Climate Change in the Pacific


The Pacific islands are a group of small island nations geographically scattered around the Pacific Ocean. Worldwide they are famous for their white sandy beaches and as tourist attractions that tend to evoke a romantic notion of a ‘life in paradise’. However beyond such attractions lurk an existential crisis that threatens to swallow the land and the lives of the people of the Pacific. The collective contribution of greenhouse gases this region produces is far less than 1% of world wide emissions. However, the amount of changes and loss they continuously have to adapt to is huge.

 

The Pacific way of life is framed around our indigenous spirituality that grounds relationships in that which is life affirming. It’s a spirituality that is eco-relational and promotes a life of balance.It allows us to reflect on our holistic wellbeing that coincides with ecology where it is defined as the interconnectedness of our life and the multiple relationships we share, whether it be human or non-human, but beyond what the human eye can only visualise (Vaai, 2017[i]). Our indigenous spirituality is similar to that of what is mentioned in our Christian spirituality in the context of custodianship, where we are of equals with creation and put on this earth to be good stewards. The Pacific identity holds linkages to our ecology, it holds customs of totemism and traditions that share relationships with our land (vanua), our ocean (wasawasa) and our earth. What makes it more unique is how our forefathers conceptualised our vernacular and our cultures in a way where its context was able to pave a much deeper understanding which results in highly valuing our relationships and our spirituality. All of which births a culture of respect between humanity and the environment and allows us to live harmoniously amongst our creation (Baba, 2006[ii]).

 

There is a similarity in our Pacific cultures when we reflect on the word used to define land. In Fijian the term used to define land is vanua and for an indigenous Fijian this term goes beyond that of land and encompasses with it the sea, the people, all living things inclusive of that from our spiritual elements. The term also reflects on how each of these components are related to and hold a responsibility for each other (Lagi, 2017[iii]). In Samoa, the term used to define land is fanua which is also associated with the origin of birth or the process of giving birth to a child. In a metaphorical sense, this allows us to visualise our fanua to be originated from that of a mother, meaning it has intrinsic worth and is characterised as a source of life, in a simple wrap up if we are then to destroy our land we are also destroying life (Salevao, 2000[iv]). Another term used in Samoan vernacular is eleele which translates to soil but also means blood, metaphorically it again allows us to visualise the intimate relationship that is shared between land and people expressing the harmonious balance between both (Salevao, 2000). This symbiotic relationship allows Samoans to believe that humans belong to the land where it evokes a perspective where human beings emerge from the land and eventually return to the land when it comes to our time of passing. It decentralises the human from being the centre of creation enabling us to rid ourselves from an anthropocentric worldview where humans feel as though they are able to dominate the earth (Vaai, 2021[v]). Such a worldview that has brought about the greatest crisis of human history, thus being climate change.

Our land is an essential aspect of our Pacific identity and our existence, in the Fijian culture the vanua gives its people a sense of belonging where it holds life together and gives it meaning (Nabobo-Baba, 2017[vi]). In order to ensure a child shares a deep connection with its vanua, there is a custom which is carried out in Fijian culture called the ‘vakalutu buto ni gone’ ceremony where it celebrates life and is done by burying the child’s umbilical cord with its totem plant which signifies that this child’s identity is rooted in their vanua and they will always return to their home (Lagi, 2017). A custom which is also similar in the Samoan culture where a child’s umbilical cord is usually buried in the fanua of its community in order to ground their identity in a relational way of life where they see the land as a part of their identity (Salevao, 2000). This umbilical cord is normally buried with a coconut tree and has beliefs that if that coconut tree flourishes, it indicates a success in the child’s future however if the tree is to die it indicates that the child will grow into becoming a burden (Vaai, 2017). Such beliefs dictate the multiple relationships we share in our Pacific way of living, both inclusive of the seen and the unseen.

