Samoan at the helm: A new era begins

By Samantha Goerling ,

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DIRECTOR GENERAL: Leota Kosi Latu at his Vailima-based office.

DIRECTOR GENERAL: Leota Kosi Latu at his Vailima-based office.

“Yes I’m the first Samoan but I’m part Tongan as well. I think I’m in a good position to take S.P.R.E.P to the next level, build on the successes of my predecessor, strengthen the foundation of where S.P.R.E.P is and that’s not going to be without challenges” – Leota Kosi Latu


When the working year started two weeks ago, it signalled the beginning of a new era for the Pacific region, especially up at the Vailima-based Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (S.P.R.E.P).

For the first time in the history of the organisation, a Samoan has been appointed to the role of Director General. That man is Leota Namulauulu Lalomanu Kosi Latu.

A lawyer by profession, the 52-year-old father of four has taken over from former Director General, David Sheppard, who has returned to Australia. Leota was appointed last year but he did not assume the role until work started in 2016.

Two weeks into his job, Leota told the Samoa Observer that he sees challenges as opportunities for organisational development and is prepared to do whatever it takes to propel S.P.R.E.P into the future. 

Leota is not a stranger to S.P.R.E.P. For seven years, he had worked as the Deputy Director General.

And he comes into the role with vast career experience working in the areas of environment, trade and financial compliance at posts in Samoa, Great Britain and Fiji.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Leota outlined the history and growth of the organisation, its role as well as his personal vision for the next ten years and key priorities for 2016. 

Among them is a focus on maintaining a reform mindset and developing a flexible strategic plan that would ensure the organisation remains efficient and is able to adequately address emerging issues. 

Ultimately, Leota is determined to keep S.P.R.E.P the principle environmental organisation in the Pacific.  

Samoa Observer: Congratulations, Leota! Tell us a bit about S.P.R.E.P and its history? 

Leota: S.P.R.E.P has been around for about forty years plus. It started of as a coral reef management project. Arthur Dahr is the godfather of S.P.R.E.P, he’s the one who started S.P.R.E.P.

I had the opportunity to meet up with him at the COP21. Arthur started S.P.R.E.P as a one man team, originally focusing on coral monitoring. At that time he reported to four different parents; there was S.B.C (Southern Pacific Commission), there was S.C.A.P, there as U.N.E.P (United Nations Environment Program) and then there was the forerunner of the Pacific Island Forum Secretariat (South Pacific Forum).

He reported to those four entities and everybody wanted that project under themselves because they could see its importance. In the 1970s was the first conference on the environment in 1972 the Stockholm Conference. The issue of the environment was emerging as a key concern. So that one-man-team started to expand as a program. It was originally under the UNEP Regional Seas Program. 

AMONGST EXPERTS: Kosi Latu with Aurther Dahr
and David Sheppard at the COP21.

The conference at Stockholm elevated the importance of the environment at the global, regional level. S.P.R.E.P then became a program of S.P.C. In the 1970’s the issue of nuclear testing became quite a sensitive and prominent issue so that kind of added to the impetus to create a stand-alone agency that will deal with the environment. The issue of nuclear testing in the region provided an added impetus to that. That found its way into the 1980s as well. 1993 was when we had the S.P.R.E.P treat which formally set up S.P.R.E.P. But prior to 1993 the member countries had decided that Samoa would host S.P.R.E.P. So the Regional Environment Program which was under S.P.C moved to Samoa I think 1991.”

Samoa Observer: Where was it prior to that?

Leota: It was in in Noumea, New Caledonia. That is where the S.P.C is. A lot of countries vied for hosting but Samoa was successful is being awarded the hosting. They moved over hear just after Ofa, Cyclone Ofa. That was 1991.

So 1993 was when S.P.R.E.P was formally set up by way of a treaty. Followed by a Headquarters Agreement between S.P.R.E.P and the Government of Samoa. So S.P.R.E.P was formally set up by that treaty and it forms the basis of S.P.R.E.P being an intergovernmental organisation.

We’ve been in Samoa since the early nineties. We are the lead agency of environment and we are also the lead agency on Climate Change in the context of sustainable development because obviously you can’t talk on the environment without sustainable development and vice versa.

We started to talk on climate change more than twenty years ago before the word ‘climate change’ became sexy. But what we’ve found in the last ten years or so everyone’s joined the band wagon. It’s an area that attracts a lot of attention for a number of reason for a number of reasons such as finance. 

