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Sustainable trade in Australia and the Pacific: Fostering connection and collaboration

By Iris De Orte

The relationship between international trade and the environment is not organic. Government trade policies generally aim to promote economic growth, expand markets and create a comparative advantage. Traditionally, aspects that do not contribute to these goals have been considered technical barriers to trade. On the other hand, policies trying to protect the environment focus on the preservation of natural resources, prevention of global warming, and ecosystem management. These policies have often raised concerns about the negative effects of certain business practices on the environment.

Sustainable trade is the compromise between these aims. This type of trade allows commercial exchanges to have social and environmental benefits while boosting the economy. Environmental sustainability in global trade is expected to grow over the following years as consumers, investors and international organisations pressure governments and companies to do business sustainably.

When it comes to sustainable trade, collaboration between countries and regions becomes essential, particularly when those nations face similar environmental challenges, as Australia and the Pacific Islands do. There are many ways that Australia and the Pacific Island countries can positively impact each other’s sustainable practices.

The first is by fostering collaboration through regional agreements and programs. Regional agreements influence international negotiations and often address hidden issues. Several examples of this ongoing dialogue in the region include the Community-based Fisheries Management program, the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, or the Pacific's Climate and Ocean Support Program.

Additionally, establishing joint forces to fight against illegal, unregulated and unreported activities has proven to be an effective method to drive business ethically and sustainably. Examples include Australia's Pacific Maritime Security Program, which tackles illegal fishing practices, and the implementation of illegal logging prohibitions and Country Specific Guidelines.

Replicating what is currently working in other countries is another way of improving sustainable trade and development in the rest of the region. One example of a good sustainable practice in Australia that could be replicated somewhere else is the modern slavery reporting obligations. However, it is crucial to consider essential differences between the Pacific Island countries despite similarities in climate, land and sea resources. Australia's gross domestic product is relatively higher than other Pacific Island countries, which underpins differences in the resilience of those economies. Furthermore, many of the Small Island Developing States in the Pacific are limited by fewer administrative resources.

While some Pacific Islanders are interested in increasing their global trade involvement, there is widespread fear about compromising a traditional, sustainable way of living while pursuing this goal. Moreover, the transition to trade liberalisation may have implications, such as high social and environmental costs like waste generation, reduction of biological diversity or soil erosion.

Finally, there is an advantage that Australia and the Pacific share compared to other places around the world: the bond between nature and the indigenous communities. These indigenous communities share their appreciation of natural resources and Mother Earth. For instance, indigenous communities in Australia and the Pacific consider Mother Earth a living-giving force and believe that no natural gift should be taken for granted. Most of the knowledge these communities have developed over centuries is based on observation and a deep understanding of seasonal changes, natural cycles and environmental patterns. For example, prior to the arrival of the British fleet, Indigenous peoples of Australia would only stay in an area for a certain period of time to avoid overexploitation and ensure food supply in the future.

This traditional knowledge should be appreciated and introduced into national policies, particularly sustainable practices applicable to trade such as resource management, land preservation or fire control.

The United Nations has recommended governments use its ‘Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ as a framework to implement programmes and policies to reduce climate change. It has also asked governments and stakeholders to consider and value the traditional knowledge and the participation of indigenous peoples in relevant decision-making processes.

Sustainability needs to be incorporated into every aspect of trade to avoid negative externalities on the environment. Both trade and the environment have no boundaries and impact everybody's lives. Collaboration between Australia and the Pacific is crucial to ensure sustainable trade across the region.

This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.


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