Credit: Christoph Burgdorfer, Unsplash
What do UNESCO Global Geoparks, the Pacific regions recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and a Pacific Community (SPC) Geologist have in common?
Usually not a lot but when the 2020 Funding with Intent round was opened for applications, these three disparate things came together in a project called, Pacific Geoparks.
Initiated by Gary Lee, a Geotechnical Advisor at SPC, the project’s starting point was the fact that of the 169 UNESCO Global Geoparks in 44 countries around the world, none of them are situated in the Pacific.
And with the regions tourism sector decimated by COVID-19 travel restrictions and border closures the Pacific Geoparks project team’s idea was to think strategically and build for the long term.
“Tourists typically perceive the Pacific as a homogenous region consisting of sun, sand, sea and palm trees, and this seemed like a broader strategic opportunity to shift that perception and showcase the incredibly diverse and special landscapes of the Pacific. Geoparks are very popular in Asia and Europe, and with the main source markets for tourism in the Pacific being Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, this idea provides an avenue to potentially diversify the visitor demographic.” said Gary.
UNESCO Global Geoparks are “sites and landscapes of international geological significance” that combine conservation, education, and sustainable development focused on local communities. Examples of existing UNESCO Global Geoparks include Batur in eastern Bali, which contains two volcanic calderas and Langkawi Global Geopark in Malaysia, encompassing the 99 islands that make up the Langkawi archipelago.
The project has sought both to build the geological and technical case for the development of geoparks, and also to build the partnerships and support from local through to national and regional levels. Since the beginning the project team have sought to work collaboratively with governments, communities, private sector, and agencies across the region.
“We spoke to the Pacific Tourism Organisation (SPTO) that serves as the oganisation responsible for tourism in the region. And they had already identified diversification of the tourism offering as a critical priority for recovery of the sector, so we formed a partnership to explore how Geoparks could support this.” said Gary.
Strong collaboration with SPTO throughout 2021 has resulted in a new Memorandum of Understanding signed by SPC and SPTO to solidify the ongoing partnership moving forward into 2022.
“The pandemic has given the tourism sector the opportunity to shift the way we plan and manage tourism. Despite the uncertainties ahead, it is important that our islands continuously aspire to innovate, and Geoparks for the Pacific is an untapped prospect for the region as we prepare for restarting tourism.” said SPTO’s CEO Christopher Cocker.
In 2021 the team built on foundational work underway in Samoa and Vanuatu, as well as focusing on two new prospective sites in Tuvalu and Fiji. One of the key outcomes of the Pacific Geoparks team’s work was to engage with local communities and assess the potential for Geoparks in these four locations.
“SPC and SPTO supported government geology and tourism teams to undertake community consultations and mapping to follow up on the projects initial desktop findings. Ultimately Geoparks are for local communities, so the starting point was asking communities for their thoughts on the idea. Community members provided some amazing insights, emphasising deep knowledge and connections to their lands.” said Gary.
Findings to date have highlighted that the potential benefits of Geoparks go far beyond tourism. “Geoparks are a strategic opportunity aligned with several regional priorities; they provide platforms to conserve the Pacific’s rich cultural heritage, act as outdoor classrooms, increase resilience of local communities against geohazards, elevate traditional knowledge, protect special landscapes for future generations, and have potential to act as climate change communication tools.” said Gary.
This aspect of the project is one of great interest to Dana Tigarea, a Post-Graduate in Climate Change focusing on adaptation and mitigation. Dana joined the project in March 2021 as an intern, undertaking desktop reviews and promoting the concept with stakeholders in the region.
Dana has since been employed by SPC as Geoscience Officer within the Geoscience, Energy and Marine division.
“This project has introduced a new concept to our region which addresses a variety of key areas that are significant to the sustainable development of our islands. It provides a platform for empowered Pacific Island communities to lead and manage how their land, resources and local communities are celebrated and sustained on a global stage. Pacific Geoparks also have potential to act as a valuable education tool which harmoniously merge indigenous knowledge with modern science to educate local students and inspire the next generation of geoscientists, environmentalists and researchers, who have strong Pacific identities”, she said.
While the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic are still clear and present, by initiating conversations about Geoparks in the Pacific and raising the profile of the potential benefits of establishing them in the region, the Pacific Geoparks project has kickstarted a process that has the potential to add value to a long-standing industry that impacts thousands of Pacific people’s lives and livelihoods across the region.
The team is excited to have secured funding to continue their work in 2022. But with the process for obtaining UNESCO Global Geopark status taking on average 3 to 5 years, they are calling on other partners and donors to provide further support to this initiative.
Dana Tigarea says there’s still a lot of work to be done. “We will continue the fieldwork, consultations with stakeholders and capacity building in the project locations. This will support key stakeholders and communities to make informed decisions on whether to establish geoparks at the respective locations and if so, outline the further work required to do so. We hope that these steps will result in mobilised resources to support the establishment of national geoparks.” she said.
This project was supported by Funding with Intent, part of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade – Pacific Community Partnership. These funds are used to design and test innovative responses to development opportunities, and support peer-to-peer learning between SPC’s member countries.