In memory of Tony de Brum

A leader who raised the global pulse in Paris, while his own heart beat for his island peoples.

The staff and members of IUCN deeply mourn the loss of Tony de Brum, who passed away on Majuro, Marshall Islands, on Tuesday 22nd August 2017. Our deepest condolences are with his family, friends and compatriots. 


Tony de Brum was a national hero. He also achieved global impact in his role as an ambassador for island peoples and their resolve to deal with climate change, for everyone on the planet.

He was instrumental in leading a ‘High Ambition Coalition’ during the Paris Climate Negotiations in 2015, and earned global accolades for his astute political brinkmanship while remaining true to his unwavering principles of equity, justice and global kinship.

In various political roles, such as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister for Environment, Presidential Candidate, and elected Senator for Kwajalein Atoll, Tony de Brum was a hardened veteran of the drop-off zone politics of the Marshall Islands and the Micronesia region.

He lived through a volatile era of change in the Pacific. He witnessed the nuclear barrage on Bikini and the northern atolls, recalling the dread echo he experience as a nine-year old boy, out on a boat from Likiep, the atoll where he grew up. In the late 1970s and 1980’s, he was instrumental in the independence movement for Micronesia and the Marshall Islands. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2016 for his work to try to bring nuclear nations to account in the international courts.

Tony’s achievements and influential moments are captured in the wide collection of memorials and tributes that are currently spread across the news outlets of the world, and some are linked here below.

I would humbly like to share a personal account of working with Tony de Brum, to illustrate the continuing influence he has on a generation of climate activists and conservationists.

It was 2008 and the world was on a rapid learning curve on how to try to tackle climate change through the United Nations system. Al Gore had presented his Inconvenient Truth, and the Marshall Islands were gearing up for the forthcoming Copenhagen deal, even it was already eclipsing on the horizon.

I was working with the Marshall Islands Coastal and Marine Advisory Council (CMAC) to help develop a national conservation and climate change strategy that would build on the innate strengths of the Marshallese – their traditional institutions and culture, and their pragmatic capacity to deal with adversity. As an adviser to the Marshall Islands delegation to the forthcoming UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, 14th Conference of the Parties, I hoped to help bring the voices and values of the island people to the cold negotiation halls of Poznan, Poland.

I was hosted by Tony de Brum at his house on Majuro, and then invited for an island excursion for fishing and a day away from the ruminations of the low-slung capital. We ate fresh reef fish, Pandanus fruit, and drank coconut water. We spotted a Micronesia Pidgeon, symbol for the conservation movement on the islands, and walked to a shady patch of mangrove and viewed a precious lens of freshwater.

Our Marshallese colleagues, and my fellow visitors, including Ricky Carl from Pohnpei, discussed how we could best get the voices and stories of the Marshallese conservationists and community leaders to resonate in Poland, and reverberate outside of the region. We discussed how, as global organisations, the likes of IUCN and The Nature Conservancy could help broadcast the call-to-action message of the islands.

Tony stopped our talk mid-way, and gave a very simple piece of advice that I remember clearly and have since tried to follow:

“If you have the chance, do what you can do. Take things on and make a difference. But always think: what can I do next? Where can I go from here? How can I make this bigger?”

Tony de Brum continued to fulfil these words in every way, every day. Even as the tributes continued to mount for his leadership of the ‘High Ambition Coalition’ in Paris, he again began to look forward (“Reimaanlok”, in Marshallese). “What can I do next?”

He will be sorely missed.


Article by: James Hardcastle, 24th August 2017.


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