Pacific Islanders employ traditional techniques to fight climate change

Pacific warriors in Vanuatu
350 Pacific
Pacific Islanders are merging their ancestral knowledge with modern technology in an innovative attempt to combat climate change, writes EMILY EARNSHAW

If Pacific communities at all levels can lead a transition to a Fossil Free future then the world must follow suit.

Pacific Islanders believe that knowledge from their ancestors will prove crucial in solving the world’s most critical problem: how to protect ourselves against the imminent threat of climate change.

The Pacific Islands are acutely vulnerable to climate change. Islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu have an average elevation of only two metres, meaning rising sea levels threaten to destroy their very existence. Residents are facing the terrifying reality that they may have to abandon their homelands as they are slowly swallowed by the sea.

The islanders, however, are refusing to play victim. As the slogan of environmental activists The Pacific Climate Warriors put it: “We are not drowning, we are fighting”. 

Sustainable vessels 

A number of innovative environmental enterprises have emerged across the islands, that are pairing traditional knowledge with modern green technology to create sustainable solutions to climate change. 

Samoan architect Carinnya Feaunati believes that the intimate partnership indigenous people have always had with their local environment means they may hold “the main source of information for how we can tackle climate change”. This information may prove invaluable for global environmental research; if only the rest of the world will listen. 

As an Oceanic people, Pacific Islanders have travelled vast distances across the sea in ships made from natural materials for hundreds of years. They are hoping they can use their expertise to show that ocean travel does not have to mean the mass consumption of harmful fossil fuels.

If Pacific communities at all levels can lead a transition to a Fossil Free future then the world must follow suit.

Through merging modern technology with traditional boat-making techniques, a group of Fijians have created a large sea vessel that runs purely on solar and wind energy. It is called the ‘Uto ni Yalo’, which has been translated as ‘Heart of Spirit’.

Dwain Qalovaki, Secretary of the Uto ni Yalo trust, was quoted stating that the ongoing aim of the project is to encourage sustainable ocean transport.

He is hoping that eventually, projects like his own will “replace ships that rely on fossil fuels”. He has already circumnavigated the world in his sustainable sea vessel, encouraging investors to incorporate his technology into their own ocean transport.

Protecting culture

Current plans are more locally focused, as Qalovaki and his team sail around the South Pacific promoting sustainable travel and initiating community-based ocean clean up programs.

Preventative measures, however, are not enough to combat an issue that is already happening. Recent decades have seen a huge increase in the number of cyclones and tsunamis hitting the islands. 

In 2009, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake caused a devastating tsunami to crash upon the shores of Samoa, American Samoa, and Tonga. Samoa was particularly badly hit, with 150 people losing their lives. More recently in 2016, one of the worst recorded cyclones hit the Pacific Islands, destroying over 90 percent of the buildings in Vanuatu.

Feaunati said that this is particularly troubling because so many aspects of Pacific Island culture are inherently linked to the ocean. A rapidly changing environment not only poses the grave threat of forced relocation but also threatens the destruction of her community’s lifestyle and culture.

People no longer live in harmony with the environment, but fear it. Feaunati said that Samoans “live in anxiety” because “they feel like they have lost their age old connection with the ocean”. 

In response, residents of different Pacific Islands are banding together to form ideas that will protect their culture against these increasingly frequent environmental disasters. By sharing traditional farming practices, they hope to aid and strengthen each others communities when faced with an unpredictable and volatile environment.

Accumulated knowledge

Isso Nimhei, a farmer from Futuna Island, has been teaching agricultural workers on neighbouring islands a traditional way of preserving edible bananas. This preservation technique is intended to help in the case of food shortage during the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Similarly, Samoan native Joseph Afa has been teaching the 'Laufasa technique' to people living in Vanuatu. His technique uses a single banana shoot to grow up to fifteen new planting sprouts, rapidly multiplying banana propagation. 

Both of these techniques demonstrate how residents of the Pacific Islands are sharing years of accumulated knowledge, passed down to them by their ancestors. The shared threat of climate change has opened an important dialogue, uniting the pan-Pacific community under a common purpose.

Together, the islands have a louder global voice than they would each have on their own. For this reason, members of fifteen different Pacific Island nations have grouped together to form the 'Pacific Warriors'. Hoping to gain support from the international community, the youth-led grassroots enterprise organise campaigns against the use of fossil fuels.

On 8 September 2018, they embarked on their most ambitious campaign to date: ‘Rise for Pacific Pawa’. With 18 events across 14 different nations, the organisation plans to pressure local governments into signing pledges committing to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020.

Legitimate solutions

This goal is within reach - the Samoan government have already shown considerable dedication to achieving a green future, and other islands are enthusiastic to follow.

With countries such as Paraguay and Iceland already running on 100 percent sustainable energy the message is clear: it is possible. By pledging to join them, the Pacific Islanders hope to build momentum for a global switch to renewable energy. They believe that “if Pacific communities at all levels can lead a transition to a Fossil Free future then the world must follow suit”. 

The Pacific Islanders are proving to be proactive pioneers in designing a sustainable future; but their success depends on the reaction of the international community.

For them, climate change is not a myth or a far away prospect, but a terrifying reality. Feaunati stressed that the international community need to listen to the “legitimate solutions” presented by indigenous voices, before it’s too late. 

This Author 

Emily Earnshaw is a freelance writer with a particular focus on environmental and human rights issues.