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Opinion: Saving our Oceans by Ambassador Bjørn Jahnsen

Imagine a country with one of the world’s longest coastlines, with countless islands, inlets and fishing areas covering around 2 million square kilometers. This country is Norway — but it is also the Philippines.

Our shared maritime history goes back over 100 years, when Filipino seafarers sailed on Norwegian ships during World War I. Today, this bond is stronger than ever, with around 40,000 Filipino seafarers working on Norwegian-controlled ships, and about 50 companies with Norwegian maritime interests established in the Philippines.

The Philippines, like Norway, has a proud maritime legacy. My new friend Arturo Valdez, former undersecretary of the Department of Transportation and Communications and the leader of the first Filipino expedition to Mount Everest, recently invited me for a ride on a replica of a 4th-century “balangay” ship in Manila Bay one recent Sunday.

The balangay allowed Filipinos to navigate the seas in the South Philippines and beyond, and Arturo even shared that the shipbuilding techniques of the balangay are similar to those of the Norwegian Viking ships which roamed the Atlantic Ocean and beyond for trade and plunder in the 8th century and onward.

This was my first boat trip along Manila Bay. I was fascinated by the impressive feat of precolonial Filipino shipbuilding skills and creativity, and at the same time, I was flabbergasted by the amount of visible plastic pollution at the bay. According to a recent report by Greenpeace, the Philippines is the third largest source of plastic pollution in oceans worldwide.

This is symptomatic of a global problem. Plastic in the world’s oceans is an epidemic, and it is set to treble worldwide within a decade unless action is taken. Every minute, 15 tons of litter enter our oceans.

But there is good news as well. All over the world, people are picking up plastic and litter from shores and beaches. In the Philippines, hundreds of thousands of people participate in coastal cleanups every year. The recent government campaign kick-off to rehabilitate and clean up Manila Bay gives grounds for hope. To succeed, sustainable and consistent solutions are needed. Every Juan and Juana must do their part, as the rehabilitation process cannot solely be left to government and enterprises.

The seriousness of the problem hit home for the Norwegian public last year when a large-beaked Cuvier’s whale was stranded on a beach on the west coast of Norway. The whale had slowly starved to death. Scientists found more than 30 large pieces of plastic in the whale’s belly. A clear wake-up call—and a sad reminder of what we are doing to our environment and to the ocean.

The sustainable use of the oceans is the foundation for Norway’s prosperity and the welfare of our population. Ocean industries account for more than 70 percent of Norway’s exports.

In the coming years, protecting the oceans and their sustainable use will be at the center of Norway’s national and foreign policies. Green technologies, digitalization, innovative uses of marine resources, international diplomacy, and the fight against illegal fishing and plastic pollution are some of the main focus areas. These are also priorities Norway will bring to the UN Security Council in 2021 if we are elected.

And we are putting words into action. Last year, Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg invited 11 world leaders to join her in a High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. The aim is to build a shared understanding of the state of the ocean economy and ecology, and to come up with a set of recommendations for building a global and sustainable ocean economy. This year, Norway will host the “Our Oceans Conference” in Oslo in October.

Last spring, Norway took the initiative in the World Bank to make improved waste management and prevention of marine litter focus areas of the Problue-fund. Norway has already pledged about $200 million over the next four years to cleaning up the world’s oceans.

A sustainable ocean economy is critical to achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals related to hunger, health, jobs, energy, sustainable communities and global partnerships.

Change starts at home, and we, at the Norwegian Embassy in Manila, are now working with neighbors and suppliers to reduce the use of plastic and waste, and are installing solar panels at the embassy for renewable energy.

My question to you is this: Do you think I will be able to take a boat trip in Manila Bay before my tenure ends in four years, and take a swim in clean waters?

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Bjørn Jahnsen is the Norwegian ambassador to the Philippines. Prior to his posting to the Philippines in September 2018, Ambassador Jahnsen worked on the Colombian Peace Process in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo. His diplomatic assignments abroad include Mexico, London and Madrid. Mr. Jahnsen was also the official spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway from 2008 to 2012.


This article was originally published in Philippine Daily Inquirer: