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Perils in the Pacific

`THINK globally; act locally." "Think future; act now." These are prescriptions for sustaining the health and welfare of planet Earth, the Blue Planet. They illuminate the mutual dependence of all regions and of all earthlings. Americans and Europeans know little of the South Pacific, perhaps because the typical world map places either the Americas or Euroasia squarely in the center, subordinating the vast Pacific. A world map centering on the South Pacific would in turn distort some of the most heavily populated areas in the northern hemisphere. But it would also reveal the full dimensions of an area which so profoundly influences the world's weather that Ken Piddington of the World Bank has termed it "the world's clean lung. " The problem is to persuade all us northerners to help keep it that way.

The South Pacific ocean covers more than one-fifth of the planet's surface. It extends through nine time zones, from the east coast of Australia to the west coast of South America, from the equator to Antarctica. Its many thousands of islands are home to Melanesians, Micronesians, Polynesians, and the descendants of Europe's 19th-century colonialists. Besides Australia and New Zealand, these peoples inhabit nine independent states, five of them members of the United Nations; four self-governing states t hat have chosen to be "freely associated" with New Zealand; and some French colonies and protectorates.

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Apart from its attractions as a tropical playground, this vast expanse of ocean has proved irresistible for more destructive activities - nuclear testing, toxic waste disposal, drift-net fishing.

Nuclear testing is a particularly sensitive issue. The United States and Britain stopped testing in the Pacific almost 30 years ago (though the impact lingers in devastated islands and uprooted lives). But tests continue in French Polynesia, and all three powers have declined to sign protocols to the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty of 1987 which would require them to apply the treaty's provisions to Pacific territories under their control. They would have to abstain from the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons, and to stop nuclear testing. The treaty is also aimed at preventing Pacific Rim countries from dumping nuclear waste. The Soviet Union and China have signed.

The "Spinfizz" treaty, as it is called, allows individual states in the region to decide whether or not to permit the entry into their ports of ships that may be nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed. This is the issue that sundered the defense alliance between the US and New Zealand. Most New Zealanders do not feel the need for a US deterrent against Soviet or Chinese nuclear capabilities, and they believe that a nuclear explosion in a New Zealand harbor would seriously damage the agricultural base on which their economy depends.

Now come additional horrors for people in the region. The US has a proposal to dispose of chemical-weapons stocks on Johnson Island in Antarctica. More immediately damaging, however, is the use by Japanese, Korean, and other fishermen of drift nets - "walls of death" 30 feet deep and 20-30 miles long. These drift overnight and damage or destroy all sea life caught up in them, including marine mammals, sea birds, and turtles. The numbers of drift nets increased from two to 200 in just two seasons and thr eatened to decimate stocks of migrating tuna, the backbone of many island economies. Joint efforts by the US and New Zealand, strongly supported by the UN General Assembly in 1989, have persuaded Korea to end the practice and Japan and Taiwan to cut back, until agreement is reached on maintaining sustainable yields.

Chlorofluorocarbons, which deplete the ozone layer, are yet another deadly import from the north. The ozone hole that extends every spring from Antarctica north over parts of New Zealand threatens not only scorched crops and skin cancers but also damage to plankton that is crucial to the ocean food chain.

Finally, while the fact of atmospheric warming may not yet be universally accepted, scientists report that the Wordie Ice Shelf in the Antartic has shrunk by two-thirds in the last 20 years. The implications of this trend for the island countries of the Pacific are particularly devastating. Almost everywhere, populations are heavily concentrated near the ocean. If current projections of fossil-fuel use are on the mark, many low-lying inhabited atolls could not withstand the expected three-foot rise in t he sea level.

In short, the world's clean lung needs our help.

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New Zealand's native Polynesians, the Maori, have a proverb: "Those who stand up, live; those who sit down, die." It is time to stand.

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