Pacific Island climate warriors take on fossil fuel industry

August 29, 2014

One of the most frightful ironies of climate change is that it will wreak the most havoc on the people who have done the least to cause it. Pacific Island nations are in the climate frontlines — affected by rising oceans, coastal erosion and extreme weather.

For some in the Pacific, climate change has already changed their lives forever. The Solomon Islands town of Taro — capital of the Choiseul Province — announced on August 15 it would soon be forced to relocate to another island entirely because the low-lying area is threatened by unprecedented storm surges and sea level rise.

But what rarely comes across in the mainstream media narrative about this crisis is that Pacific Islanders are not mere passive victims of climate change. Rather, activists from the region are part of a vibrant movement for climate action.

In October a group of young Pacific Islander climate activists from 13 islands — the Pacific Climate Warriors — will travel to Australia to challenge the fossil fuel industry, whose rapacious extraction of coal and gas makes Australia one of the world’s biggest polluters per capita. Their aim is to win support in Australia for sharp cuts in carbon emissions. Their slogan: We are not drowning, we are fighting.

Koreti Mavaega Tiumalu is the Pacific Organiser for the climate justice network 350 Pacific, which is leading the Pacific Climate Warriors project. She told teleSUR English that it’s a common misconception that climate change is something that will happen down the track.

“The impacts are being felt now, they’re been seen now. Aquifers are being infiltrated by sea water [in some islands]. We’re certainly seeing a whole lot of erosion,” she said.

Tiumalu said that if big polluting nations refuse to cut emissions fast, Pacific Island nations could pay an “ultimate price”. “The worst case scenario and the biggest fear of our Pacific communities is that people may have to leave their island.

“And that raises a whole lot of concerns for people about their identity and their culture. So much of our culture and identity is tied to the land. That’s the ultimate price our people would pay for climate change: to lose our land.

“Our people are scared about what that means for them. For example, if the people of Kiribati were to relocate to Fiji, what does that do to them as a people? It’s not like that island that they’ve purchased in Fiji becomes Kiribati. They lose that identity and connection to their land.

“Those are some of the impacts that are driving our campaign, especially for Australia because Australia is considered a big brother to the Pacific. It makes no sense whatsoever that our big brother should not be contributing more to preserve our Pacific Island nations.”

Tiumalu said the idea of a Pacific Warriors campaign was born out of discussions at the Auckland Powershift youth climate conference in 2012.

“We wanted to take a concept that is common in the Pacific. All the Pacific islands have a warrior history. We’re taking the positive aspects of being a Pacific warrior, which are about protecting and providing — protecting their land and providing for their families – and use those aspects to pull the ideas together.”

Preparations for the Pacific Climate Warriors have been underway for the past 18 months. Working with local climate action groups, 350 Pacific has coordinated climate awareness training sessions on 11 islands, involving people from 15 different island groups. The 30 activists who will take part in the Pacific Climate Warriors tour to Australia plan to build and transport traditional canoes to the Australian mainland.

“The idea behind the canoes is about connecting the past with the present,” Tiumalu told teleSUR English. “It’s about showing that our Pacific Island communities have been living sustainably off the land for generations, and that we are now being affected by climate change. Our key message is around saying that ‘We’re not drowning, we’re fighting.’ We want to stand up for the Pacific.”

“Our idea is to share and use our traditional knowledge of our warrior history to be able to help guide us in how we can change and heal what is happening to our islands today. Those canoes and how they have been built are symbolic of a people who are desperate to stand together and do something in a way we’ve never done before, but to use those traditional skills and knowledge as a way to tell that story.”

She also said the Pacific Warriors want to “reach out to Pacific communities who live [in Australia] ... to demand climate justice as well for what are essentially their homelands”.

Tiumalu said it’s important to change the discussion about climate change in the Pacific, which too often portrays Pacific Islanders as victims.

“To be honest, it’s really disrespectful,” she said. “We come from a people who have lived sustainably and in harmony with nature, with our environment, for centuries. So to be labelled as passive victims, or to have some of our islands be seen as the possible first climate refugees, is really not well received in the Pacific.

“[Those terms] are disrespectful and they’re not helpful, because we don’t see ourselves as victims. That’s why we are taking on our campaign. We are Pacific Climate Warriors. We will stand up peacefully from the Pacific to the adversary, which is the fossil fuel industry.”

She also stressed that Pacific climate campaigners don’t think the Australian people are the problem: “We believe that the majority of Australians have no idea how much of an impact this industry is having on our Pacific islands. If they did, if they knew how connected it was to the impacts being felt, I’m sure that they would demand climate justice for the region as well.

“The Pacific Islands are so often just a holiday destination [to many Australians], but it’s a whole lot more than a pretty postcard. What we hope to achieve in bringing the Pacific Warriors to Australia will be getting rid of that stigma of being passive victims and possible climate refugees, and deliver a message from a strong, independent community of people who want nothing more than what every Australian wants: security, stability and a safe home environment in which to raise our children.”

350 Pacific has launched an online appeal for financial support, hoping to raise $40,000 by September 21 to get the Pacific Climate Warriors to Australia. All money raised will go towards the transport costs for the activists and their canoes.

It’s an exceedingly small war chest when compared with the multi-billion dollar clout of Australia’s fossil fuel industry, but Tiumalu does not seem the slightest bit intimidated: “We need the Australian citizenry and the Australian government to stop looking at fossil fuels as a way to grow the Australian economy but instead to preserve the Pacific Ocean with its neighbours, because good neighbours shouldn’t drown their neighbours.”

[This article was first published at TeleSur.]

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