Torres Strait Islanders say: ‘Our Islands, Our Home’

Brisbane Strike for Climate on May 21. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Eight Torres Strait Islander elders are taking the federal government to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee over its inaction on climate change. They are claiming a lack of duty of care.

The complaint was lodged in Geneva in May 2020. “Our Islands, Our Home” campaigner Lisa Viliamu told an online meeting of more than 200 people on September 22 that the federal government is trying to convince the UN to dismiss the complaint and is denying that climate change is having an adverse impact on the human rights of Torres Strait Islanders.

The elders have five demands to put to the federal and Queensland governments: Fund adaptation programs to allow Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait Islands) communities to adapt to climate impacts; commit 100% renewable energy in the next 10 years; support Zenadth Kes communities to build community owned renewable energy projects; transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible through a just transition for workers; and push to keep warming to less than 1.5°C.

Torres Strait Islanders, especially on Masig (Yorke Island), have been forced to relocate many sacred sites, including many of their ancestors buried near the shore line.

Claimant Nazareth Faiud, an elder from Poruma (Coconut Island), told the meeting: “We have a debt to our grandparents and a responsibility to our grandchildren. We all live on low lying islands.

“There are seven clans on Masig, the main island. She is our mother, in the shape of a teardrop. Now the weather has changed, the wind is stronger and blows for longer. There are also bigger king tides. The balance of nature is being wrecked.”

The 18 Torres Strait Islands are being severely impacted by climate change, especially the bird life. The islands are stepping stones for birds flying from Australia to Papua New Guinea, but bird colonies are no longer resting on the islands.

Sweet potato crops are faltering as a result of climate-induced drought and hotter seasons, and fresh water wells are contaminated by salt water.

The meeting was told how Torres Strait culture includes women, after giving birth, placing their placenta under a coconut tree and planting a new tree. But, now the coconut trees are being washed away.

Another of the claimants, Yessie Mosby, said: “Living so remotely, it is hard to get our voices heard. There is no higher ground to run to. No human should have to experience this. If there is no land, [there will be] no clans."

He said the Australian government “has a duty of care”.

“We are suffering every day from climate change", Mosby said. “It is our right to live, to practice our culture. Torres Strait people are always forgotten, or brushed aside. We want to have input and affect change. We are doing this for our children.”

This is a landmark case for First Nations peoples. They are making big plans to highlight their plight by sailing ships and pearling boats along the entire coast of Queensland and New South Wales in September 2023.

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