 

The existential threats that the climate crisis poses onto our communities are;

 

  1. The intensification of extreme weather events affecting the food security that these small island nations highly rely on as their main source of food and income
  2. The increase in rainfall patterns causing erosion that washes away soil and sand that is used to sustain our coastal and forestry areas.
  3. Sea level rise that results in saline intrusion and induces forced displacement/relocation due to the land not being able to provide the needs and secure the livelihoods of those affected communities.

 

Climate induced forced displacement or relocation is a mitigation strategy that was introduced into the Pacific disaster risk and reduction management to help reduce the severity of impacts faced by our communities. Many of these small island nations are currently facing internal climate displacement, where coastal communities are having to relocate to higher ground due to their old village site not being able to secure their livelihoods as it would have before. However with the rapidly increasing rate in which climate change continues to travel, this displacement will eventually reach a level where some of these island nations will have to relocate across borders for their safety. A nightmare that none of these small island nations are wanting to experience in the next few years, as this not only creates a disconnection between our people and their land which grounds their identity but also brings the topic of discussion into matter of whether their culture will be able to thrive and survive in that of a foreign land.

 

The process of relocation is a heavy yet very difficult topic to succumb to and is usually only ever a last resort if the adaptation measures brought in are not able to carry out the task it would have been able to carry out before. For our Pacific communities, having to bid farewell to their old home site is also having to come to terms with the fact that you are leaving behind your ancestors and a huge part of your identity that has been woven into your lands by that of your kin. As international frameworks continue to work around placing finances for loss and damage for such relocated communities, a failure which I see is the fact that the framework put together for loss and damage only ever looks towards tangible items that can be covered such being our houses, cars and infrastructure. However, what cannot be covered in these finances are intangible assets such as our;

 

  1. Our lands and our oceans where our ancestors are buried and our custom of totemism is woven into.
  2. Our traditional plantation (i-kanakana)
  3. Our traditional fishing grounds (–qoliqoli).

 

These intangible assets cannot be valued or covered the same way in which tangible assets are covered because it holds cultural value to it, which is infinite.

 

In the global climate narrative that is set in today’s generation, the Pacific is normally seen to be a victim of the climate crisis and this is commonly based on the fact that our island nations are small. Such a narrative that has provoked our Pacific communities in the grassroots (those residing in the country) and that of the diaspora (those who have migrated across overseas) to shift the climate narrative from being seen as victims, to rather being  seen as warriors who are resilient and continuously adapting to the changes brought about by the climate crisis. This fight is one that we collectively hold dear to our hearts because it does not only affect our security and our wellbeing, it threatens our survival of our people, our land, our culture and our identity.

 

WE ARE NOT DROWNING, WE ARE FIGHTING!!

 

[i] A return to Relationality of the Pacific Itulagi as a Lens for Understanding and Interpreting Life. (2017). In U. L. Vaai (Ed.), Relational Hermeneutics – Decolonising the Mindset and the Pacific Itulagi (p. 17). University of the South Pacific Press & the Pacific Theological College.

[ii] Baba, U. N. (2006). Knowing and Learning: An indigenous Fijian approach. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific.

[iii] Lagi, R. (2017). Vanua Sauvi – Social Roles, Sustainability and Resilience. In Relational Hermeneutics – Decolonising the Mindset and the Pacific Itulagi (p. 187). University of the South Pacific Press and The Pacific Theological College.

[iv] Salevao, I. (2000). Burning the Land – An Ecojustice reading of Hebrews. In Readings from the Perspective of Earth (p. 221). Sheffield Academic Press Ltd.

[v] Vaai, U. L. (2021). Pacific Spirituality and Changing the Climate Story. In Religious Soft Diplomacy and the United Nations (p. 241). Lexington Books.

[vi] Baba, U. N. (2017). In the Vanua: Personhood and Death within a Fijian Relational Ontology. In The Relational Self – Decolonising Personhood in the Pacific (p. 163). University of the South Pacific Press.