Pacific Island Forum opens in Marshall Islands

MAJURO, Marshall Islands, (PNA/Xinhua) — A festive atmosphere has greeted pacific island leaders here as the people of the Marshall Islands Tuesday crammed the streets of Majuro for the opening ceremony of the 44th Pacific Islands Forum (PIF), certain to focus attention on the challenges of rising sea levels.

With host nation the Marshall Islands among the Pacific’s most vulnerable states due to the inexorable rise in sea levels attributed to climate change, the issue remains the key focus of the meeting’s agenda.

Leaders including New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, Niue Premier Toke Talagi and Papaua New Guinean Prime Minister Peter O’ Neill were welcomed by a traditional Marshallese dance that dispelled bad spirits and has only been performed six times outside of the islands in the last century.

Thousands looked on, with schoolchildren waving the flags of the 16 participating members, including the original seven founding members (Nauru, New Zealand, Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa) as well as the smaller island nations of Micronesia, Kiribati, Niue, Marshall Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.

Fiji remains suspended from the Forum after failing to meet a deadline for general elections after Commodore Voreqe Bainimarama took power in 2006.

Between 400 and 600 government, private sector, non-government organization and media representatives from around the world have been pouring into Majuro over the last week with meetings and events building up to Tuesday’s official opening.

The Forum officially knuckles down to business on Wednesday with two days of official meetings and a final Post-Forum Dialogue session on Friday.

With the theme of this year’s forum “Marshaling the Pacific response to the climate challenge,” the isolated Marshall Islands could not have been a more fitting host with its slender key island Majuro barely two meters above a creeping sea level.

Addressing a massive crowd outside the national parliament or the “Nitijela”, Forum Secretariat Secretary General, Tuiloma Neroni Slade, said climate change was the number one challenge for all the peoples of the pacific.

“With the recent experience of the Marshall Islands severe drought followed by inundation, the theme of this year’s forum is most aptly on the mark. Climate Change is a real and most serious threat to the livelihood, security and well-being of the peoples of the pacific,” he said.

Marshall Islands President Christopher Loeak reiterated the urgency facing pacific nations and pledged to work with global partners in and outside the forum to combat global warming.

“The world is indeed taking action,” he said, “but together we are all falling well short.”

The Marshall Islands, a cluster of some 34 atolls with a population of 65,000, has now hosted the forum twice, the last time in 1996.