Story | 27 Mar, 2023

Powerful voices and Indigenous wisdom at marine conservation congress

The 5th International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC5) took place in Vancouver, Canada from February 3-9, 2023. This article summarizes several highlights of the conference from CEESP attendees.

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Photo: Kevin Chang

From the perspective of IUCN CEESP, several highlights emerged during the 5th International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC5) in Vancouver from February 3-9, 2023. Firstly, a diverse and dedicated CEESP delegation attended, featuring representatives such as Nathan Bennett*, Kevin Chang*, Elise Huffer*, Ann Singeo*, and Jessica Campese.* Their presence resulted in well-attended, innovative CEESP-led sessions.

Secondly, the congress was marked by the powerful presence and voice of Indigenous peoples from across the Pacific Ocean, who brought ancestral wisdom to the discussions.

Thirdly, the event provided an opportunity to learn about the work, struggles, and successes of local communities worldwide in marine conservation, highlighting that their approaches do not always align with the global 30 by 30 goal.


CEESP chairs Elise Huffer and Nathan Bennett at IMPAC5 CEESP chairs Elise Huffer and Nathan Bennett at IMPAC5. Photo: Kevin Chang

CEESP activities included Nathan Bennett’s hosting of two excellent sessions. The first, on Ocean Defenders, highlighted the need for much greater focus on protecting the rights and lives of ocean defenders, alongside other terrestrial environmental defenders. The second, the extremely well-attended and lively session on Social Equity and Marine Conservation, demonstrated aspirations for a much stronger cultural and social justice approach to marine conservation, which are reflected to some extent in the final outcomes of the meeting (see:


IMPAC5 participants, including CEESP chair Ann Singeo (center). IMPAC5 participants, including CEESP chair Ann Singeo (center). Photo: Kevin Chang

Ann Singeo was involved in a multitude of sessions, presenting stories and lessons from Palau and highlighting the work of the Ebiil Society (which she co-founded) in collaboration with communities, especially young people, in safeguarding culture, place, and important traditional resource management. She was the final and only physically present speaker in Elise’s session on cultural approaches to ocean policy, which also heard from James Tremlett (Aotearoa/New Zealand), co-convenor of the Ocean Rights and Kinship Alliance (ORKA), a loose cross-Pacific initiative; Anna Naupa from the Erromango Cultural Association in Vanuatu, which has been working on re-connecting Erromangans with their ocean heritage; and Anita Smith, a Pacific World Heritage expert who focused on the need for creating better linkages between World Heritage and ocean management. 


IMPAC5 participants, including CEESP chair Kevin Chang. IMPAC5 participants, including CEESP chair Kevin Chang. Photo: Kevin Chang

Kevin Chang and his KUA team members Brenda Asuncion, Hui Mālama Loko Iʻa Coordinator; Alex Connelly, E Alu Pῡ Coordinator; and Uʻilani Naipo, the community-based subsistence fishing area coordinator for Kalanihale and member of the Maui Nui Makai Network, were part of a 40-person strong delegation from Hawai’i and participated actively in the Indigenous Peoples Forum. The latter was held over the morning of the opening day.  Members of the delegation participated in a number of panels. Kevin sat in on the WWF-hosted panel Indigenous and coastal communities’ leadership: Embedding centuries of traditional knowledge into practice to accelerate community-led conservation, with Vatosoa Rakotondrazafy (Madagascar), Jimmy Ullikatilik (Inuit), Mereana Berger and Jeannine Clark (Aotearoa). Brenda Asuncion hosted a knowledge cafe with Ann Singeo and others entitled Sharing knowledge to ensure the perpetuation of Indigenous relationship to ocean abundance. Kevin and Brenda both attended the closing leadership forum which was closed by E Alu Pu and Maui Nui Makai Network Member Uncle Solomon Kahoʻohalahala. This group also spent much time in discussion with attendees from the State of Hawaiʻi concerning the state's marine conservation vision. 

Jessica Campese used the opportunity of IMPAC5 to listen and lend a hand to CEESP-led and engaged events. Many of these highlighted triumphs and challenges of Indigenous peoples and local communities leading efforts to assert and secure appropriate recognition of their rights and self-determined systems for governing marine and coastal resources all over the world. She’s working with Melanie Zurba and many CEESP members and partners to share and learn from diverse experiences in marine and terrestrial governance through the Learning for Governance initiative. In addition to sharing the Learning for Governance, Melanie co-led a workshop on equity and empowerment in marine spatial planning with Jessica and other members of the Sustainable Nunatsiavut Futures project, which is focused on knowledge co-production with Labrador Inuit.

Overall, IMPAC5 presented an impressive diversity of perspectives, many of which are not necessarily aligned. While there is certainly an indication that the marine conservation community and politicians responsible for making decisions for ocean sustainability have come to understand that social justice and resource management by Indigenous peoples and local communities are key to the preservation and health of the ocean, what that will look like in ongoing management and conservation practice remains uncertain. This is a clear indicator that the contributions of CEESP to ocean matters will continue to remain relevant and much needed.

*Nathan Bennett (Canada), Chair of the CEESP People and Ocean Specialist Group; 
Kevin Chang (Hawai’i), Co-Chair of the CEESP Culture, Spirituality and Conservation Theme; 
Elise Huffer (Fiji), CEESP Regional Vice-Chair Oceania; 
Ann Singeo (Palau), Deputy Regional Vice-Chair Oceania; and 
Jessica Campese (US), Co-Coordinator for the CEESP Learning for Governance Initiative; and         Melanie Zurba (Canada), Chair of the CEESP Theme on Governance, Equity and Rights.