So what we’ve noticed in the last ten years is that there are a lot of other agencies that have taken on a climate change portfolio of work. That doesn’t take away the role of S.P.R.E.P. Where not saying we have to do everything on Climate Change, but S.P.R.E.P. is the lead agency and our role is to coordinate with other agenciesin terms of moving the climate change agenda forward and environmental issues more generally.”

Samoa Observer: Tell us bout the make up of S.P.R.E.P?

Leota: We have twenty-six members currently. We have twenty-one pacific Island Countries and Territories, plus five Metropolitan countries. The membership includes Territories unlike other organisations where territories sit with the Metropolitan countries. 

For example the French Territories have their own Flag, the same with the US Territories, they have their own flag. So when they participate in the S.P.R.E.P. meetings obviously they talk with the Metropolitan countries but they have the right to speak as a full member of S.P.R.E.P. So they’re not observers. That’s quite interesting because some other organisations don’t have that. 

That is because we believe that a lot of our small territories are quite small, they’re quite vulnerable, they’re mostly atoll islands. The smallest of the small. The most vulnerable of the vulnerable. You’ve got to bring them in as part of the environmental and climate change agenda. We need them to participate.

There are some issues with regards to their status because they are territories but particularly under the UN system they have to combine under a flag but for us we don’t make that distinction.

The five Metropolitan members are the US, France, New Zealand, Australia and the UK. We’ve had interest from Japan, Switzerland. It’s a region that raised a lot of high profile issues and concerns not just for the Pacific but for the whole global community, so there’s a lot of interest here.

We have a staff of just under one hundred people. S.P.R.E.P. has grown a lot in the last four, five year. Initially that growth was based on a Reform Management Process that we adopted four, five years ago where we looked at improving our processes and our systems. When you do that you have the confidence of your partners because they see that you’re an effective and efficient organisation, then you have the credibility of your partners. We’ve increased our support to members to almost double since the last four, five years.

Financial support primarily and that is through primarily delivery capacity, building and training to the member countries on key issues. There was a change management process that I mention and that was adopted four, five years ago. The idea was to make S.P.R.E.P. much more effective and efficient and make sure we have the correct systems and processes. The other important premises was to enhance our partnerships. It’s created a bit of interest amongst countries that probably hadn’t hear of S.P.R.E.P. before but now are keen to be partners. 

Our work is premised on good science. We’re not a research organisation per say, we do apply research. We work very closely with research institutes; University of the South Pacific, a number of regional organisation, international organisations, Griffith University in Australia, we’ve worked informally with James Cook University, Southern Queensland University. In the US we have a internship program with Yale University where we bring in post graduate students who want to do a research placement on key issues such as climate change.

We’re in the process of singing an MOU with the University of Victoria in Wellington, on the back of Pacific Climate Change Conference that will be held in February. We’ve had discussions with Auckland University and we’re looking at working together on key areas in terms of marine science, climate change and other issues.

We have some of our partners based here. For example some of these partners have international outreach programs so rather that basing the Pacific person in Germany for example, we say ‘why don’t you bring that person here?’ and it benefits as follows: you have the opportunity to have face-to face discussions with key members, it costs a lot less that having someone based in Europe.

We have a JIKA Waste Management team based here. The Acronym is the JPRISM team. We have a UNAP office that was set up here following the SIDS Conference. We have someone from WMO, they have an office based here. 

The idea is to create a compass kind of approach rather than just a headquarters you want to bring the partners in closer to the action rather than sitting off somewhere in Europe trying to guess what’s going on. So that kind of partnership works quite well for us.

S.P.R.E.P. has grown in the last four five years as I said. Our budget has doubles. Our staff have increased from fifty to just under one hundred. We’re not building an empire. That growth reflects the need for S.P.R.E.P to respond effectively to challenges that face the region in terms of environment and climate change. It reflects the change management process that I mentioned before in terms of S.P.R.E.P. becoming a much more credible and effective institution by having systems and processing, and carrying out work on the ground that is based on science, the best science available. We do policy and project work. The policy informs the project work on the ground and vice versa. 

READY TO GO: Leota Kosi Latu is the new
Director General at S.P.R.E.P.

We’ve increased our support to the countries as well. We exist because of the countries, we serve the countries. That is our purpose to help them improve their management and environment to ensure that their development in the future become much more sustainable.

