Conservation confab in Hawaii starts with sunrise ritual

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Honolulu (AFP)

Spear-throwers in traditional dress greeted rowers aboard a double-hulled canoe at a beachside ceremony Thursday to open a major world conservation meeting in Hawaii, where leaders urged respect for the Earth, its natural resources and indigenous cultures.

The traditional Hawaiian ritual, held at sunrise on Waikiki Beach, kicked off the meeting of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a 10-day conference that has drawn more than 9,000 world leaders, policy makers and environmentalists to Honolulu.

It is the largest group ever to attend the World Conservation Congress, which is held every four years and is being convened in the United States for the first time, said IUCN Director General Inger Andersen.

"We know that it is our generation that needs to make a change," she said.

More canoes were planned for the sunrise beachside ceremony, including some that would carry heads of state from the Pacific Islands, but plans were scaled back at the last minute due to the approach of Hurricane Madeleine.

Still, the kickoff was steeped in symbolism.

"We just want to make people aware that our ancestors were great stewards of natural resources," one of the Hawaiian rowers, Milton Coleman Jr., told AFP.

At the opening ceremony, Hawaii Governor David Ige unveiled new statewide plans to ramp up renewable energy use and protect the oceans while respecting indigenous rights.

"We are all connected by the same water," said Ige. "We can't afford to mess this up."

President Barack Obama also visited Hawaii as the conference got underway, holding talks with Pacific leaders.

Later Thursday, he was scheduled to visit Midway Atoll on the far northwestern tip of the Hawaiian island chain.

The atoll is at the heart of the Papahanaumokuakea marine monument, which Obama expanded last week to make it the largest protected area on Earth.

"This is an area twice the since of Texas, that's going to be protected and allows us to save and study the fragile ecosystem threatened by climate change," he said.

"Teddy Roosevelt gets the credit for starting the national park system, but when you include a big chunk of the Pacific Ocean, we now have actually done more acreage."

The White House has coyly stated that Obama may "interact directly with the wildlife" at the marine park, likely code for trading his business suit for a wet suit and jumping in the water.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the World Conservation Congress talks will seek to forge a path forward on balancing progress with protection for wildlife and water.

She also called for action against the "scourge" of wildlife trafficking which threatens pangolins, elephants, tigers and more.

"The United States is part of the problem. We must be part of the solution."