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Fighting not drowning: Climate change in Oceania at the intersections of place, class and gender


Margaret Jolly, Katerina Teaiwa, Siobhan McDonnell, Miranda Scarr

Session presentation

In representations of climate change, discourses of shared planetary crisis, the ‘we’ of humanity contend with discourses which emphasise the cascading inequalities of place, class and gender. The Pacific contributes little to climate change yet suffers greatly. But in understanding the experiences and redressing the effects of climate change in Oceania, we need to move beyond distant representations of victimhood which occlude the depths of indigenous knowledge and agency. Hence proclaim: ‘We are not drowning, we are fighting’. Environmental scientists need to appreciate how Pacific people conjugate environmental changes with cultural transformations in ways which confound the nature/culture binary. This session will bring together recent and emergent research on climate change across Oceania – in rural and urban locales, national, regional and global fora, focusing on how the differences and inequalities of place, class and gender are experienced and represented in daily dialogues, political projects and media representations. We invite presentations from researchers and artists working across disciplines, regions and genres, particularly those of Oceanic ancestry.

Paper submissions are closed

Accepted papers

Precarity and place: Exploring climate change in Oceania at the intersections of place and gender

Siobhan McDonnell (Australian National University)

Resilience, and its twinned concept vulnerability, have become dominant discourses in the international literature on disaster and climate change. Vulnerability is often used dialectically to imply a lack of resilience. Increasingly discourses of vulnerability are deployed in Oceania so as to paint whole countries or people as the passive victims of ‘natural’ forces thus occluding the geopolitical origins of the climate change crisis. Using ethnographic research conducted on Efate Island in Vanuatu in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Pam, this paper seeks to more beyond the idea of Oceanic peoples as passively vulnerable to explore both local agency in response to the cyclone as well as local concepts of precarity, at the intersections of place and gender. Building on my existing work on the land rush in Vanuatu, it will explore how issues of climate change and ‘natural’ disaster in Oceania have particular implications for precarious populations, particularly those impoverished through either a lack of access to adequate land or women considered not of the place.

Climate change and creation of knowledge in Vanuatu

Arno Pascht (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

Desirée Hetzel (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

Various measures aim to involve rural communities in Vanuatu in the process of local adaptation to climate change. These measures are based on knowledge about environmental changes caused by global climate change and include knowledge on different topics from various sources. Accordingly, staff of different organisations intend to introduce or transfer knowledge to people in Vanuatu, e.g. by realising workshops and long term projects. This knowledge includes new ideas about causes of environmental problems and changes, new ways to secure their livelihood and adjusted methods for agriculture.
In this paper, we look at these activities through the lens of ‘knowledge space’, a concept Kirsten Hastrup applied comparing social responses to climate change. In doing this, we intend to deliberate on options for an actor centred perspective on reception and exchange of knowledge in connection with adaptation measures. By concentrating on practices and interactions of people and on creation of knowledge we aim to include perspectives of our interlocutors who do not separate between cultural and environmental aspects. Additionally, we consider emerging discourses on inequalities between the rural and the urban involved in this process.

Navigating the promises and failures of the state in Solomon Islands

Rebecca Monson (Australian National University)

Tammy Tabe (The University of the South Pacific)

Existing literature on climate change and displacement in the southwest Pacific often emphasises that climate change will exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities associated with inequalities of place, class and gender. Thus women, ethnic minorities and migrants are amongst those most likely to be exposed to livelihood stress as a result of environmental change and natural hazards; to face the most urgent need to relocate; and to experience the greatest difficulty in moving. Scholars and practitioners have often emphasised concepts of human rights, citizenship, and “secure” property rights in formulating their response to these problems.

The Gilbertese people of Gizo in Solomon Islands have been seen as a quintessential case of both vulnerability and community relocation in the face of extreme weather events. In 2007, these communities bore the brunt of the Western Province tsunami. Survivors fled into the hills, where they established makeshift settlements on government-owned land. By 2016, many had returned to the coast; however many remained in the hills, despite threats of eviction by the state. While outside agencies have sometimes traced the vulnerability of the Gilbertese to unclear property rights, we suggest that it is the simultaneous power of the idea of the liberal state, as well as the inability of the Solomon Islands’ state to deliver on all it promises, that has enabled the Gilbertese to manoeuvre to address their needs for themselves.

