Pacific islanders struggle for survival against global warming -- `Rich countries must slash emissions now'

Kiribati will be devastated by rising sea levels.

July 29, 2009 -- For Pacific islanders, climate change is not a threat looming somewhere in the future. Rising sea levels and unpredictable weather are having devastating effects right now. Climate change has already forced some communities to leave their traditional homes.Simon Butler spoke to two climate change activists from the Pacific about their campaign for immediate cuts to global greenhouse emissions.

Pelenise Alofa Pilitati is the chairperson of the Church Education Directors' Association in Kiribati. Reverend Tafue Lusama is the chairperson of the Tuvalu Climate Action Network. They are on an Australian speaking tour through July and August, which is co-sponsored by Greenpeace and Oxfam. For details of the tour go to

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Simon Butler: What are you hoping to achieve with your speaking tour?

Pelenise Alofa Pilitati (PP): I’m trying to get Australians to support the Pacific islands peoples and get the governments of Australia and New Zealand to sign an emissions-reduction agreement in Copenhagen that would protect the Pacific islands. We’re gearing up for the Copenhagen climate conference at the end of this year.

The Association of Small Island States released a statement earlier this month criticising the target of 2°C warming above pre-industrial levels that the richest countries set at a recent meeting in Italy. The small island states called for a 1.5°C target to save their countries, which would mean stopping emissions very, very quickly. What do you think is the problem with the policy of the world’s richest governments? Why are they not listening to the science?

Reverend Tafue Lusama (TL): I believe that they have the political method which is economics based. For example when the US and Australia refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol their main reason was that millions in the US would lose their jobs if they tried to comply with the demands. So it was a very economics-based argument. But studies [on green job creation] state otherwise. So the rich governments are not agreeing to the demands of the poor countries because they look at [climate change] as an economics issue, not a moral issue.

What are some of the impacts of climate change in Kiribati and Tulavu that are already taking place?

TL: Climate change impacts on life in our countries from every aspect. It challenges our livelihoods. It challenges our sustenance. It challenges our future. Take sea level rises for example. Our islands are very low and when the sea level rises it does not just come above the land. It also comes on top of the land — right in the middle of the island. That means our traditional way of planting food, where we dig down to the underground water table, can no longer be done because the underground water has been salinated by the sea water.

Not only that, but the same water we used to rely on during long droughts is not drinkable.

Is this on all islands?

TL: Yes, on all islands. Not only that, because of the warming of the globe, the corals are dying. They are bleached. And if corals die it does affects our supply of fish — because fish either die out without coral or they move further away in the ocean — which means going after the fish has become an expensive exercise.

Not every individual in Tulavu has the financial capacity to buy boats and go after the fish. So it is cheaper to buy tinned fish, for example, which is not as fresh and not what people are used too. And when we come together as a community to have a feast you are supposed to have a fish on the plate. So climate change is also challenging our culture.

Also, the patterns of the weather have changed a lot. We have two seasons — a rainy season and a hot season. The rainy season runs from September to April and the rest is the hot season. Right in the middle of the hot season we are suddenly visited by storms and strong winds. In the middle of the rainy season there will be a long drought.

Our people depend on their traditional knowledge of the weather to plant and to fish. Now if the weather patterns are unpredictable so too will be the livelihoods of the people.

Right now our view of the future of our countries is very, very limited. There is no assurance that coming generations will remain in our countries.

Climate change impacts on the land through sea level rise and coastal erosion. Islands have been disappearing. Our people depend on our land, so if an island disappears then there goes the land and the basis of your survival.

The coast has been eroded so land is being lost and people are being forced inland and to other areas. So overcrowding has become a problem.

From the health perspective, it is also a challenge. For example, dengue fever has been under control for many years. Recently in Tulavu, dengue fever has revived, stronger than before. There is also a prediction that malaria is coming our way.

So every aspect of life in our island countries has been affected.

In Kiribati and Tulavu have many people been forced to leave their islands already?

PP: It's very hard to relocate people. The government keeps telling them they have to move out of here and we’ll take you to another island. But it is [people’s] culture, it is [people’s] land. You’re taking me to somewhere that is not my land — this is my ancestral land given by our forebears.

Many people stay on the islands and all the islands are still inhabited. They keep moving to a better, safer place within the island. So it's internal relocation at the moment. The land in Kiribati is given to you, you have a title to it. No land belongs to the government. It’s owned by families, by people, and they know their own land. They cannot move to some place else. So when they are told to move it is very hard.

TL: Even in Tulavu it is impossible for the government to come and relocate people because the government doesn’t have any land — people have land. The place is small, so moving people from one place to another place in the country is just not possible. Whose land are you going to put me on?

PP: And when you leave your place is it hard because we have close ties to our land. It gives us our security and our identity. To move to somebody else’s land means everyone looks at you like “where do you come from?”

TL: All the lands on my island are owned by the people. The land is not owned by individuals they are owned by clans. I am part of the clan and an owner of the land. If you wanted to stay on my land it is impossible for me to say yes. I have to get the consent of the rest of the clan. And that is very, very difficult because even if 99.9% of the clan agrees it has to be unanimous.

PP: It's different in Kiribati. People have their own land title. It's not communal, it's family. If you don’t have any land, people ask “What has happened to them?”. But land is very important to us and you cannot just say leave it and move away to another island.

How quickly have the changes happened?

TL: It started way back, at least 30 years ago. But then it was more recently that we could link what was happening with the science of climate change. When I was young, my family had a small island and we would spend weekends there. That was when I was about 10 to 15 years old. It is no longer there. Two more islands, which were bigger, are also gone.

The changes happened gradually but is it gaining pace.

