We all respond differently to different types of occasion. The media love the big and the boisterous: colour and movement. It’s the intimate moments and personal encounters that move me.
Over the past two weeks the 350 Pacific “Climate Warriors”, offered us both. They came from twelve different Pacific nations to hold events across Australia. Their aim was to bring the impacts of climate change on their South Pacific homelands to the attention of Australians and the world.
The pivotal event of their visit, certainly in terms of publicity, was the blockade of the Newcastle coal port. The Climate Warriors used specially built traditional canoes and brought them with them from their homelands. They and their Australian supporters claim to have brought the port to a virtual standstill for a day, an achievement they are incredibly proud of, and which has been the theme of subsequent events.
Two of these Climate Warriors, Kaio Taula from Tuvalu and Arianne Kassman of PNG, spent several days in Brisbane on an exhausting round of speaking events. Their visit was kicked off on Sunday October 19 with a small canoe flotilla along a section of the Brisbane River. A much quieter and sedate affair than the Newcastle blockade.
The following night the Queensland Pasifika Women’s Forum sponsored a meeting at the Tuvalu Community Hall in the outer Brisbane suburb of Darra. The Tuvalu community in Brisbane is very small, only about ten families, and they work hard to instil their cultural values and language in their children. Like many islander communities they are deeply religious, and our evening opened with a hymn and closed with prayer. It was in turns a solemn and joyful occasion, and between presentations by Kaio and Arianne, we were treated to traditional dancing and generous helpings of food.
Tuvalu Community Hymn
Kaio addressed his audience entirely in the Tuvalu language, because he said; he was happy to be amongst compatriots in a foreign land. I suspect he also wanted to illustrate to the young people present that it is their language and cultural identity that is at urgent risk from climate change.
Kaio talked about his island of Funafuti, the capital island of Tuvalu. From aerial photographs, Funafuti seems to be no more than a thin strip of land holding a runway and a few houses. It is so narrow that from a single point, the sea can be seen relentlessly lapping at both sides of the Island. King tides, once a yearly occurrence, are now monthly; its fresh water supplies are being contaminated by sea water, making it difficult to grow crops, fish are affected by rising sea temperatures, and burial grounds are sinking. Kaio, asked,
“Where will I bury my next loved one who dies?”
As Christians, these islander people seem to be torn between resignation and hope. As one Tuvaluan elder told me, her aging parents, who still live in Tuvalu, say, “God will not do this again.” “Do what?” I asked. “Noah’s Ark, the flood. But now they are getting scared because they can see that the shores and beaches have been eaten away. There is no place to put ashore.”
During the question time that ended the evening, the climate impacts on their island homelands seemed incomprehensible. Some asked tentatively, “What will happen to the people of Tuvalu: how long have they got?” The answer was unclear. Kaio says scientists estimate Tuvalu may have another 50 years although some islands are at more immediate risk than others. Looking at his photographs of the islands it is hard to believe they can hang for more than a few years.
For the people of Tuvalu, moving inland, or to higher land is not an option. Many have already left, mainly settling in New Zealand. But the current Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, who has termed climate change a “weapon of mass destruction”, is imploring the people of Tuvalu to stay and fight. Kaio says that this is his personal aim. He hopes that the proof of their plight will move Australians and their government to take action on climate change and move away from our dependency on coal. But this message only remains effective, according to Enele Sopoaga, so long as people remain living on Tuvalu. To move away he says, is “self-defeating”.
Others think it is already too late. One Brisbane-based Tuvalu elder observed that the people may stay and fight, “but they will drown with the Islands”.
This small group of expatriates seemed to be struggling to come to terms with the possibility that their nation, a place they have already left, may no longer remain out there in the Pacific. How do you comprehend that? How do you hang on, and for how long, as Arianne eloquently reminded us, if the home that gave birth to, and has sustained your culture, is washed away?
Jan’s interview with Kaio Taula and Arianne Kassman was broadcast on local ABC radio and can be heard below.