State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 - Case study: Resilience despite adversity - adapting indigenous communities to climate change in the Pacific region

by Anne-Marie Tupuola-Plunkett

Most of the Pacific region's island states are still predominantly rural, but rapid urbanization is fragmenting indigenous societies and undermining traditional livelihoods. In the process, new forms of poverty and disadvantage such as unemployment, delinquency and inadequate nutrition are emerging in urban areas. The devastating impacts of climate change are now adding to these hardships, particularly in the region's most densely populated coastal settlements.

The Pacific is one of the most vulnerable parts of the world to climate change which, combined with limited resources and land, has left indigenous inhabitants and other marginalized groups at the mercy of its effects. As highlighted by Aunese Makoi Simati, the Tuvalu ambassador to the UN, at the 2015 Third World Conference on Disaster and Risk Reduction, '[T]he word "vulnerable" goes hand in hand with the words "small island" because there is no high ground. As Tuvalu is small, flat and barely three metres above sea level, '"moving" means just going to the other side.'

Many of the Pacific's low-lying islands and atoll communities are already in fear of extinction or the evacuation of their communities due to rising sea levels, eroding coastlines and water contamination. At the same time, the impact of severe storms, cyclones, global warming and ocean acidification are threatening ecosystems, food security and indigenous livelihoods. Flooding, landslides and other weather-related hazards are also destroying homes and displacing families from their ancestral lands, in the process erasing heritage and sacred sites unique to these communities. Speaking of the flooding of cemeteries in the wake of Hurricane Pam, Simati described how 'we feel that even the dead are calling for help'.

Notwithstanding the adversity that climate change brings, Pacific communities are demonstrating remarkable resilience, ingenuity and resourcefulness in responding to these challenges. In the words of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), 'adaptation to climate change is becoming a Pacific way of life'. The installation of storage tanks and innovative drainage systems has helped to diffuse water contamination and potential health risks arising from unusually long periods of drought and saltwater intrusion. Many Pacific communities are strengthening their biodiversity, planting dense vegetation and building sea walls, mindful of the risks of erosion and landslides to the densely populated areas along their coastlines.

For Samoa, an island group with a growing low-lying urban population, adaptation to climate change is often associated with deforestation and natural disasters. Thus adaptation strategies tend to address the links between climate change and disaster management. For instance, the Samoa Red Cross Society, under the Community Disaster and Climate Risk Management Programme, empowers indigenous communities to become more resilient in the face of disaster threats, as well as build on the skills and resources at hand. One project provides low-income families with free seeds and fertilizers, along with training on how to prepare vegetable beds, so they can grow non-traditional produce like cabbages, tomatoes and cucumbers. This strengthens adaptation by diversifying livelihoods and improving nutrition – both areas where climate change has led to heightened levels of risk.

The increasing threat of climate change has also encouraged renewed interest in traditional housing in Samoa. Thatched Samoan fales, unlike westernized homes, have survived and withstood extreme storms. Their oval shaped, open layout is resistant to strong winds and the natural materials used in their construction are less dangerous than the corrugated iron and concrete blocks of modern houses. Training locals in the design and building of traditional Samoan architecture therefore promotes resilient housing and may also help minimize the need for residential relocation.

Climate change is a global challenge that affects all of humanity. The rich knowledge and social capital of the Pacific's indigenous populations in responding to climate change is now being disseminated across national and international borders through blogs, websites and multimedia, supported by alliances and partnerships with diverse agencies, corporations and community organizations. A passive response is not an option, most especially for Pacific indigenous communities, as their existence and survival already hang in the balance. In moving forward, climate change must be viewed as a human rights issue for all indigenous peoples, irrespective of where they reside.

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