Tuvalu's Fight to Exist: Interview with Minister Simon Kofe

Tuvalu's Fight to Exist: Interview with Minister Simon Kofe

. 7 min read

Simon Kofe currently serves as the Minister of Justice, Communications and Foreign Affairs of Tuvalu. He previously contributed to constitutional reform projects as Senior Magistrate. Throughout his career, Minister Kofe has demonstrated a deep commitment to serving the people of Tuvalu and advancing their interests on the global stage. His leadership, expertise, and dedication have earned him a reputation as one of Tuvalu's most respected and effective public servants.

Given Tuvalu’s extremely small population, just around 12,000, how do you convince the world that the country’s sinking is a problem of the present just as much as it is one of the future?

Tuvalu is one of the smallest countries in the world. Our average height above sea level is around two meters, so we're quite vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, in particular sea level rise. Living with this reality obviously gives us the urgency and the drive to advocate for countries to take stronger climate action, because we recognize that climate change is an issue that needs to be addressed by all countries, by the global community. So we've been doing that for some years, we've been quite active in trying to draw people's attention to the issues that we're facing [and] bringing awareness to the world. But despite all our efforts, we're still quite short of where we need to be. So it is quite disappointing in that respect, that the scientists are predicting that Tuvalu could be fully submerged in the next 50 to 100 years.

What symptoms of climate change do you observe in the present?

With sea level rise, we're seeing erosion on our coastal areas. We’re experiencing stronger cyclones. The ocean actually seeps through the water lens, contaminating [it] and making it hard for us to grow things here in Tuvalu. We've also been experiencing drought – we announced a state of emergency towards the end of last year because of severe drought.

There seems to be a tragic sense of inevitability surrounding the possibility that Tuvalu may no longer exist by the end of the century. How are the Tuvaluan people managing this realization, and is there any talk of relocation?

There is a constant flow of people migrating to Australia and New Zealand, and we have an arrangement in place with New Zealand to take in migrants from Tuvalu. Obviously, there's a number of factors why people leave: for greater opportunities, education for children, and also, I believe, because of what we’re going through [with the climate], people are considering moving overseas. But in terms of a planned relocation by the government, the plan we have is to prepare, first of all, a framework that enables us to continue to function effectively as a government, regardless of where we are in the world. We've also been working to get recognition by countries that Tuvalu’s statehood is permanent regardless of the impacts of climate change.

We've been careful in how we promote relocation as a solution to the climate crisis. We don't want big emitters to use that as a solution, that once they provide land for relocation, [this] would solve the climate crisis. So we've been very careful in how we talk about relocation, because we feel that the primary solution to the climate crisis right now is for countries to take stronger climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And so that's the message that we continue to share to the global community.

Over the past two years, you’ve been Tuvalu’s most visible spokesperson with regards to the threat of rising sea levels. How successful have your efforts been in mustering the direction of global resources towards this issue?

Obviously, we've gained a lot of attention, we've raised awareness globally [with] people that [were] probably not fully aware of these issues. A video that I shot in the water two years ago went viral, so there was a lot of media attention around that as well. And so that's part of our objective to raise awareness, not just for leaders, but for the wider public, so people that are aware that climate change is an issue that affects everyone, and also particularly our future generations. So I guess in that regard, it's successful; we've reached a wider audience.

But if we were to measure it in terms of climate action, and [greater awareness] actually translating to concrete action from big countries, I think we fall short of that. Countries have been making some positive steps, but scientists are saying that [we] still fall short of the targets that we've set up for ourselves. And we're still looking at a worst case scenario for Tuvalu.

In 2019, you turned down offers from Chinese companies to launch a $400 million project to build artificial islands, which you saw as a backhanded attempt to draw Tuvalu away from its longstanding relationship with Taiwan. Now, do you see there being any point in the future at which you would look to China for direct assistance, given their economic muscle?

