By Inga Vesper

The World Conservation Congress, a high-level event summoning 8,000 of the world’s most prestigious environmental scientists, is taking place in Hawaii this month. The choice of location is a sensible one — islands are strongly affected by climate change and invasive species, their ecosystems are among the most fragile on the planet and islanders depend directly on nature for their livelihood.

Throughout the conference, the knowledge and experience of indigenous islanders was underlined as an important source of information to cope with climate change and degrading environments.

“When we ask how to live within our means, indigenous people have the answer,” Erik Solheim, the executive director of the UN’s Environmental Programme, said during the event’s opening session.

But there is a darker undercurrent to the image of islands in perfect harmony with nature. The settlement of the Pacific, and even of Hawaii itself, is a story as much of destruction as it is of conservation.

As the conference goes into its final days, the warnings from Polynesian history are clear: ecological boundaries are crossed at humanity’s peril. The Polynesians, in a sense, were lucky. When their ecosystems degraded, there were new shores to sail to for a better life. As the summit shows, that’s no longer an option.

Inga Vesper, SciDev.Net

The voyages of the early Polynesians are incredible human achievements — a credit to highly advanced marine and navigation technologies as well as intricate social relationships. They travelled thousands of miles in outrigger canoes across a vast ocean to discover unknown lands and trade with friends in known places.

But often, these voyages were forced by overpopulation and resource scarcity in the islanders’ homelands. Many islands in Southeast Asia lost all tree cover because of land degradation, while shortages of fresh water and overfishing led to conflict among ancient tribes. Human activity turned the Marchena and Easter islands in the Galapagos into barren wastelands. Trade introduced foreign species into previously pristine habitats.

Islanders are now stepping up to the task of protecting their ecosystems. Palau’s effort to place 80 per cent of its marine territory under strict protection was lauded as a prime example of indigenous experience, passed down through stories and song, overcoming economic greed. “The environment is our economy,” Tommy Remengesau, the president of Palau, told the conference.

Others made clear that a combination of traditional knowledge and modern technology looks like the winning combination for conservation.

“There is a lot of opportunity for indigenous people to use technology to preserve knowledge that they have, but also to contribute to planning tools that decide what happens to their environment,” said M’Lis Flynn, who looks after indigenous partnerships for Australia’s Wet Tropics Management Authority.

As the conference goes into its final days, the warnings from Polynesian history are clear: ecological boundaries are crossed at humanity’s peril. The Polynesians, in a sense, were lucky. When their ecosystems degraded, there were new shores to sail to for a better life. As the summit shows, that’s no longer an option.

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