« Pacific Island Peoples » – K.P. Rushton

3. Issues Affecting Pacific Islanders

Pacific Islanders, in networks and partnerships across Oceania, identified five interconnected climate change issues which impact and marginalize them. These are recorded by Caritas ANZ, Caritas Tonga and Caritas Australia in their jointly produced, Hungry for Justice, Thirsty for Change: Caritas State of Environment Report for Oceania 2016: food and water; coastal erosion and sea level rise; offshore mining and drilling; impact of extreme weather and climate finance.[17]

This region has not featured in world food-insecurity statistics as usually there has been sufficient food. The year of 2015-2016 has highlighted the vulnerability of the Pacific region when unexpected or extreme weather events like the El Nino pattern, severe cyclones, severe drought, overuse of natural resources and damage to land marine ecosystems have affected access to nutritious food and safe drinking water supplies. Children in Namosi, Fiji, in the aftermath of category 5 Cyclone Winston, were reduced to eating cassava roots softened with baking powder and powdered paracetamol.[18] The plants had been disturbed by strong winds which caused the roots to harden. Water supplies were damaged resulting in many being hospitalized with diarrhea or vomiting.  Even though Oceania is a liquid continent, safe water is in short supply. One of the worst affected is Papua New Guinea which has 60 per cent living without access to safe water, the highest percentage of people in the world. This situation was worsened by the El Nino drought when at its peak an estimated 2.7 million people were affected by food and water shortages. Tri Kanem of SKP Merauke in West Papua reports that women were required to walk long distances to fetch water.[19] Here, as in other areas, these shortages have serious impacts on health and the access of children to education.

[17] Hungry for Justice, pp. 2-65. Also see the Caritas’ report, for earlier reports Small Yet Strong: Voices from Oceania on the Environment 2014 and Caring for Our Common Home: Caritas State of the Environment Report of Oceania 2015.

[18] Hungry for Justice, p. 15.

[19] Hungry for Justice, p. 21.

Linked to food and water access in coastal communities is loss of land from coastal erosion, flooding and sea-level rise. Coupled with warmer seas, sea-level rise contributes to the deterioration of coral reefs. In 2015-2016, higher king tides, storm surges and coastal flooding caused the loss of traditional food staples such as coconuts, swamp taro and pandanus. Sea-level rise causes salt water to seep into land, contaminating water supplies and killing plants. The struggle to survive is illustrated by Katalina Vea in a ‘do it yourself’ land reclamation by the women of Popua, Tonga who are raising their claim to land on the edge of the lagoon on the main island of Tongatapu.[20] Katalina has built up her land with an estimated 130 truckloads of fill and has a new house. Helped by a church agency and a son who works on a European ship, her home is relatively secure but the surrounding homes of low-income families endure flooding because they cannot reclaim their land. No official plan exists to relocate families. The Government solution is to build roads to the main road for flood evacuation. Other islands at risk include Kiribati, Tuvalu, Tokelau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and the Cook Islands.  At stake is the long term  survival of whole islands and nations.  The strong sense of connection to land, of wanting to stay, of links with previous and future generations is expressed by Boore Moua of Kiribati: ‘I borrow this land from my grandchildren. So as a borrower I have responsibility … as a caretaker of this land for my grandchildren’.[21]

[20] Hungry for Justice, p. 27; Small Yet Strong, pp. 12-13.

[21] Hungry for Justice, p. 29. On doing things for themselves and traditional ways, see pp. 31, 39, 59-60.

The International Refugee Convention does recognize victims of climate change as refugees.[22] As mentioned previously, AZN has a high Pacific Island population. The first successful application for residency because of climate change was granted in August 2014 to a Tuvalu family but was helped that family’s strong ties to ANZ.[23] Despite the ANZ Human Rights Commission stating there is a moral responsibility to increase the yearly quota of Kiribati people granted residency and the advocacy of the Race Relations Commissioner in this area, government policy has not changed.

In the Paris Agreement negotiations,  Pacific Islanders achieved agreement on the global targets for temperature rise but the trade-off was in the ‘Loss and Damage’ provisions which would have provided small island states forms of compensation for the losses due to climate change. In this context, ‘loss’ refers to ‘the complete disappearance of something such as human lives, habitats, or even species; these are gone and cannot be brought back’. ‘Damage’ refers to ‘something that can be repaired, such as a road or building or embankment’.[24] The focus of developed countries on economic growth further marginalizes Pacific peoples who focus on survival. Then ANZ Prime Minister, John Key, for example, said at the Paris Conference that ANZ would provide ‘up to $200 million for climate related support over the next four years, the majority of which would beneficent Pacific nations’.[25] However, to place this in the context of the ANZ government’s internal spending, just one example is allocating $255 million over the next 51/years to an Auckland motorway which potentially encourages more cars and higher carbon emissions. Further, at the expense of enabling vulnerable communities to have what they need to adapt and survive, overall climate aid is targeted to infrastructure and types of economic development which are unsustainable in the Pacific context.

[22] Nor does International Organization for Migration which has three central objectives in managing environmental migration are: first, to prevent forced migration resulting from environmental factors to the extent possible. Second, where forced migration does occur, to provide assistance and protection to affected populations, and seek durable solutions to their situation. Third, to facilitate migration as an adaptation strategy to climate change. https://www.iom.int/migration-and-climate-change

[23] See http://immigrationcentre.co.nz/tuvalu-climate-change-family-win-nz-residency-appeal/.

[24] S. Huq and R.M. De Souza, ‘Climate Compensation: How Loss and Damage Fared in the Paris Agreement’ NewSecurityBeat, 2016.

[25] Hungry for Justice, pp. 37-38.

The Pacific, formerly a nuclear testing ground, is now becoming a testing ground for deep sea mining (DSM). While there has been little new activity, companies and countries seek to explore or mine for minerals and test equipment that can change and destroy existing fisheries, and have the potential to damage or destroy entire ecosystems.  The governments of Nauru, Tonga, Kiribati and the Cook Islands, lured by the promise of financial returns, are sponsoring companies. Small island states lack the resources to monitor DSM activities. Sailosi Alofi of Ha’apai, Tonga states: ‘I am worried about the rest of the people … This a new thing to do in Ha’apai … they do not know what … DSM [is], and what the impact will be on their sea area and also their ecosystem.’[26]

[26] Hungry for Justice, pp. 45, 47-48.

4. Conclusion

I have attempted to hear both ‘the cry of earth and the cry of poor’ in the Pacific and its diverse resilient peoples marginalized by climate change. Laudato Si’ – on Care for Our Common Home calls for a new global order in which the massive unpaid debts owed by the wealthiest, resource-greedy countries will be balanced against the development debts of the majority world. Pope Francis speaks of ‘a true ‘ecological debt’ [which] exists, between the global north and south connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment’.[27] Differentiated responsibilities exist regarding climate change: the developed countries must limit consumption and pay debts to poorer countries by supporting policies and programmes of sustainable development.

[27] Laudato Si’ – on Care for Our Common Home § 51-52.


Kathleen P. Rushton, a Sister of Mercy from Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand is an independent scholar who teaches scripture on a contract basis. Her research in the Gospel according to John includes the cosmology of the prologue, water, birth and harvest imagery and the implications for ecology and climate justice today.