Laone is a string of villages nestled alongside the coast of North Pentecost Island in the Republic of Vanuatu. According to local knowledge, the village was established on that site hundreds of years ago, with some gravesites dating back over 500 years. More recently, the community was home to Fr. Walter Lini, Vanuatu’s first Prime Minister. Laone is a community of substantial history. But with the intensifying impacts of climate change, community leaders and families now have to make tough decisions about Laone’s future.
Vanuatu, like most other small Pacific Island states, is critically impacted by climate change. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service has projected continued increases in air and ocean surface temperatures in the Pacific, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and increased rainfall during the summer months and a decrease in rainfall during the winter months. A majority of the ni-Vanuatu population live in rural areas, sustained by subsistence economies and modest cash crops. Taro, manioc (cassava), kumala (sweet potato), coconuts, bananas and island cabbage are staples of food consumption in villages. But changes in rainfall and extreme storm events are now creating significant threats to food security with disease outbreaks in agriculture, water insecurity, food insecurity and declining health in rural communities.
Selwyn Toa is from Laone, North Pentecost. Selwyn is completing his final year of a Masters program at the University of Baltimore, USA. He is majoring in Global Affairs and Human Security with a research focus on the balance between mitigating and adapting to climate change in the Pacific Islands. Selwyn is motivated to study the effects of globalization and westernization on his community and on ni-Vanuatu culture. Questions that guide Selwyn include “How can we sustain and keep our cultures alive within the conventions of this globalized society? How can these different ideologies be integrated or interact with one another?”
Living in Maryland, Selwyn has noticed a divide between how Pacific Islanders and the West conceptualize climate change. “A couple months ago, I was in Washington DC for a seminar,” Selwyn recalled. “We were talking about climate change, and it was all about economic impacts. It is frustrating to see climate change through that lens. I recognize larger countries are concerned for the wellbeing of their citizens, which is dependent on economic activities. But for us in the Pacific, climate change is about surviving. It’s about protecting our environment that provides us with our daily necessities. Our lives are spent on the front lines.”
“So the challenge for Pacific Islanders is to strike a balance between our lived reality of climate change with the economic activities of big countries.”
Selwyn is very familiar with the effects of climate change. He recalled leaving for church one morning from his home in Laone, Pentecost, and finding human skeletons on the beach. The skeletons had washed ashore after the community graveyard was swallowed by rising sea levels. Community leaders promptly gathered the skeletons and buried them elsewhere.
Vanuatu has an extensive coastline, sheltered and sustained by extensive coral reefs. But the damage being suffered by the reefs in the past twenty years is unprecedented. “Community leaders share knowledge about how the coastline was in the past and the changes they have observed over the years. We know what is normal for a reef,” he noted. “But in 2016, after a few years of living abroad, I returned and could hardly believe what I saw. I could hardly find any healthy corals. They are not there anymore. Instead, the reefs were filled with dead corals.”
As sea levels rise, families are forced to make hard choices. Each cyclone season, villagers have to move to safer and higher grounds to be safe. Some members of Laone community are relocating to create new villages or settlements inland, leading to a dwindling community population.
“Psychologically,” said Selwyn, “people are just trying to survive. One of the accolades of Melanesians is that when facing a challenge, they’ll say that they are okay when they are not. Our life is subjected to the weather. It’s grating the community down, as people constantly have to ask themselves, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ It’s hard to stay positive when you just don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
A lack of accessible information about the diverse effects of climate change – from drought to sea level rise, coupled with frequent earthquakes – inhibits communities from systematically preparing for extreme weather events. Selwyn explains how villagers this past year prepared themselves for the effects of a cyclone, in anticipation of another event like Cyclone Pam. But those efforts were ineffectual when they were met by El Nino and drought instead. Planning for the diverse effects of climate change requires accessible information and economic power, both of which are lacking in rural areas in Vanuatu.
“In rural Vanuatu, people have their own ways of prioritizing after cyclone depending on the needs of the people and communities,” Selwyn explained. “Sometimes, they have to choose between pulling their lives together after a cyclone or doing what’s best for the community. You’re always facing a lack of time – for example, you may be trying to recover from a cyclone, but then there is another natural disaster such as earthquake, and then El Niño, and then another cyclone.’
