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Two Year’s On: A Tribute to Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare

On the two-year anniversary of the passing of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, we reflect on what remains a monumental loss to the world. The Coalition for Rainforest Nations salutes our national patriot, environmental visionary, champion of the rainforest and citizen of the World.

I was raised in the rainforest in Papua New Guinea. There are so many stories I remember about Grand Chief Sir Michael. In one story, we were walking along the beach and just witnessed its destruction from a storm. There were trees that had been there for hundreds of years and had started to fall into the sea. Sir Michael said to me, “You know, our memories are being washed away. Our land is being washed away; our food is being destroyed.” And it was walking along that beach that I started to understand. Sea level rise was beginning to destroy the food supply of our local communities. And that was a problem for Grand Chief.

After years of working together on the rainforests issue, it all came to a head in Copenhagen at the UN climate conference in 2009. Sir Michael discovered that there were a few leaders in a very small room trying to come up with a solution. And in the room where people like Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, and Nicolas Sarkozy. So, we knocked on the door and they told us the room was full. Imagine a global climate agreement that didn’t include the views of small island states or those with rainforests. But that’s exactly what was happening. And Sir Michael heard about it. He said rainforests have to be part of the solution.

“Figure out how to get me in that room,” he said to me. “Listen. Make a Papua New Guinea flag. Find a spot in that room and plant the Papua New Guinea flag.” We went in during a coffee break. We put the flag there. Grand Chief sat. And he didn’t leave the room for three days, except for bathroom breaks. He was hungry; we had to sneak him in coffee. We had to sneak him in muffins. But he didn’t want to leave. He understood that the minute he walked out of the door, the voice of the rainforest was going to go with him. That meeting was critically important. What Sir Michael did was he got rainforests for the first time ever in a global climate agreement. And we used that to ensure that rainforests were in the Paris Agreement five or six years later.

The Paris Agreement is the first time that rich countries, poor countries, small island states, rainforest countries, everyone’s pulling together to solve the global climate disaster that we’re facing.

Who would think that Papua New Guinea would be able to influence the rich and powerful nations? Who would think that Grand Chief who grew up as a warrior deep in the jungle would be able to make a change on a global scale. But that’s what’s happened, and that’s the legacy of Grand Chief, of a man who knew something that we’re only beginning to realize today. And that’s that humanity never has, nor will it ever in the future survive unless it’s in balance with nature.

Since his passing, both Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN) have humbly carried his legacy forward globally. Papua New Guinea is still the leader in reducing emissions by percentage — over 50% since signing the global climate agreement in 2015. A huge thank you to the Marape Government for continuing the Grand Chief’s legacy.

And CfRN continues to help its countries play a significant leadership role by saving the planet’s last remaining rainforests. One year after the Glasgow Climate Summit (COP26) - where mention of REDD+ was controversially removed from the implementation article of the Paris Agreement, I am happy to report that rainforest nations successfully negotiated the mechanism back into the COP27 Sharm-El Sheikh Implementation Plan. In thrilling last-minute negotiations on the evening of November 19th, the Coalition for Rainforest Nations (CfRN) re-affirmed the REDD+ mechanism as the global initiative for tackling deforestation under the Paris Agreement. The text underscored the role of private finance in supporting developing country efforts to slow deforestation and reduce emissions at national scale.

The REDD+ Mechanism is designed to provide a financial value to forest-based communities for the carbon absorbed and stored in their tropical rainforests – offering incentives for all rainforest countries to halt deforestation and reverse the climate emergency.

This couldn’t have been achieved without the unfaltering leadership of Papua New Guinea – and Sir Michael’s commitment. The Paris Agreement would not include the REDD+ Mechanism but for Grand Chief’s vision

Let our reflections empower his legacy forward to reward rainforest nations for all the conservation efforts that they are doing for
the planet.

God bless!

Kevin Conrad, Executive Director, Coalition for Rainforest Nations