PORT VILA: Climate change is the highest priority for small Pacific island states whose leaders are meeting in Vanuatu on Tuesday ahead of the official opening of the Pacific Islands Forum.
The 41st Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) opens in Port Vila on Wednesday, but the 19th meeting of the seven Smaller Island States (SIS) of the forum got underway on Tuesday morning.
"The onset of climate change and the damage already evident are of the highest priority and concern to the SIS," Secretary-General of the PIFSecretariat, Tuiloma Slade, said in his opening remarks.
Slade said the SIS talks would prepare for next year's international climate change discussion in Mexico, which is the next major climate summit following last year's meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark.
He said Tuesday's four-hour, closed-door talkfest would discuss sustainable financing options for climate change projects.
Other issues tabled for discussion included renewable energy and strengthening regional meteorological services.
"These priorities are, of course, not new," Slade said.
"However, they would require from us all the refocusing of efforts and the mobilisation of limited available resources so that the responses to these challenges are effective."
Niue's leader Toke Talagi reminded the SIS officials of their importance in the PIF.
"Sometimes, within the context of the forum leaders' meeting, Small Islands States is a caucus which appears not necessarily to have the same value in the communique.
"I'd like to remind you of our responsibility," Talagi said, before media were asked to leave the formal discussion.
Talagi and Palau's President, Johnson Toribiong, who is the incoming SIS chair, were joined by representatives from Kiribati, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Nauru and the Cook Islands in Tuesday's talks.
Meanwhile, Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who is attending the PIF on behalf of Prime Minister Julia Gillard, is due to land in Port Vila on Tuesday night, along with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
Gillard, who is busy with the federal election campaign, is among four Pacific leaders who will be absent from the annual summit, including Solomon Islands Prime Minister Derek Sikua, who also has election commitments.
Tuvualu's Prime Minister Apisai Ielemia and Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare will also miss the summit.
Australia is the current chair of the forum - a position held by the last nation to host the meeting - and will hand over the responsibility to Vanuatu's Prime Minister Edward Natapei at an official opening event on Wednesday at Independence Gardens in Port Vila.
Natapei will host a dinner for all 15 PIF leaders on Tuesday night, ahead of meetings on Wednesday and Thursday, with post-forum dialogue slated for Friday.
The Pacific nations in the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States will meet on Tuesday afternoon. - Sydney Morning Herald/Pacific Media Watch