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Indian Ocean

Civil society's perspective on environment and development issues

By Alain De Comarmond
Division of Policy, Planning and Services, Ministry of the Environment, Seychelles


Focusing on new information and communication technologies, Small Islands Voice is about amplifying the general public’s views on environment and development issues in small islands and exchanging those views with the rest of the world.  Sponsored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, this initiative, which commenced in January 2002, has three main goals: (a) providing people from small islands the opportunity to voice their opinions about environment and development issues; (b) ensuring that these opinions contribute to the 10-year review of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States, adopted in Barbados in 1994; and (c) encouraging people to get involved in environment and development issues. 

With its focus on capacity building, Small Islands Voice encompasses the local, national, regional and inter-regional levels.  It seeks to overcome the isolation of small islands by strengthening intra- and inter-island communication paths, and to promote, wherever possible, self-reliance of small islands.  At a local level, activities are being undertaken to initiate debate and dialogue about environment and development issues as they affect everyday life in towns, villages and communities.  These activities, which include community meetings, opinion surveys and talk shows, require the support of local print, radio and television media.  Simultaneously, a focus on youth will facilitate young islanders to use new technologies, such as Internet discussion groups, to debate amongst themselves their concerns relating to environment and development.  All these views will be compiled, summarized and further discussed at regional and inter-regional levels using the Internet.  The outcome of these debates will be channelled back to the local level for action on the ground, and to the global level especially international programmes dealing with sustainable development of small islands. 

Initial activities have already commenced in three start-up island countries: Palau in the Pacific, St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.  Coordinating committees have been established to organise the activities on the ground; media surveys have been conducted; and interview surveys are underway to provide a starting point for the discussion and dialogue.  Towards the end of 2002, as issues become defined in these three island countries, the debate will be widened to the regional and inter-regional levels. 

Through this initiative it is hoped that small islands will further contribute to and benefit from the ‘information age’ as a way to combat environmental degradation and growing poverty at home, as well as serve as an example to the rest of the world. 


The world’s small island developing states are front-line zones where, in concentrated form, many of the main problems of environment and development are unfolding. As such, they are the big tests for the commitments made at the 1992 World Summit’. (United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Kofi Annan, New York, September 1999).

Small-island nations, like other countries, are trying to find the right balance between economic development and environmental protection. However, the problems that islands face are particularly challenging and often call for special solutions.  Size and relative isolation, vulnerability to natural disasters, sea-level rise and global economic events, are among the limitations of small islands. In a world undergoing rapid globalisation, the need for Small Island Developing States and other small-island groups to work together to achieve their goals, has never been greater.

A call for proposals for intersectoral activities within the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in January 2001 identified two crosscutting themes, namely:

   the eradication of poverty, especially extreme poverty; and

   the contribution of new information and communication technologies to the development of education, science, culture and the construction of a knowledge society.

These themes are closely linked in small islands. For while poverty is often defined in economic terms, it cannot be confined to purely monetary criteria, relating as it does to the provision of basic human needs, which in turn requires the transfer of information, knowledge and technology. Small islands on their own rarely have sufficient technical and financial resources to solve major problems or develop adequate infrastructure. If they remain isolated and unable to take part in the ‘information age’, they will not share in the wealth of knowledge, international debate and programmes, and even the important social validation that comes from exchanging similar experiences and learning from others.

The global conference on the ‘Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States’ held in Barbados in 1994, adopted a broad programme of action. In 1999, a special session of the United Nations General Assembly was held to assess progress and boost support for the islands. It identified six problem areas[1] as being in need of priority attention for the next five years.

Many people living in small islands may not know of the 1994 global conference or its resolutions. Thus, it is timely, as we approach 2004, a decade after the Barbados meeting, not only to examine the significance and relevance of these issues to civil society in small islands, but also to find out which issues – the six identified in 1999, or others – are the primary concern of the general public in small islands.