Just to be [clear] on that, there were approaches to the communities here, some years back, and obviously, [they were] not accepted. The media that interviewed me at the time asked me what my response would be if China were to approach us, and my response was that we wouldn't be able to accept anything from them, given our association with Taiwan. Obviously, any approaches from China would be coming with the condition that we end our relationship with Taiwan and to recognize the One-China policy. And so that's [where] the government is at the moment; we have very strong diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and we see that relationship enduring into the future.

I recognize that we are in the minority; very few countries in the world [are still aligned with] Taiwan. But the basis of our relationship is based on common values and principles that underpin democracy. Those are values that are very important to us, and in our foreign policy, our traditional cultural values, which emphasize loyalty, trust, and building authentic relationships, [are] at the forefront of everything we do. So that's the government’s stance on that issue.

In November, you gave a speech to COP27 in which you said that Tuvalu has “no choice but to become the world’s first digital nation.” How do you envision the transfer of an entire country to the metaverse, particularly Tuvalu’s unique culture and history? Can technology be Tuvalu’s savior?

Well, firstly, I distinguish between a digital nation and the metaverse. The digital nation, in my definition, is a nation that has migrated all its core governance and administrative systems online, to enable it to remotely operate as a state and fulfill all its obligations under international law. And this is tied, obviously, to our efforts to get recognition that our statehood is permanent. It's part of a broader plan for future-proofing Tuvalu for a worst-case scenario, which we call the Future Now Project. And so if the world recognizes our statehood as being permanent, similar to what we see as a government in exile, then we would need a framework to enable us to continue to function, so [parliamentary] elections, [for example], can be done online.

Obviously, the metaverse is also an important part of that because the metaverse is a platform that we feel would best communicate our culture to future generations and to anyone who wants to learn more about Tuvalu. We feel that the metaverse provides an immersive experience for people, and building a virtual copy of Tuvalu not only preserves our culture, it improves accessibility. It allows us to also upload data, make projections on the impacts of climate change, [and] track fishing activities in our waters. It's also a revenue opportunity for Tuvalu. So there's a lot we see in the potential of building in the metaverse, but we see that as being part of the bigger picture of getting recognition [as] a digital nation.

Is there a timeline for these digital projects geared towards preserving Tuvalu in a digital space?

We’re trying to get things done this year, but we've been working on this initiative for two years now. We've received recognition from nine countries in the world on the legal proposition that Tuvalu's statehood is permanent, and that our claims on maritime zones are also permanent. So there are a number of initiatives that we're working on, and they're all connected, getting this recognition as a permanent state, and also building a digital nation. I have one year left in my term in office, so we are moving fast to get things done.

Why is it so important that Tuvalu is able to preserve its maritime claims, even given the risk of sea level rise?

Firstly, we have a very strong connection to our oceans and to our land. We've lived here for centuries, our ancestors are buried here. There's a lot of spiritual connection and tradition related to the ocean. There’s also the revenue that it generates for us: the fishing industry brings in the bulk of Tuvalu's revenue each year, [mainly] with tuna. So it's a valuable sovereign asset that we want to retain our claims to. So what we've been doing is to get countries to recognize that if we do lose our physical territory in the future, these oceans will still be recognized as belonging to the nation of Tuvalu.

What lessons does Tuvalu present for places all around the world that are waking up to the consequences of rising seas today?

I think Tuvalu plays a very important role in forewarning the world of the impacts of climate change, because climate change is not something that only affects Tuvalu. It takes many forms – we're seeing floods in New Zealand, bushfires in different parts of the world, cyclones, the earthquakes in [Türkiye]. These things are all connected to this climate crisis. And I feel a great sense of responsibility, being at the forefront of this, to warn the world of what is to come. It's important that the world really gets its act together and takes really strong climate action, because the window of opportunity is closing very quickly. That's where we speak with greater urgency, hoping that the world comes together and really addresses this issue. We hope for the best, but we're also preparing for the worst-case scenario, and that's part of the many initiatives that we've undertaken.

Varada spoke with Kofe on February 19, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.