Environmental outcomes requires years and years. If you do something now you’re not going to see the outcome in one year, so we’re looking at medium and long term impacts and outcomes.Environmental outcomes take a long time to manifest.

The last four five years we’ve seen changes and growth under the leadership of David Sheppard who I worked quite closely with. We want to build on that success. The things that have worked for us in the last four, five years but like any organisation when you grow you need to revisit those things and ask ‘are they still valid? Do we need to recalibrate? Do we need to reposition ourselves?’ If that is they case, what do we need to do?

Samoa Observer: What is your vision for the next 10 years for S.P.R.E.P? 

Leota: For the next ten year I want S.P.R.E.P. to continue to be the premier organisation for the environment for the Pacific. And that means building on the existing solid foundation and achievement. Some of those achievements include the following; S.P.R.E.P. was one of the first and only accredited entity in the Pacific to the Green Climate Fund that was set up last year. When they did the first round of accreditations last year there were only seven entities that were accredited including S.P.R.E.P. globally, but from the region S.P.R.E.P. was and is the only one. So if an organisation wanted to submit a proposal to the Green Climate Fund they have got to come through S.P.R.E.P.

We were also accredited to the Adaptation Fund. That was 2013. I certainly want to strengthen S.P.R.E.P in terms of being the premier environmental organisation. But it means we need to be proactive in defining the environmental agenda in the region for the next ten years. In other words what are the big picture issues for S.P.R.E.P.? Obviously climate change, the oceans deep sea mining. 

To be the premier regional organisation we need to improve our convening power. To influence debate on global and environmental issues. For example the COP21, our role was to provide support to member countries in the region so that they get the best advice and to profile our leaders. 

To be able to respond to new issues emerging we need to be able to adapt. We’re always going through a sort of reform agenda. S.P.R.E.P. needs to continuously reform. We need to be libel. We need to address key challenges and opportunities. For us the Green Climate Fund is a key opportunity and it’s a challenge as I said everyone wants to get into Climate Change for a variety of reasons including funds. 

One of the key challenges that I have this year is to develop a New Strategic Plan. The current one will continue as a transitional measure in 2016 until we adopt a new strategic plan when S.P.R.E.P. members meet for our annual meeting in September this year. Then the new one can be implemented in 2017. We need to identify the key issues for the region in this Strategic Plan, obviously through a consultative and participatory process. Making sure that the members identify their priorities. It’s not the priorities of the Secretariat it is the priorities of the members with the input of S.P.R.E.P. We’re not talking about the secretary, we’re talking about S.P.R.E.P. the organisation; the secretary and the members. We exist because of the members.  

As I mentioned we need to provide strategic leadership and direction in terms of the environmental agenda that means helping countries identify hat their priorities are.

The details of that Strategic Plan will come out. We’ve begun the process internally.  We set up an internal working group, members are setting themselves up by way of a friend of the chair in terms of input. The process side of things is being set up right now. We’ve started applying initial input by setting up meetings in the first two weeks of February and that at least can provide a broad platform for members then to come in and provide their views.

 Whatever we do by way of programs and projects need to meet the aspirations of the members. It’s their organisation and their priorities. Their aspirations will be linked to their priorities. We want to do it in such a way that it actually improves their livelihoods. As an example we’re interested in biodiversity. We’re not just doing it just for that, we’re doing it because we hope it will improve their resilience, with the hope that would improve their livelihoods. Linking it to economic benefits.

For example linking our conservation work to Equal Tourism in Vava’u, you have a very thriving whale watching in Tonga. We helped the Tongan government in developing a se t of guidelines. So we’re not only concernedwith marine animals by the way of whales but also by way of creating employment. So that’s what I mean by linking the environment to sustainable development.

Also we do a lot of work on turtle. So helping the countries to conserve turtles, developing guidelines and also using that conservation to link to the tourism. You’d be amazed at how many tourists are interested in whale watching and turtles. We interested in conserving the turtles but we also want to the countries to benefit economically from that activity as well.

In a number of our countries in the last few years they have designated marine sanctuary or designated their EEZ as a marine sanctuary. Cook Islands as an example, New Caledonia, Palau, Tokelau, so there’s a lot of our member countries that are linking these conservation measures to generating income. That’s good because often it’s very difficult to get people to conserve if they don’t see the economic benefit coming out of it.

A key component of my vision and the way forward, we really want to see a resilient Pacific, a resilient region. Much more resilient region to the impact of climate change and natural disasters.

It’s not by trying to come up will really really smart idea, they’re great, but ideas that involve our local communities in the development of solutions, that are community based solutions.

For example we have helped the village of Lofugali here in Savai’I to build their capacity in terms of responding to multi-hazards. So we’re not just talking in terms of tsunamis’ but cyclones as well. We worked with the Red Cross here is Samoa to develop a disaster pan for them, to help the village and the community prepare themselves by designating different groups in the community that will prepare and deal with different things. We provided them with equipment. That was a pilot project that we were involved with, we just didn’t have the funds to replicate it but that is the sort of community based involvement that we are trying to engender in terms of our work. They own the plan, it’s not our plan. When that respond, they will take leadership. All we’ve done is provide them with guidance and help.

It’s not just looking at community based approaches but natural solutions to climate change. There are a number of solutions that are being adopted by countries that are responding to rising seas levels with seas wall. That kind of helpful but we’ve seen that in the case of the tsunami in Japan in 2011 that wasn’t very helpful. Samoa has a lot of seas walls, and that’ll help somewhat but it’s not the main solution. A key approach and solution we are encouraging countries to think of is the use of natural solutions. So for example Ecosystem based Adaptation. So for example if you conserve you forest well, mangroves, your coral reef, your wetlands, they become an effective barrier to natural disasters- they are natural solutions. And that is something picking up all over the world.

So it’s a whole of an island approach rather than relying on infrastructure alone. That has a number of benefit, your helping to conserve your biodiversity, your forest, but at the same time when you’re strengthening that it becomes a natural defence, a frontline defences to natural disasters. 

We have a number of projects, like in the Solomon Islands were working with a number of partners. It’s a USA funded project that has become a model for the Pacific region. We’re not just talking about the few here we’re talking about a model that has been implemented successfully in the region.

To become resilient we are encouraging and helping the region to take a low carbon approach in terms of the economy. That means moving more and more towards renewable energy and relying less on a fossil fuel based economy. It’s interesting when you look now at the price of oil is down to $30 a barrel. I’ve heard some people say that with COP21 that will be the end of oil. I’m not so sure. I think countries will see the need to still use diesel but at some point transition. What is more pleasing is that countries have now adopted national policies in terms of reducing their dependence on fossil fuel and adopting renewable energy. 

I think Samoa is looking at becoming 100% renewable by 2017. For many, many years the debate has been on an economic transition, but for the region it’s been much more than that. For us it’s been a matter of survival. 

It’s not just changing your economy, yes that’s necessary but for the Pacific region the message for a very long time and continues to be is that ‘this is much more than an economic transition, this is about survival. Four out of the six lowest lying countries are in the Pacific. Kiribati’s highest point is less than two metres, same as Tuvalu. Many of the most vulnerable of the vulnerable are in the pacific. The problem now is that everyone else in now saying that they’re vulnerable. It’s a vast area, isolated from markets, small islands, and low lying atolls, prone to cyclones

The reason I say the region is resilient is that one cyclone may wipe out ten, fifteen years of development. We’re talking about a region that is vulnerable to natural disasters in a physical sense but in an economic sense as well. But what I’ve seen in terms of resilience is amazing. When we had Cyclone Evans in 2012 within a day or two people were rebuilding already, they weren’t waiting for government to come. It speaks of the resilient of the pacific. 

My vision is to see a resilient Pacific to the effects of climate change and natural disaster, adopting natural solutions, that they continue alone this oath to low carbon. But it’s not just about an economic transition, it’s the survival of our countries.  I talked about making S.P.R.E.P the premier organisation what I meant by that is to ensure that S.P.R.E.P s strong and effective, that it is well resourced in terms of funding and human resources.

People might think that because you work in the area of Climate Change you must get a lot of funding, but we don’t/ We have a budget of about $20 million USD a year so we need to have a protectable  funding base and we also need to diversify. I talked about human resources, we need qualifies and technical staff. We have been blessed to have very good staff who professional and have the technical expertise in all the areas that we work in. It’s not just climate change we are looking at, we’re also looking at natural disaster and that is because not all natural disasters are caused by climate change but increasingly that is the case.

To be a strong and effective organisation we need to be credible and that means our expertise and services must be valued by our partners. Credibility means that partners will then have confidence in the work we do.

