Ahead of the official opening of the United Nations conference on small island developing countries, the UN and Samoan flags were raised on Saturday over the site in the capital, Apia, that will host what is considered the largest conference of its kind in the Pacific region.
“It's critically important for us to put our best foot forward and we have done just that,” chief executive of the conference Falalavauu Perina Sila told UN Radio following the flag raising.
With cannons firing, the UN blue and the Samoan blue, red and white were hoisted over the Tuana'imato sports complex in a symbolic handing-over of the venue to the UN for the next several days.
The site's aquatic centre is used for accreditation, with photos for identification cards being taken next to diving boards and a lap pool. The hockey stadium has been temporarily converted into office space. Hanging bananas decorate walkways where joggers once stepped, and electric carts ride up and down the complex routes.
On Friday afternoon, the site had more visiting families than delegates. The Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States is set to begin on 1 September, with a series of pre-conference forums on youth, private sector and civil society, organized mostly off-site.
Safuneituuga Paaga Neri, surrounded by her grandchildren, was among those visiting the complex.
“I wanted them to see this. It is historic,” she said. As part of the preparations for the conference, the school year was adjusted to give students a break, and free up more volunteers for the conference.
In addition, residents have been decorating the villages between the Faleolo International Airport and Apia's centre. Visitors are welcomed with flags, painted coconuts and flowers.
Asked what she hoped the conference would bring, Ms. Neri's answer turned to climate change. She stressed that partnerships must be created that will allow people living near the shores to withstand extreme weather and rising sea levels.
Samoan journalist Andrew Fassau told UN Radio that the people he has interviewed in the run-up to the event are particularly concerned about the impact of climate change.
“They hope that something good will come out of this conference with regard to the small island nations like us,” he said, adding that islanders are pointing to industrialized nations for causing the climate woes.
The expectations held for this conference are seen outside of the sports complex gates, where Samoan police direct traffic on streets named “SIDS,” “welcome” and “hope.”
In a Guardian opinion piece today, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Aiono Sailele Malielegaoi urged world leaders to help, warning that the Pacific islands are sinking.
“I want world leaders to see for themselves what our islands are doing to deal with climate change, natural disasters and the tough economic challenges thrust upon us,” he wrote.
The conference will also kick off a drum beat to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's climate change summit which will be held in September. Mr. Ban is due to visit tomorrow with a community that has been impacted by extreme weather, and see how Samoa is coping with these challenges.
The theme of this year's conference is creating “genuine and durable partnerships,” and more than 300 partnerships are expected to be announced, according to Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs Wu Hongbo, who is the Secretary-General of the conference.
In addition, more than 120 side and parallel events will be held in the city, which are likely to spur more collaborations, he told the UN News Centre last week.
For the villages in Samoa, such as Fasito'o Uta, the importance of these partnerships and the conference can be summarized using the Samoan word for 'welcome': “Talofa to all delegates, welcome to paradise.”