In order to address some of these issues, the Small Islands Voice initiative was launched in January 2002 by UNESCO, with the intersectoral platform for Environment and Development in Coastal Regions and Small Islands (CSI) taking the lead. Small Islands Voice is about providing people from small islands the opportunity to voice their opinions on environment and development issues; having these views contribute to the 10-year review of the ‘Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States’, adopted in Barbados in 1994; and encouraging people to get involved in environment and development issues.

Ensuring that the voice of the general public in small islands is heard loud and clear and that this voice becomes a driving force for action on the ground, is the ultimate goal of Small Islands Voice.  It is hoped that this initiative can make a significant contribution towards sustainable island development.

Geographical Background

While focusing on the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific regions, it was decided to have the ‘smaller’ small islands and archipelagos, those with a population of less than 100,000 people, take the lead.  Based on this criterion of size, and considering other factors such as available human resources, ongoing projects and communication facilities, three islands were invited to be the start-up countries for the initiative.  These were Palau in the Pacific, St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, and Seychelles in the Indian Ocean.

Activities to find out islanders’ views on environment and development issues are being conducted on the ground in these three island countries during the first year of this initiative.  These include opinion surveys, meetings, community bulletin boards, talk shows, radio call-in shows.  The views collected in these activities will be documented and analysed.  As particular issues begin to emerge from the start-up islands, the discussion and debate will be widened to the regional and global levels.


Palau lies about 1,600 km southeast of Manila in the Philippines, it is the westernmost archipelago in the Caroline chain of Micronesia.  The archipelago consists of more than 200 islands, including volcanic and raised-limestone islands, and some atolls.  The total land area is 458 km2.  Babeldoab is the largest island in Palau and the second largest in Micronesia. However, most of the population lives in Koror, where the seat of government is also located.  Following World War II, Palau, which had previously been ruled by Germany, then by Japan, became part of the United Nations Trust Territories under US administration.  In 1994, Palau gained its independence upon signing of the Compact of Free Association with the United States.  The economy is based mainly on agriculture and fisheries. Tourism is a growing sector, with 54,000 visitors in 2001. The population of 19,129 people is mainly Micronesian (70%) and 28% of Asian origin.



 Land area (km2)


 Gross Domestic Product  (US$)

 129 million (1998 estimate)

 Gross Domestic Product per capita (US$)

 7,100 (1998 estimate)

 Life expectancy at birth (years)


 Literacy rate (%)


(Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, 2001)

St. Kitts and Nevis

The twin island state of St. Kitts and Nevis is located about 800 km southeast of Puerto Rico.  It lies within the Lesser Antilles, a chain of islands stretching in an arc from Puerto Rico to Trinidad and Tobago.  The total land area is 261 km2 (St. Kitts 169 km2, Nevis 92 km2).  First settled by the British, St. Kitts and Nevis became independent in 1983.  The economy is based mainly on agriculture and tourism. However, the main crop, sugar cane, is being phased out.  Tourism arrivals in 1996 were 84,000 visitors.  The population is mainly of African origin with some Europeans.

 Population  38,756
 Land area (km2)  261
 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (US$)  274 million (2000 estimate)
 Gross Domestic Product per capita (US$)  7,000 (2000 estimate)
 Share of industry in GDP (%)  22.5
 Share of services in GDP (%)  72
 Share of agriculture in GDP (%)  5.5
 Life expectancy at birth (years)  71
 Literacy rate (%)  97

(Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, 2001)


The Seychelles archipelago, consisting of 115 islands and a total land area of 455 km², lies about 1,200 km northeast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Forty-one of the islands are granitic and located within a radius of 50 km from the main island, Mahé. The seat of government is located in Mahé, which has a land area of 148 km², about one-third of the total land area. The remaining 74 islands are inhabited coral islands.  Seychelles, previously ruled by the French and the British, became independent in 1976.  The economy is based on tourism, fishing and light manufacturing.  Tourism arrivals in 1997 were 130,000 visitors.  Seychelles has a mixed-origin indigenous population (78,800), from Europe, Asia and Africa, with about 90% residing along the coast on the main island of Mahé.

