrial and marine habitats, and increased sewage. Much of the income generated by tourism does leak back to developed countries, mostly to suppliers of imported food and beverages. Tourism, can provide outlets for local agriculture and fisheries and generate job opportunities in crafts or service sectors but this depends on certain conditions (strict hygiene rules, guaranteed supplies in quality and quantity). Provided foreign competition is successfully faced, growth in small island economies could be achieved through a vital link between agriculture and tourism.

In view of the small size of their populations, and the high rate of migration of qualified nationals, permanent training and capacity-building is required for the ministry staff of small island developing States. Environmental education and specialised training in sustainable agriculture, forestry and fisheries techniques must be high on the training agenda. Fostering collaboration between the many departments and services concerned, as the necessary holistic approach is adopted, implies overcoming deeply ingrained habits. Research, training and institution building will often be more effective if they are undertaken on a regional basis.

Assessment of traditional knowledge and practices could provide useful guidance for more sustainable development. Indigenous societies applied traditional control mechanisms over resources which avoided over-exploitation. The modernization of the economy and of society, along with other factors such as population pressure, has severely weakened these controls. Returning, where feasible, to such control mechanisms (which were usually community-based) and involving local people, including their associations and NG0s, could provide an essential key to successful development activities.

The absence of specific environmental legislation is a major obstacle to moving towards sustainable development in many small island developing States. Even where legislative tools exist, they are often difficult to administer or implement. These countries lack sufficient financial means or qualified personnel to establish the national focal points necessary for working with regional institutions and legal instruments. A regional approach can help in overcoming constraints to implementing related legislation. Amongst areas of concern in this respect are climate change, plant protection, animal health, biodiversity, integrated coastal area management, and high seas fishing.

In order to achieve all the foregoing objectives, and to proceed with planning on a reliable footing, most small island developing States must greatly strengthen their information gathering, storage and analysis systems. Satellite imagery, geographic information systems and other modem means make it possible to vastly enhance available information quite rapidly.

Finally, technical cooperation between small island developing States can open up considerable avenues for improving their capacity for the sustainable development of their resources. It would be helpful if this were organized more systematically, for instance with programmed support from the international community.

The FAO Inter-regional Conference of Small Island Countries on Sustainable Development and Environment in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (Barbados, 7-10 April 1992) provided the political framework within which further action might be taken in this regard. The Conference resulted in an Action Plan including conclusions and recommendations on agriculture, forestry and fisheries. It also produced the Bridgetown Declaration which was subsequently presented by the Government of Barbados to UNCED. In the follow-up to the UN Global Conference on the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, and as recommended by the Inter-regional Conference in 1992, it is planned to organize, subject to availability of funding, a second Inter-regional Conference of Small Island Developing States to be held in Western Samoa. The objective would be to assist small island developing States in implementing the Action Programme to be endorsed by the UN Global Conference, by establishing an inter-regional network for cooperation and capacity building in the fields of agriculture, forestry and fisheries.

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