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Oceania’s Indigenous Peoples Rising

As the climate change crisis continues to crash on the shores of the atoll nations, every day Pacific Islanders are challenged to exercise their rights of self-determination. While the lack of defined determinism by developed states could doom the small island developing states to disappear, Indigenous communities, their countries, and global civil society continue to create innovative initiatives illustrating Indigenous island traditional knowledge. They are answering the moral call to action by sharing these sustainable models with one another.

The communities of Oceania face severe, imminent consequences connected with climate change. Because of rising sea levels, low-lying atoll areas are already being flooded and coastal shores eroded, along with salt water intrusion. The results are violations of the residents’ fundamental human rights to water, food, housing, and health. Yet there are many more consequences impacting the cultures and livelihoods of Pacific Islanders. Beyond the sea water seeping into the soil, there is also acidification of the ocean, which is leading to coral bleaching. The death of the coral equates to the loss of an important natural barrier to king tides and rising sea levels, as well as loss of a food source. Shell fish cannot survive and fish no longer inhabit the dying reefs.

Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific aren’t waiting to be saved, however. Instead, they are showing significant strength in sharing knowledge and strategic initiatives of the islands. Kiribati is an example of education, empowerment, and engagement at all levels of society. At the community level, the Otin Taai Declaration of 2004 outlines basic economic, social, and cultural rights. Beyond mere words, the work is impressive with over 37,000 mangroves planted under the Kiribati Environment and Conservation Division Kiribati Adaptation Program Phase II. What is vital is the planting with youth groups and school students to start and manage the mangroves. Helene Jacot Des Combes of the University of the South Pacific’s Pacific Centre for Environment and Sustainable Development explains the importance of the project: “To replant native plants contributes to the renewal of the ecosystem. When planting is successful it has impacts both on the protection of the coast and also for food security by providing more fish and crabs for the community.”

The world is aware of the actions taken in Kiribati due to President Anote Tong’s leadership in international negotiations such as the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Tong argues and advocates from a human rights perspective, demanding dignity and equality for the citizens of Kiribati. He also coordinated a visit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to his country. Beyond bearing witness as the first Secretary-General ever to step foot in Kiribati, Ki-moon literally stood in solidarity with the youth, planting his feet in the sinking sands of Stewart Causeway while planting mangroves to protect the beachfront area from rising sea levels.

Another climate change adaptation action combines education and cultural exchange to combat the climate crisis. The Climate Challenger Voyage was launched with 10 crew in one canoe for a voyage of 4,000 kilometers, with the purpose of connecting 25 Pacific communities to share climate change adaptation practices. Manuai Matawai, initiator of the Climate Challenger Voyage, summarizes his vision: “Five years ago I dreamt of building an ocean voyaging canoe to sail the Pacific and unite with other Pacific Island communities on what we can do about climate change.”

The Titan tribe of Manus Province, Papua New Guinea, coordinated the traditional voyage to connect culture, conservation, and climate change adaptation in the Pacific. On its initial voyage, it visited various communities to share educational material about climate change and to serve the community with an exchange of initiatives by fellow Pacific Islanders to realize their human rights. The Climate Challenger Voyage shared innovative initiatives that are already proven in the neighbor nations. The different models of locally managed marine areas continue to increase and prove successful; there is seaweed farming to assist with reefs, along with mangrove planting and the addition of crabs to increase life along the mangroves and provide food. With the community, the crew actually built a 7-meter long dry stone wall on Buala for coastal protection—leaving behind not just a living model, but training material and the traditional knowledge for construction.

While the Climate Challenger Voyage is important in the Pacific region, another traditional voyaging community is aiming to teach about climate change on a worldwide voyage from 2014–2017. The Polynesian Voyaging Society will sail the entirely traditional Ho–ku–le’a and solar powered escort safety canoe, Hikianalia, around the globe visiting groups with a message of sustainability and peace. As Jenna Ishii, an education specialist, said, “We know there are a lot of issues we are facing. But as a people we can find solutions.” The World Wide Voyage will teach a curriculum of climate change during its travels and share examples of adaptation accumulated while sailing. There will also be Google hangout group that will connect directly from canoe to classroom and communities around the world.

These climate change adaptation practices provide a prolonged and principled pursuit of sustainable development and saving our planet. A voice from the Pacific represents
the ripple that must crash on the conscience of citizens of the world. The poem “Tell Them,” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner from the Republic of the Marshall Islands, makes sure that the existence of Indigenous Peoples is never forgotten, and indeed remains at the forefront of policymakers’ minds.

...tell them about the water how

we have seen it rising flooding across our cemeteries 

gushing over our sea walls and crashing against our homes

tell them what it’s like to see the entire ocean level with the land 

but most importantly tell them we don’t want to leave

we’ve never wanted to leave

and that we are nothing without our islands.

Beyond writing poems to share with humanity’s soul, Jetnil-Kijiner was also pivotal in the creation of Jo-Jikum, an environmentalist group empowering youth to maintain positive changes for people and land in the Marshall Islands. “I want the world to know of our resilience and our strength—that we are in no way going to just give up, pack up, and leave our islands. Our culture is rooted in our land, and our land is our life,” she says.

Climate change is an insidious form of colonialism denying the fundamental freedoms of Indigenous Peoples. It is no longer an ominous threat of the future but a dawning, deadly reality. Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific are responding to this new reality with fortitude for the continued existence of the rich cultures of Oceania. Their resistance is rooted in human rights advocacy and is resulting in a renewed sense of self and commitment to sustainable development not only to save one’s homeland, but all of humanity. Their actions and adaptations are the difference between life and death.

—Joshua Cooper is a professor at the University of Hawai’i, West Oahu, Kapolei, HI and the director of the Hawai’i Institute for Human Rights.

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