 Population 1998  78,846
 Land area (km2)  455.3
 Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (US$)  566 million (1999 estimate)
 Gross Domestic Product per capita (US$)  7,200 (1999 estimate)
 Share of industry in GDP (%)  20
 Share of services in GDP (%)  60
 Share of agriculture in GDP (%)  3.8
 Life expectancy at birth (years)  70.1
 Literacy rate (%)  88.6

 (Source: United States Central Intelligence Agency, 2001)

Small Islands Voice at the Local Level

The Small Islands Voice initiative will be implemented in each start-up country by a local committee, which includes government members, non-governmental organizations, the media, and members of the public with no particular affiliation.  Committees have already been set up in St. Kitts and Nevis, and Seychelles (see the website www.smallislandsvoice.org for details) and one is being established in Palau.

One of the first activities planned in each island country is an opinion survey, designed with fairly open-ended questions, to determine how residents view past and future changes in their island and their individual role in development.  These surveys will cover at least 1% of the entire population, be geographically representative and include all sectors of society.  Besides providing a baseline for assessing the Small Islands Voice initiative, survey results will provide an initial indication of the issues of local concern.

Each start-up island country will design specific activities, in collaboration with the media (print, radio and television), in order to find out the general public’s views. These activities will coincide, wherever possible, with events on the local calendar, e.g. tourism week, World Environment Day, etc.  In St. Kitts and Nevis for instance, an annual Science-Mathematics-Technology Fair is held, sponsored by the Ministry of Education.  During the 2002 fair, an exhibit was displayed on Small Islands Voice, with information on certain environment and development issues.  School students were present during the fair to distribute short survey forms to the visitors about the issues displayed.  Analysis of the survey forms is in progress.

News events that occur during the period of the initiative are expected to provide another means for getting the public’s views.  For instance, in Palau, there is considerable concern about a new road being built in Babeldaob – the largest island, which is only sparsely populated.  An article in the local newspaper highlighting this development and the issue of sediment-laden runoff from the road construction causing pollution of the nearshore bays (Radway, 2002) has already been posted on the Small Islands Voice website and provides a starting point for further debate.

The Seychelles has a very well defined structure for reaching the community level.  The Ministry of Local Government and Sports has in place a local administration in each district, which, with the assistance of the District Administrators, will link Small Islands Voice directly to local communities. This same mechanism will provide a means of targeting specific groups such as the elderly, a group, which is already the focus of specific activities (e.g. island-hopping and other forms of recreation) organized by the District Administrators.  Similarly Youth Action Teams and their leaders, already in place in each district to mobilise the youth, could become focal points for the Small Islands Voice initiative.

Indeed, young islanders and their concerns are key to the Small Islands Voice initiative.  On the ground activities for the youth will be designed by each start-up island country.   For instance, in St. Kitts and Nevis, there is a Saturday morning youth programme on the radio, ‘Elements of Surprise’, during which young people call in with their views – presenting a good opportunity for gathering opinions from this particular group.  In Palau, the concept of youth is very interesting, since age is viewed as a state of mind. While youth is defined as up to 40-years, anyone older than 40-years can be a part of the island’s youth if they feel young in mind.