‘People have been adapting and dealing with this extreme weather cycle for decades. Therefore, ni-Vanuatu’s lives are based on principles like ‘hope,’ ‘persistence,’ and ‘resistance,’ knowing that the new house they are building or new garden may or may not survive the next natural disaster. However, these people never give up.’
‘They keep doing what they have been doing because that’s what survival in the islands means.”
Amidst the chaos of climate change, Indigenous knowledge and cultural networks have provided social security to rural communities. “It’s a community driven society,” explained Selwyn. “If somebody’s house is knocked down, another family will take care of them. People understand that by sharing their limited resources, they are able to avoid high death rates during extreme weather events.”
For centuries, ni-Vanuatu communities have relied on Indigenous knowledge, or kastom, to guide their preparedness for extreme weather events. The successes of Indigenous knowledge in mitigating the worst effects of climate change were evident with Cyclone Pam. Selwyn explained how the low death rates during Cyclone Pam could be attributed at least in part to Indigenous building methods. Ni-Vanuatu houses are typically constructed from local wood and bamboo, and thatched with leaves of natangura. These structures are typically able to withstand both cyclones and earthquakes. “It is important to consider how we can integrate Indigenous technology when planning how to build up our resilience, our communities, and how we are going to adapt to climate change,” Selwyn said.
Many of the Indigenous forms of building in the Pacific have eroded with the introduction of Western building techniques including corrugated iron and concrete. Construction is unregulated, and buildings are not build to standards and codes. This causes Western-style buildings to be more vulnerable to environmental hazards, and dangerous to inhabitants.
Uncertainty about the climate has led many ni-Vanuatu to revive Indigenous weather prediction methods. While there is great value in Indigenous climate knowledge, these practices have eroded through the colonial era and the knowledge is not well documented. “There is curiosity about the validity of sources: many people ask ‘Who is providing the information?’ There is also significant doubt about trusting Indigenous knowledge. One of the impacts of the colonization and Christianization of indigenous ni-Vanuatu communities is that traditional culture was portrayed as satanic and unacceptable to Western civilization.”
The propensity to look to Indigenous knowledge to explain changing weather patterns largely depends on whether populations are urban or rural. Rural communities have limited access to technology and communication platforms tend to look towards Indigenous knowledge, whereas those in more urban areas or those with access to communication platforms look towards scientific knowledge to explain unpredictable weather.
“Vanuatu government is to be praised for its effort toward advocating for the use of both indigenous knowledge and scientific knowledge to be complementary to each other,” Selwyn notes.
On the international stage, Vanuatu has been a strong advocate of linking Indigenous knowledge to climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. Jermone Ludvaune, former Vanuatu’s Minister for Climate Change, stated at COP 21 that “Vanuatu will push [for the rights of Indigenous peoples to share traditional knowledge in addressing climate change] to be further strengthened. We want a strong and durable Paris outcome that has political support.” Vanuatu further raised the issue of Indigenous knowledge at COP 22, advocating for further funding to be put towards Indigenous knowledge.
Selwyn noted that there are indicators that integrating local Indigenous knowledge into climate planning would lead to greater climate program success rates. “Pacific countries such as Vanuatu are in a unique position because most of the land belongs to the community. Therefore, the community needs to take more ownership over the climate adaptation and mitigation programming that is being directed by donors and foreign governments.”
Selwyn’s message to Pacific Islanders? “Keep doing what you’re doing; know that across all the villages in the Pacific everyone is sharing the same concerns. Children are being traumatized by cyclones in the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji. Families and communities are being rebuilt, – it’s the same experience.”
“We need to keep looking for new and better alternatives to help us survive. If our ancestors before us have survived in the middle of the ocean for over hundreds of years and that legacy has been bestowed upon us to protect the next generation and our environment, then we can survive climate change. We can help ourselves; the beauty of our collective culture is the things we do together as a community that keep us strong. That spirit of ‘togetherness’ will be our strength to guide us in every way to foster our climate change agenda on the global stage. As individuals, do whatever contribution you can: write, use Facebook and Twitter to tell the story of our people. Let us take advantage of the technological revolution to get our message to world leaders. We have to let the world especially climate change deniers that climate change is real.”