Growing Rocks and Sinking Islands: The Experiences of Climate Change among the Lau in North Malaita, Solomon Islands

Ryuju Satomi (Waseda University)

The Lau in north Malaita, Solomon Islands, have been known as “saltwater” people who have built and inhabited the so-called “artificial islands”. These are massive structures built of coral rocks in a shallow lagoon, and today there are more than ninety of such islands in north Malaita. While most of them are currently inhabited and there are new islands being constructed, an increasing number of the islands are being abandoned for various reasons, including the fear of tsunami and climate change.
According to the Lau, coral rocks “grow” slowly when they are in the sea, and are progressively “weathered” and “shrunk” once dug up as building material. The growing rocks can be utilized by coming generations for further construction, giving a promise of the future continuity of their maritime dwelling. At the same time, the perceived “lowering” and “sinking” of their islands, attributed to the combination of the weathering of rocks and the sea-level rise, are often remarked as symptomatic of their own moral decline. It is the aim of this paper to discuss such shifting meanings of the Lau islands under the contemporary climate change.

Talanoa for Climate Change

Rowan Gard (University of St Andrews)

With the advent of rising sea levels, extreme weather events and increasing periods of drought across the Pacific, scholars often depict mass migration as the only responsive narrative to climate change. Yet, a burgeoning group of Pacific Island leaders and civil society groups have challenged this relocation scenario. This presentation offers ethnographic insights into the grassroots network that stretches across the Pacific, including the ‘Aina Warriors in Hawai‘i, 350 Aotearoa in New Zealand and the international Pacific Climate Warriors, all of whom are actively defying the hegemonic narrative of “drowning islands.” In this presentation, I analyse this network, with particular attention given to the re-imagining of the classic male “warrior” as Pacific Islanders of all genders. The “warrior” is further recast as anyone who will stand beside these Pacific Islander environmental activists, as “warriors” defending their home and world. Consider that one of the most prominent grassroots campaigns in the Pacific has focused on divestment from fossil fuels, which demands that public organisations such as government councils and universities divest their funds from coal and oil companies. To date the divestment movement has garnered some $6 trillion globally. The net effect of such a strong grassroots movement is far more than monetary though, it is a powerful collective ideology rooted in a defensive solidarity, and a re-envisioning of a Pacific future that is global in scope.

Environmental Displacement and Resilience in Oceania: Engaging beyond the academy

Katerina Teaiwa (Australian National University)

This presentation explores the relationship between displaced lands and peoples in the context of cultural and environmental transformation and resilience in Kiribati and Fiji. I place this within an Oceanic “genealogy of resistance” that often weaves cultural, artistic, political and environmental goals with indigenous and creative modes of expression. I will highlight the work of Banaban and I-Kiribati women in this context. I then link this discussion to the increasing need for more diverse forms of research creation and dissemination, and particularly the relevance of the creative or artistic to translating Pacific research, experiences and activism for popular, policy and public audiences.

Nulcearising Resistance in the Climate Age: Creativity Across Oceanic Environmental Movements

Talei Luscia (Australian National University)

Over the past few centuries, foreign discourses of green imperialism and environmentalism have envisioned the demise of the tropical island as a tragic metaphor for the fate of the rest of the world. Oceanians have indeed borne the brunt of both the nuclear and climate change ages, however, not all have submitted to the colonial trope of passive victims on the frontline of global forces beyond their control. While political, legal and cultural forms of resistance have been well documented in the scholarship of Oceania, there remains a largely unexplored field of academic enquiry concerning the role of Oceanic art within this milieu. This presentation seeks to redress this shortfall by exploring the centrality of the eco-critical arts and its legacies across two environmental movements of Oceania: the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) and the climate movement. Here, Oceanians intervene in the realms of the quotidian, literary, visual and performance to bring about social change. An historical reflection on arts of the NFIP movement demonstrates the presence of what Katerina Teaiwa (2018) describes as a “genealogy of resistance”. This, I argue, has helped unify a body of eco-critical arts which interrogate the relationship between ecology and colonialism, as evidenced through an exploration of several aspects of climate arts today.

Who are ‘We’ in the Anthropocene: Shared Humanity and Intersecting Inequalities in Oceania

Margaret Jolly (Australian National University)

The planetary crisis of climate change has for some provoked a sense of shared humanity, through an inclusive, imperilled ‘we’. But appeals to an inclusive humanity occlude the inequalities inherent in the origins of climate change and in how the crisis entrenches and deepens inequalities of class, gender, race and place within and beyond the Pacific region. Oceania is claimed to have contributed the least and to have suffered the most – images of rising seas and sinking atolls have become iconic in global struggles to redress climate change. Such images of vulnerable victimhood are at odds with the agency and the resistance of Pacific peoples (as many papers in this panel will argue). Such resistance (rather than resilience) is palpable not just in overt political campaigns such as the Pacific Climate Warriors and artistic interventions such as those of spoken word artist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, but in the everyday practices of many Oceanic peoples. A deep inequality persists in the relation between introduced environmental sciences and indigenous knowledge and practice where the ‘human’ is not so segregated from ‘natural’ transformations and where aetiologies of climate change often engage divine cosmologies.