Small Islands Voice at the Regional and Global Level

Extending Small Islands Voice to a regional level may be one of the most challenging components of the initiative. It is planned to use the Internet to gain a regional dimension. In particular, the experience gained by UNESCO-CSI in an Internet-based forum ‘Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development’ (WiCoP forum), will be utilised. This forum was started in April 1999, with about 50 participants, who were asked to describe and discuss examples of wise coastal practices and to post them on the forum.  They were also asked to react to each other’s postings.  At this start-up phase, the forum was not moderated.  After nearly 100 postings, the forum was re-organised towards the end of 1999.  When it re-started, it was fully moderated and additional people were invited to participate.  At the time of writing (May 2002), there were more than 10,000 people connected to the forum and all contributions are posted in English, French and Spanish.  A complete archive of all the contributions is on the web at http://www.csiwisepractices.org (with user name csi and password wise). The WiCoP forum contains a detailed search facility so that it can also be used as a research tool. An assessment of the achievements and future directions of the forum has been prepared (UNESCO, 2001).  A participant survey of the forum in September 2001 indicated that most of the participants are from academia, government agencies, consultancy firms and international organizations (80%), while non-governmental organizations comprise 8%.  The remainder consist of persons from the private sector, community groups and interested individuals (Muehlig-Hofmann, 2002).

Based on the experience gained with the WiCoP forum, a trial Small Islands Voice global forum will start in the second half of 2002.  The target audience is the general public, particularly, although not exclusively, from the three start-up island countries. (Professionals working the field of environment and development are also welcome to take part). Through the opinion surveys, and with the help of the coordinating committees, members of the public in Palau, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Seychelles, will be asked if they would like to take part and e-mail addresses will be collected.  Based on the outcome of the trial, it will be determined how to extend the Small Islands Voice forum to the general public in other islands.

Some contributions for the Small Islands Voice forum have already been received from members of the public in Palau, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Seychelles.  These provide the initial material with which to start the inter-regional debate.  The Small Islands Voice forum is a learning process, and as it evolves, it is anticipated that regional and national fora will follow.  However, based on experience gained with the WiCoP forum, the organisation and moderation of such fora is very time-consuming.  Thus from the outset, a step-by-step process – starting small and then expanding - is envisaged with the Small Islands Voice global forum.

Another very important dimension is the development of a youth Internet-based forum.  While the interpretation of youth in the islands varies from a specific age group to a more open grouping depending on how old an individual feels, the Small Islands Voice youth forum will focus particularly on individuals between 13 and 21 years, who are not yet old enough to vote.  Again it is planned to start in an exploratory manner, and to hold trial youth fora in each of the three regions for a period of about two months during the latter half of 2002. Schools from two or three different islandcountries in each region will be invited to take part, with students in the 15-year age group. The youth will be asked to write about and discuss the good and bad aspects of life in their island and what they would like to see change. This activity will be linked with UNESCO’s Associated Schools Project Network, wherever possible.  Depending on the results of the trial, the youth forum may be expanded regionally and possibly globally.

Small Islands Voice also seeks to work with other small island initiatives.  For instance, in the next couple of months, a variety of youth activities will be conducted in the Cook Islands in the Pacific in collaboration with Monash University, Australia. An initiative as broad as Small Islands Voice requires widespread cooperation and strong regional partnerships with stakeholders of diverse expertise and interests in order to achieve its goals.

As issues become apparent in the three start-up islands, and regionally through the Internet-based fora, they will be compiled and summarised, and will be submitted for consideration during the 2004 review of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States.


Small Islands Voice is an ambitious initiative, and it will only be possible to make a start in a short time span of two years.  However, if carefully planned, that ‘start’ will evolve, and thereby become sustainable.

One serious constraint relates to the lack of Internet penetration in small islands.  A survey carried out in the Pacific Islands (UNESCO, 2002) indicates that less than 25% of the population of most Pacific Islands have access to the Internet.  The main reasons for this are the high cost of computers and equipment, Internet costs, slow connections, and the ownership and monopoly of telecommunication services.  In the Pacific, while all countries have some form of Internet access, pricing is a growth inhibitor.  Prices vary from US$ 9-10 for 10 hours of Internet connection to US$ 30-50.  (This compares with US$ 4.30 being a typical cost for 10 hours of Internet connection in New Zealand). A similar picture of high Internet costs may be found in the Caribbean and Indian Ocean islands.