In terms of services we want to see tangible outcomes not just be talking about theoretical stuff. We don’t just want to be talking about theoretical things we want to make sure our work is firmly grounded on practical experience and science but we want to see results. It’s not easy because environmental outcomes are not easy to measure sometime and that takes time as well. But there are times when you can see tangible results and that’s what donors and partners like to see that.

I’m going to continue a tradition of making S.P.R.E.P more transparent in terms or the word we do, for our staff our members and our partner. Not all organisations are accountable. We are accountable. Every year my head will be on the table and I will be assessed by members in terms of how I’ve performed on issues

I want to grow S.P.R.E.P’s funding support because the needs of the countries have increased. We can’t do everything but we’ve increased in size but we need to make sure that our funding base is strong enough to build a response to emerging issues. Part of the strategic planning process is to ensure that we are still relevant in what we do. So we need to make sure that our mandate and our role is still relevant to the priorities and the needs. So we’ll identify the priorities and the needs but also in that process we need to ensure that our vision and our mission, our mandate and are role are relevant. Relevant but also flexile. I personally would like to see a new strategic plan that has a certain level of ambition. I think it would be boring to have strategic plan where you just have a document that only responds to that which is evident and seen, but what about emerging issues? You’ve got to be able to have something that is liberal and flexible so you can address emerging issues. Not overly ambitious in that you don’t achieve anything and stretch yourself in terms of resources, both human and financial.

I believe it you want to respond to future and emerging issues you’ve got to have a certain level of ambition. That strategic plan, we’re beginning on that process now and will develop it over the next eight or nine months.

The model that S.P.R.E.P needs to have I believe is something that needs to be dynamic, it needs to be a clear balance between policy work and implementation on the ground. Work that is based on good science and informs policy and vice versa. 

I mention early on the convening power of S.P.R.E.P in global discussions and it’s important that we maintain that influence and clout because of our role so that we can influence decisions. 

We exist because of the members so one of our key roles is to support the countries, it to profile the work of members and the leaders at the global stage. That exactly what we did at Paris, we provided a platform to profile key issue by way of providing a good platform for our leaders to articulate what they thought were the key issues for them. 

My vision is for the next ten years but there are some pressing key priorities for the next year.

Samoa Observer: What are S.P.R.E.P’s key priorities for 2016?

Leota: One of the pressing issues and key priorities for me in 2016 is the leadership transition. I’m not just talking about me but at the moment I have three senior management positions that are being recruited right now and two that will be advertised in the next month.

So half of my senior management are not with me at the moment so that is going to put a lot of pressure on me. I have to recruit someone to fill my old position Deputy Director General. 

Samoa Observer: When do you hope they will be filled by?

Leota: The most immediate one that I need to fill is Deputy Director General because at the moment I’m doing both. I need that person on board as soon as possible. That recruitment in under way at the moment and I’m hoping that that person I here in the next two to three months. That will take the load off me in terms of operational issues so that I can focus on the more strategic issues.

We’re recruiting a Director for the Waste Management and Control division. We are recruiting a Director for the Climate Change Division. The Environmental Monitoring and Governance Director position is vacant. That will be recruited at some point either midway or at the end of the year. There are budget constraints so we can’t recruit everybody at the same time. We have to recruit someone to be the Financial Advisor, that basically a finance manager. A person is vacating that position so that will be advertised in the next couple of weeks, and there are two other positions that will need to be advertised in the next couple of weeks or so.

The New Strategic Plan is a key priority for me and the idea is to have that completed and ready to be in consideration by the members at the annual S.P.R.E.P meeting in September.

S.P.R.E.P in partnership with the governments of Japan and Samoa are developing the Pacific Climate Change Centre, we call it the PCCC. Japan is funding it in close cooperation with the government of Samoa in bilateral aid. The Climate Change Centre will be based here at S.P.R.E.P. It will be a Climate Change Hub for the Pacific. The idea is for the PCCC to coordinate all the climate change activities in the region. The last six months we’ve had Japanese experts in terms of the design and the location and training requirements and so forth. That is being validated at this point and there will be another visit from the Japanese experts about April.

We’re hoping to get final endorsement from the Japanese government round about June, July, August. Construction might start at the end of the year. We're probably looking to completing the climate change centre at the end of 2017.

The Climate Change Centre will be a catalyst, bringing a focus to all the regional climate change activities. It’s going to have a huge training and capacity building component. It’ll house the Climate Change division but we are looking at bringing in Climate Change experts, scientists, not just from Japan,

© Samoa Observer 2016

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