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Tears and hope in the eye of the storm

Friday 19 February 2016 | Published in Regional

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WELLINGTON – There were tears and tales of panic as well as messages of hope from Pacific islanders at a climate change conference in New Zealand this week.

The conference – “In the Eye of the Storm” – at Wellington’s Victoria University heard calls for support, compassion and a change of mindset from decision-makers and polluters.

Claire Anterea of Kiribati told the delegates the phrase “climate refugee” always brings her to tears.

“I have the energy, the passion to speak out, but it always makes me cry to talk about my people. We’re not talking about polar bears. We have to look after the survival of our people,” she said.

Antarea says many Kiribati people are upskilling so they won’t be a burden on other countries if they do have to leave their homeland.

The Kiribati president, Anote Tong, says he’s tried to come up with creative solutions like building up the atolls and buying land in Fiji as well as motivating the 100,000 strong population to prepare and adapt themselves for what he calls migration with dignity.

“People are getting quite scared now and we need immediate solutions. This is why I want to rush the solutions so there will be a sense of comfort for our people. They can sleep even when the tide is high.”

Mary-Linda Salvador, from Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia, where many people live from the land and the sea, says climate change is not only affecting livelihoods.

“The chiefs, they get fed up with waiting for the crops to come, or the fish to come and if they don’t come then what’s the point of hosting a celebration where there’s nothing to celebrate? It’s part of our culture that we’re losing. That’s part of our legacy that probably our children won’t be able to experience.”

Salvador says rivers are drying up and fish becoming fewer, but the locals are acting, planting trees and establishing marine and mangrove protection zones.

“We’re not sitting back and saying we’re just going to see what happens. We’re taking the next step and taking responsibility and trying to keep the legacy, the culture, our home.”

Nauru’s Nerida Ann Hubert says people would be outraged if they had to leave their island because of the effects of climate change. But she says a brain drain and hard economic times mean people lack skills to help themselves.

“Give them that education they need. Like we had a lot of projects that started off and then died – you know, and no one maintained it and we need to empower the people really.”

She says a renewable energy plan has stalled because of a lack of trained locals.

“The government knows what they’re doing on an international level, or a regional level. They sign this and that.

“But down the scale not a lot of people know what climate change is. It’s the people that will be the manpower to do a lot of this work. You need to bring the communities on board.”

An environmental and indigenous rights lawyer, Dayle Takitimu, says Pacific communities can model to the world a “zero emissions” lifestyle.

She says they are at the most two generations away from living in harmony with the earth.

“It is possible to be vibrant and beautiful and thriving as a community without having to be massive emitters of carbon and destroying the planet. And the Pacific is really an awesome model for that and we can show the world that.” - Pacific Beat