Despite these constraints, organizations in the Pacific Islands are finding ways to establish websites.  In addition, as seen in the busy Internet cafes of each of the three start-up island countries, the situation is rapidly changing in the field of information and communication technology.

Two articles on the Small Islands Voice initiative have been posted on the WiCoP forum (Green and Cambers, 2002; Cambers and Green 2002), which triggered a wide variety of responses, most of which have been favourable and supportive.  However, some forum participants raised the concern that Small Islands Voice may turn into yet another consultative exercise or ‘talk shop’, and that the general public in some islands has been over-saturated with such exercises.  It is envisaged that three main mechanisms will ensure that this does not happen:

  1. The key issues emerging from Small Islands Voice will contribute to the review of the Programme of Action for the Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States in 2004.  They will also be channelled towards other international activities and programmes dealing with sustainable development of small islands.

  2. Activities started on the ground, particularly in the start-up islands, will be carefully planned, so that wherever possible they become sustainable.  For instance, a radio talk show or television interview programme started during Small Islands Voice, might become permanent and continue indefinitely.

  3. The start-up island countries will play a critical and very transparent role in demonstrating to other islands in their region and globally, that expanding the information flow, and widening the debate about particular issues and problems, can make a difference concerning their eventual outcome and solution.

Careful documentation and recording of activities and events is a key component and a vital evaluation tool for the Small Islands Voice initiative.  This may also pose certain problems; for in small islands, where human resources are limited, particularly in terms of numbers of people to do all the necessary work, detailed and accurate documentation may be an added burden.

Concluding Remarks

Small Islands Voice is an exciting initiative, but making it work so it truly becomes a catalyst for effective action on the ground, is especially challenging.  Already discussions are taking place among the three start-up island countries about how to put such mechanisms in place.  Talking about issues and problems and discussing them with relevant government agencies is not always enough to ensure change.  There may well need to be attitudinal changes; for instance, instead of charging a government agency with a particular task, an alternative approach may be empowering a community to take charge of that same task.  In meeting such challenges, small islands may chart a path for the rest of the world to follow.


Cambers, G., Green. C.  2002. Start-up activities for the Small Islands Voice initiative.  WiCoP forum.  http://www.csiwisepractices.org/?read=418 (with username csi and password wise)

Green, C., Cambers, G. 2002. Small Islands Voice. WiCoP forum. http://www.csiwisepractices.org/?read=408 (with username csi and password wise)

Muehlig-Hofmann, A.  2002. Getting the most from the wise coastal practices forum. WiCoP forum. http://www.csiwisepractices.org/?read=423 (with username csi and password wise).

Radway, S. 2002.  Palau seeks environmental identity.  Pacific Islands Report (with photos by G. Cambers). http://www.unesco.org/csi/smis/siv/pacarticle2.htm

UNESCO  2001.  Wise coastal practices for sustainable Human Development Forum.  Work in progress 2. (English at http://www.unesco.org/csi/wise/wip2.htm; French at http://www.unesco.org/csi/wise/wip2f.htm; Spanish at http://www.unesco.org/csi/wise/wip2s.htm)

UNESCO 2002.  Internet infrastructure and e-governance in Pacific Island countries.  A survey on the development and use of the Internet.  Report prepared by Zwimpfer Communications Ltd., Wellington, New Zealand.  118 pages. http://www.unesco.org/webworld/publications/2002_internet_survey_report.rtf

United States Central Intelligence Agency 2001. The world factbook http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/


SOURCE: paper presented at the Islands of the World VII international conference, June 26-30 2002, University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada.

[1] (1) climate change; (2) natural and environmental disasters and climate variability; (3) freshwater resources; (4) coastal and marine resources; (5) energy;  (6) tourism.


To get involved, contact :


Coastal Regions and Small Islands Platform
UNESCO, Paris, France
fax: +33 1 45 68 58 08

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