If Tulavu goes down today, then you will go down tomorrow. Simply meaning, the reason is that if Tuvalu is the beginning of the problem, then it should be the beginning of the solution.

If we ignore it by the time we wake up and realise we should do something it will be too late. Because we have emitted so much carbon dioxide and poisonous gas and the pace of climate change will be so fast that it will be impossible to stop it and achieve stability.

Recently, the Tulavu government announced it is going to move to 100% renewable energy by 2020. This is also what the climate movement here is saying Australia should do. Should Australia match that kind of target?

TL: Australia should take up that challenge to show good leadership. Tuvalu is just a small country. It doesn’t mean anything for the problem when it makes a commitment like that. Australia, as big and wealthy as it is, should commit to show the world that Australia is showing leadership in the Pacific and in the world in relation to the issue.

PP: Is it such a problem for Australia? Is anyone going to die if they commit themselves to the agreement?
So I think that the Australian government is not thinking of the long term. It is just thinking of just now. For me, when I look at the Pacific, if it's all destroyed and people are displaced, then where else will people go? I think they will end up here in Australia. And maybe Australia is happy with that. If Australia wants to inherit a lot of unhappy people, that is.

So it’s better that they can stay on their own land, strong in their own identity and happy where they are. I think in the long term it’s going to be harsh. Unless the planning of moving people is done properly. If it’s not done properly we will end up with more problems.

What do you want out of the Copenhagen conference?

PP: I want the reduction of carbon emissions to be equal to what the scientists say is required. If they say 40% or 50% then yes — not more and not less.

Second, to have a good adaptation program and the funding to organise it properly.

Third, a proper plan for those who are relocated. If people have to move somewhere, they cannot just move people, no. We have to think of their culture, think of their identity, think of their language, think of everything that makes them a people, a community. They have to have a proper plan.

A couple of years ago the Tulavu government asked the Australian and New Zealand governments for help with relocation. The Australian government said no, we won’t help you.

TL: The Australian government has refused our plea three times. You see, from our own point of view, the whole of Tulavu’s stand is summarised by what our prime minister presented at the Posnan climate talks in December year when he simply stated that Tulavu will not accept defeat.

We don’t look at relocation as an option right now. We’d rather fight to save our country because it involves a lot of risks. Simply put, you cannot create a country in another country. You cannot create a Tuvalu in Australia.

If we were relocated to Australia we would become Australian citizens. But then, it would be as Australian second-class citizens.

PP: For example, we are migrants and we were resettled in Fiji. Banaba is in Kiribati and we were resettled in Fiji. We have a beautiful island in Fiji, but we do not come from Fiji and we are not Fijians. We bought the land but we always feel that Fiji is for Fijians. It is the Pacific way and we cannot change our mentality. We love the Fijians, they care for us. But we always say that this is their country and they look after us while we are there, and they have done that very well.

But when people ask ``Where do you come from?'', we say, ``We come from Banaba. That is our home. Banaba is in Kiribati.'' We can never say that we are Fijians.

But because of climate change, if we are displaced and we have to move it will be a different kind of displacement. Because this time there is not home left. I live in Fiji but my home is there in Banaba. This time if I move, my island is gone forever. I could never say my island is still there.

TL: Which means that if we are displaced and relocated somewhere else — and our people are spread around the world — then our children and grandchildren will be roaming the face of the globe as homeless people.

There is a saying I always love to use: ``There’s no place like home.'' Wherever you go, no matter how beautiful a place is, even if it is paradise, you always have that urge to go back to where you belong. But as soon as you travel back and step on your land, you feel at home.

Now if our people are removed and displaced, they will be roaming the face of the Earth as homeless people with nowhere to call home. And to make it worse, there is not an international convention to protect the rights of those called climate refugees. It should be recognised. But right now that is how our future looks. If we are displaced we cannot legally come and stay in Australia, because there is no law to protect our rights.

PP: My people were displaced twice [from Banaba]. The first time was during the Second World War — they removed my people. After the Second World War they removed them to Fiji. But the way we moved to Fiji there was some protection given to us. We bought an island but the British government actually created in the constitution some protection for us.

TL: But that’s different because during at that time Fiji was a colonial possession of the British. Kiribati, Tulavu and Banaba were all under the British empire. So the British empire had the power to dictate to its colony.

PP: So we were in the constitution in Fiji. And when Kiribati got its independence we were also in the constitution. That is our protection.

If they can come up with some protection like that then maybe [relocation] would be different. I live in Fiji and am protected in Fiji. But we have nothing like that at the moment.

TL: So we would be running from place to place. If we came to Australia, then Australia has the right to kick us out anytime. Then if we run to New Zealand then New Zealand can kick us out. So we will just be roaming from place to place.

PP: That is what I said about the relocation plan. If there is going to be people displaced and they have to move, then they must have a proper plan — a strong plan to protect them as a group of people. So they will be able to continue their own community wherever they are.

Like I have in Fiji. I have my own language and my own culture. If something like that [is established] then maybe. But we will not accept a plan where they say some people go here and some people go there. No, we cannot do that.

It’s not an option right now because we want to think about the first plan [to cut emissions]. We don’t want to move away from our islands. But if it happens is has to be a proper strong plan.

If you got the chance to talk to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who claims that Australia is taking the lead in combatting global warming, what would you tell him?

TL: I would say to him you are fooling the people of Australia. You are pretending to do something but you are not doing anything.

PP: The thing I would say is, ``Show us. Show us that you are supporting us by taking a strong stand at Copenhagen.''

[Simon Butler is a climate campaigner based in Sydney, Australia, and a regular writer for Green Left Weekly. He is a member of the Australian Socialist Alliance. A shorter version of this interview appeared in Green Left Weekly.]