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When One Island
Becomes Two:
Ben's Story
The Magic of
Marine Mania

When one island becomes two – Ben’s Story

In 2005, Ben Namakin stood on Dekehtikin, his favorite small atoll island off Pohnpei, FSM, and couldn’t believe his eyes.  The island that he used to picnic on and snorkel around as a high school student with his friends had been split in two, the ocean now flowing over what was once dry land, washing away precious soil and sand with every wave.  For Ben, the looming specter of climate change now had a new and much more personal meaning.

“Yes, it might be natural,” says Namakin, “but maybe people have something to do with it.  I’m just very concerned about future generations.”

Since then, the soft-spoken 28-year-old has been determined to share his experiences and the stories of other Pacific Islanders with anyone who will listen, and he has been quite successful in garnering both local and international attention to his activities and concerns.

Namakin decided to make a video about Dekehtikin and submitted it to Greenpeace, who pounced on it.  Before he knew it, he was in Montreal, Canada participating in the UN Climate Change Conference as the lone youth delegate from the Pacific Islands.  His first major obstacle was letting everyone know where Micronesia is located in the Pacific, but after using some maps and establishing just which tiny dot he resides on, he was on his way. By the end of the week, he was asked to be one of the five international youth delegates who read their declaration to the audience of 10,000, just ahead of former President Bill Clinton’s entrance onto the stage.

Meeting with resistance

Buoyed by the success of his first international conference, in 2006 Ben was invited to participate in a five-week tour of U.S. universities, including UC Berkley, Harvard, Arizona State University, Michigan State University and many others.  For the most part, Ben’s messages and stories were met with a positive response, but this wasn’t always the case.

“South Carolina was the worst place for me,” he says. “That’s where they told me not to go out and talk about this stuff.”

“They” being a student activist group that does not believe in climate change or think that any current practices should change. One of the young women from the group confronted him after his presentation, asking him why he was even bothering with his campaign and suggesting it would be better to just give up since she felt there was nothing he could do anyway.  Despite this encounter and a few others, Ben has been plugging away steadily.

After traveling to several international high profile conferences, Namakin says his biggest frustration is with the international negotiating process and the general lack of action. He says that while everyone talks and acts positive, rarely does something concrete emerge out of those meetings.

“While those people keep negotiating at UN meetings, an island is washed away,” he says with a laugh and shake of his head.

Resigned to the slow pace of international climate negotiations, he prefers to focus on where he can help make a more immediate difference with the vulnerable communities in Micronesia.

For Better or for Worse in Pohnpei

Namakin prefers a more pragmatic approach.  “We can’t just keep fighting for these countries to cut their greenhouse emissions. We’ll let them think about it, but in the meantime, we need to make adaptations.”

A place like Pohnpei, with its five low lying outer islands, is vulnerable to the increasingly frequent spring tides (exceptionally high tides) that cause extensive flooding in agricultural and residential areas. Among the many problems that go along with flooding, there is the frightening prospect that the island’s underground freshwater sources will be contaminated by sea water. Once that happens, the island will quickly become uninhabitable for people and many species alike.

Because of this, Namakin has decided to focus on conservation projects in Pohnpei.  He sees contributing to local conservation efforts that aim to protect both marine and terrestrial resources as a ‘cheap’ method of achieving adaptation.  He is also pushing for adaptation funds at international meetings in order to acquire the technology and further the ability of islanders to protect their home.

The Micronesia Challenge

The creation and implementation of the Micronesia Challenge has been extremely helpful to Namakin.

“I use it as a support to my campaign on climate change,” he say. “I look at the international community and I say ‘you big countries aren’t doing anything, but yet our leaders from these small coral countries have signed this agreement and are trying to save as our resources and reduce our vulnerability.’ The MC shows the world that we are concerned about the problems and we’re trying to solve it on our own.”

He believes initiatives like the Micronesia Challenge lead by example and show that countries vulnerable to climate change can exert their own self-determination when it comes to mitigating the effects of rising sea levels and changing climate patterns.

Realistic Hope in a Changing World — Looking to the Future

Born and raised in Kiribati, Ben moved to Pohnpei to complete his high school education in Agriculture and Marine Science at the Ponape Agriculture & Trade School (PATS).  He now is hoping to go back to school to complete a university degree on scholarship.

Recently, his focus has shifted to concerns about human rights and environmental refugees, and for adaptation to occur in a way that it maintains the dignity of Micronesians.  He also hopes to win the support of Pacific Island leaders in his bid to support all the previous youth declarations so that they have an ability to participate in formal political negotiations.

“We just sit and observe all those old people negotiate for our future,” he says with audible frustration. “Having youth representatives at the table to help negotiate for the future will also help start building the young generation’s capacity to negotiate.”

As for the state of Dekehtik Island, according to the latest results from the Conservation Society of Pohnpei (CSP), there is now more than 50 meters between the two islands and no easy solution to slow down the process that has already begun.  Regardless of what happens, Namakin promises to fight on, as relentless as those ocean waves that continue to roll over Dekehtik, slowly chipping away at old and conservative climate attitudes.

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THE MICRONESIA CHALLENGE
Charlene Mersai, Regional Coordinator
Post Office Box 4040, Koror, Palau 96940.
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Supporters of the Micronesia Challenge include German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety; the Government of Turkey; the Global Environment Facility; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the Micronesia Conservation Trust; U.S. Department of the Interior; U.S. Department of Commerce-National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; National Fish and Wildlife Foundation; United Nations Environment Programme; United Nations Development Programme; The Nature Conservancy; Conservation International; RARE; and Anonymous Private Donors.
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