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Stories from the missionary sisters on their threatened homelands in the Pacific

3 December 2020
Mangrove ecosystems provide buffering and protection for coastal communities but are also under threat to sea-level rise as an effect of a changing climate. (Pacific Climate Watch)

Ecojesuit shares these stories on the impacts of a changing climate in the Pacific islands from the Missionary Sisters of the Society of Mary who have been in the Pacific since 1845, and living and working today in Asia Pacific and Oceania such as Bougainville, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Wallis, New Zealand and Australia. Their stories are compiled in a publication Sisters see their Homeland Threatened by the Pacific Climate Watch.

In Fiji and the Outer Islands by Sister Denise McMahon

We have just had a visit from two members of Caritas Fiji Disaster Preparedness and two young men from the Baptist Church. They are part of a group representing the different Christian Churches working together, gathering information on natural disasters. Some recent disasters have been exacerbated by the effects if climate change. There will be more natural disasters in the years to come with the reality of climate change.

Climate change is becoming more evident in Fiji

There is a term in Fijian called bogi walu which, in traditional knowledge, means eight days or eight nights, and refers to eight days of heavy rain and strong winds. These winds come from the South and elders would know the time of year when this phenomenon would come. However, they can’t be predicted now and come at any time of the year with flash floods and wet, wet weather.

Positive outcomes of more frequent rain

Rising sea levels means that sea water is creeping further along the rivers and reef fish can be found at the mouth of rivers instead of having to go to the reef. Crops such as the yaqona (pronounced Yangona) or kava plant (Piper methysticum) can be planted lower down now because there is heavier and more frequent rain.

But the negative outcomes are greater

Many villages have and are relocating to higher ground and all along the coastlines of the islands, the sea is encroaching and there are dead trees, abandoned buildings, tombstones which can now be seen underwater. Land near the coast is becoming saline with the encroaching waters and the land can’t be used for gardens and crops to sell. In these areas, there is now malnutrition.

Because of the rains, there is flash flooding and more landslides. The Catechist Centre just outside Suva recently had a landslide and the mud has gone right through the building causing extensive damage.

The cyclones which come now are much more powerful being Category 5 whereas before they were usually 2 or 3. In May 2020 Cyclone Harold hit Fiji and caused great damage to parts of the country.

There is a rise in typhoid, leptospirosis and dengue fever due to climate change, as well as infestations of ants which kill some plants and invade buildings.

In areas where the sea water is encroaching on the land, people are now resorting to planting their basic staple food, cassava (Manihot esculenta), on the side of roads as the land is higher there.

Effects of climate change in Tonga by Sister M Nive Kepu

Climate change is a very important issue for us here in Tonga, a low-lying Pacific island. The coastal erosion and the rising sea levels are very obvious effects due to climate change. Off season, cyclones have also caused a lot of damage to crops as well as flooding. A few families have already had to relocate inland because of the changing conditions. However, Tonga has no really high ground.

The people are trying to prevent some of these effects by planting mangroves to hold onto the coastal land and beaches. There is also a government-run programme with the people to raise awareness of the effect climate change is having on the islands of Tonga. The people are aware of the problem of rubbish polluting the sea and are participating in removing rubbish and keeping all areas clean and free of debris so none of it gets into the sea.

Effects of climate change in Samoa by Sister Jacinta Fidow

Besides the changes in the weather patterns, the sea changes are affecting life in Samoa.

For some time, the experts here have spoken about the rising temperature of the sea water as well as its greater acidity. This in turn has been affecting, and in some cases, killing off the corals as well as reducing the classes of fish that can now be found in the sea around Samoa. Naturally the people are being impacted by these changes in the sea as the fish and other sea life they are used to catching is diminishing around their shores along with land loss from the rising sea levels.

