Letter from the Pacific Islands #1

December 6th, 2012 by Jane Sloane.

“Climate change is not just about science and statistics. Climate Change is about human rights.” This is Ursula Rakova, the courageous woman who created an organization called “Tulele Peisa” (in the Halia language this is translated to mean “Sailing the waves on our own”) to relocate the some 3,000 people of Huene in the Carteret Islands, due to rising sea levels rendering it almost uninhabitable. The Carteret Islands are 86 km north of Bougainville in the Pacific Islands.

On the eve of relocation, Ursula said “land on the Carteret Islands is traditionally owned by women, unlike many other Pacific Islands. My grandmother passed on land to my mother and my mother to me. I would have passed on my land to my daughter but this is not to be. We have to relocate to another country. Where are our human rights when we are being displaced to another land not of our choosing — where it breaks us as a clan and we become a divided people? Where are our human rights when we are leaving our livelihoods, our values, our cultures behind?”

The impact of climate change on people is dramatically apparent in the Carteret Islands, and is also becoming quantifiably predictable in other parts of the Pacific.

Mark Howden of the CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, said recently that “with climate change, conditions will become wetter and hotter in the Equatorial regions and hotter and dryer in most of the rest of the Pacific. Sea level rise and salination of fresh water supplies as a result of climate change, will impact on the food web in the ocean too. Other effects will include increased tropical cyclones, floods and drought, growing waste problems, increased invasive species resulting in dramatic increases in exposure to diseases such as malaria.”

Already thousands of people in the Pacific Island of Samoa have had their water supplies rationed as the country’s catchments dry up. This scenario is now also playing itself out in other Pacific countries and so water is going to continue to become more limited and women, as the water bearers, agricultural workers and domestic heads, will be the ones most impacted. The lack of water will impact agricultural production, food processing and availability of safe drinking water, especially in rural and remote communities.

A meeting held last week by the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) during Doha resulted in the following statement:

“We begin the final week of negotiations at Doha with the sober recognition that time is running out to prevent the loss of entire nations … Since last time we met in Durban many of our countries have endured numerous extreme and, in some cases deadly, weather events, such as prolonged droughts, heat waves, floods and super-storms – not to mention accelerating sea level rise and increasing ocean acidification… Without bold action…we are on track for a 3.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature and a global catastrophe.”

So it’s clear that the ‘business as usual’ approach has failed. The deepening energy, food, water and ecological crisis is seeing women carrying the majority of the burden. In the coming decades, climate change will result in at least 200 million people permanently leaving their homeland in search of viable livelihoods and safety. Climate induced re-settlement and migration is already happening in the Pacific as the story of the Carteret islanders testifies. To address this scenario, the Green Economy must be based on women’s community empowerment, as key stewards of biodiversity.

There needs to be an abiding commitment by governments and donors to participation by women in relation to poverty eradication and sustainable development. This commitment also needs to honor the spiritual connection that Pacific people have to the sea and their land and to their Pacific ways of seeing and being in order to re-imagine and re-create local level economies in the midst of global upheaval. This is essential given that climate change impact is colliding with deepening and accelerating poverty in the Pacific.

The lack of availability of energy in rural areas to power refrigerators to store fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and meat means that people remain reliant on imported processed and canned foods, all of which contribute to poor nutrition in families, and particularly women and children. While solar lighting in rural areas helps provide for activity such as helping students to study and do their homework, these small units aren’t powerful enough to power refrigerators to store fresh goods.

Population growth has also stressed the capacity of local food production which has then further increased dependence on exports. And, as fossil fuel prices increase tenfold, so will food transport and delivery prices which will further reduce access for women and their families, many of whom are already living on the poverty line.

Women are at the front line of climate change impact and they also have the potential to be at the front line of managing the impacts of this changing environment. By equipping them to be leaders in low-carbon, resource sustainable green economies they become solution builders, able to adapt and support their families and communities in dealing with climate change realities.

This may include development of marine parks, coral reef management, rainwater capture, recycling programs, sustainable forest management and agricultural practices and new transport and fuel solutions to support women in markets. It may also include women organizing against the natural resources in their communities that are being extracted and exported – resources including logging, nickel, gold and copra as well as experimental sea bed mining.

To better support women addressing climate change, the Global Fund for Women is establishing a Green Grants for Women initiative. This program will invest in women’s organizations that are supporting women as climate change solution builders. Women’s organizations led by women like Ursula Rakova, the tireless organizer, to relocate her people to Bougainville.

Since assisting her community to relocate, Ursula has dedicated much of her time and effort to helping her atoll community navigate a safe future as their island home experiences the full force of climate change. To do this she founded a company called Bougainville Cocoa Net Limited to create a means for her people to earn an income.

“As many families were resettled near cocoa farms, I see the trade in organic cocoa as a practical and realistic economic activity for the Carteret settlers and we’re now well linked to the international organic cocoa and fair trade market.”

“This will create long term sustainability for my people as well as the wider Bougainville cocoa growers, steering communities away from divisive and destructive large-scale projects such as logging, oil palm plantation and mining.”

And yet Ursula cannot stay away from her beloved Carterets. In one gorgeous clip of her she is following a pod of dolphins in her boat – the dolphins look like they’re grinning even as they swim and flip ahead. Ursula can’t help herself, she somersaults into the sea and dives deep, a mermaid back in her watery home.


Jane Sloane – In The Pacific


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