In Samoa, the schools are trying to prepare the younger people to think about the changes that climate change is bringing to their lives. In 2019, the Year 7 students at Saint Mary’s College–Vaimoso won second prize at the National Science Fair for their project titled “Floating Island Using Solar and Sea Water as Power Supply.” Conscious already of coastal land that is being lost today around their island home, they presented a way to create artificial floating islands attached firmly to the main island by bridges, thus expanding the living space on the island as the sea levels rise. They did admit such a project is too expensive for now. The young people in Samoa do not want to leave their island home.

Effects of climate change on Wallis by Sister Telesia Talalua

The warming sea temperature means that many of the kinds of fish formerly caught around the reefs and in the sea close by have disappeared. Local fishermen do not have large boats to go far out to sea after the fish and fishing boats from other countries are moving in close to Wallis, taking what fish still remains.

The King Tides are now more frequent around the islands and are washing away the smaller islands’ beaches, breaking up the protective reefs and much of the coral is actually dying off. Many of these now unprotected smaller islands are cut in two by the sea and cannot serve the people as before as places for holidaying, fishing and collecting sea food. A number of families that lived in houses on the beach line of the main island have had to rebuild their homes further inland.

People are worried about what will happen in the future as food from the sea becomes scarcer. Here, as in Samoa, the schools are helping prepare the children and younger people to face the reality of climate change. In the schools they are teaching the students how to plant and tend new faster growing crops which will help maintain a nutritious healthy diet in the future – e.g. tomatoes and beans as well as others. The students are sharing these new ideas with their parents and the families are beginning to grow these crops on their own land and are enjoying them.

Effects of climate change in the Solomon Islands by Sister Jennifer Laku

In Avuavu on the weather coast of southeast Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, where I come from, the majority of people were living along the coastal areas. Due to the impact of climate change, particularly by the rising sea levels or tidal waves, the people had no choice but to move inland onto higher grounds and into the mountain areas in more recent years. They built houses on the land or grounds that were normally used and kept specifically for gardening to provide food for the families. Some of the sacred places or spaces that were given to them by their ancestors and which they need to interact and maintain their identity and values are also now being used by families as plots on which to build homes. The flooding which now occurs also causes a lot of damage to the family homes and gardens.

Challenges people are facing

  • Shortage of land for gardening means shortage of food for many families.
  • Population is increasing as young people are marrying earlier.
  • It is difficult to find suitable places in the mountain areas for sports grounds for the young people to play games such as volleyball, soccer or football.
  • People now have to travel distances from the mountain areas to the sea for their fishing.
  • Families and clans are now separated into what is known as little villages. Their communal life of sharing and socializing is limited.
  • Human activities such as cutting down trees to build houses and to do gardening have disturbed and destroyed many wildlife species.
  • There is soil erosion from the cutting down of trees for gardening and timber.
  • Flooding of rivers destroyed many family homes and gardens.
  • Streams from which they collect drinking water are destroyed as well as some lakes.
  • Sacred places and spaces are occupied by people.
  • The youth and the elderly are unsettled by the lifestyle changes – from the beach and sea environment to the mountain/bush environment.
  • People have great concern for the future of their children with the shortage of land as well as natural and financial resources.
  • There is fear of losing their ancestors’ graves down on the coastal areas: their minds are disturbed over whether to uncover the graves and remove the bones to elsewhere which is totally against their cultural beliefs and practices. Some graves have already been washed out to sea.

Effects of climate change in New Zealand by Sister M Marietta Parsons

Rising sea levels and high tides are also affecting New Zealand. In response to the news of coastal beaches on the east coast of Australia being washed away between 19 to 24 July 2020, she wrote of similar coastal areas being washed away in New Zealand, with one case at Selwyn Huts, a small settlement of about 100 people near to where the Sisters live. The people there are mainly elderly retirees living in simple basic housing and they have few resources. There is now water and drainage problems and the Waimakairi river is nearby. There is the possibility of the settlement going underwater with the rising sea levels and these elderly people would lose their homes.

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