The fact that the most marginalised groups are also the most affected by the climate catastrophe we face today, we tend to ignore in the debate around this topic. However, it is worth noting that Pacific Islander women, for example, could teach us a lot regarding this issue. So, what does it mean to be female in a social system considered foreign and seemingly irrelevant to western experience?
(Note: I should point out that my own heritage is not indigenous and, therefore, all the information in this blog is merely research I did for a school project, not personal experience.)
History so far has been mostly written and defined by white males from western cultures, with very little attention to the culture and people of small Pacific Islands, especially not the women on them. The role women have played in their cultural settings are often devalued through western impositions in the international space. This especially is the case regarding cultures such as those in Oceania, about which stories have – until recent years – always been told from the perspective of colonisers from the west.
Oceanic Women and the Earth
Indigenous theologies exhibit the interrelatedness of human experience with the natural life, involving the earth, water, sky and underworld. Their ancestral land bears fundamental importance for their collective cultural survival. They are holders of invaluable expertise regarding practices and concepts for a sustainable management of natural resources. Especially women in the Pacific Islands have a close connection to the earth and nature as a whole as they are the bearers of new life and keepers and nurturers of traditional knowledge.
While some treatment of women is more respectful than others, women are a great and necessary asset in Pacific Island regions. Generally, women are those responsible for passing on exclusive knowledge about health matters, indigenous drugs, agriculture and family maintenance.
Specifically in Polynesian and Micronesian cultures, women are esteemed for their fertility and role as mothers, which is why they are often treated more gently in comparison to boys. The identification of women as the bearers of new life and their important connection to the earth is evidenced in the Austronesian language as well. In Fiji, for example, the word for land, vanua, is identical with the word for womb. As is the case in many Pacific languages, such as Samoa (fanua), Tonga (fonua) and Tahiti (fenua).
Women and the Climate Catastrophe
Climate change affects all members of society and impacts men and women differently. Because of the different gender roles women and men play in their community, it is important to understand the gender dimension when discussing climate change adaptions and mitigation measurements. Although the Pacific Islands are at the forefront of climate change, the perspectives of the women on them are rarely involved in the debate. Result of the missed contributions of women is less robust and less equitable climate programs and policies.
Eurocentrism at its Best
Another underlying problem is the prioritisation of western science and technological solutions and underrepresentation of indigenous issues. The indigenous knowledge around nature is rarely involved in the discussion around climate change, even though they do not exploit nature and their ethos is “we do not own land, the land owns us”. Indigenous cultures as guardians of forests, land and water would make a unique and necessary contribution to the worldwide discussion hereof. Particularly their extensive information about how their communities have responded to past natural disasters can provide important information to address current and future climate risks and meet changing environmental conditions.
In the Marshall Islands, similarly to other Pacific Islands, women have different techniques to manage rising sea levels and akin. Such techniques encompass the prevention of coastal erosions by traditionally planting local trees. Drying and fermenting breadfruit is a practice in Kosrae and Chuuk to deal with drought as a food security measurement. Increased heat stress on plants is often dealt with by laying palm leaves on the soil to cool it, and there are many other traditional methods to deal with different aspects of the climate.
Prevailing inclinations in environmental policies can not only marginalise traditional knowledge but indigenous communities as a whole. Reinforcing the preeminence of western science and point of views on development do not sufficiently account for the divergent perceptions of different stakeholders in regard to a sustainable environment. Indigenous knowledge regarding nature is an important information asset and must be taken into consideration when discussing climate change policies.
Climate Change and Poetry
Poems of the Oceanian region are often related to the indigenous legacy and the ongoing repercussions of colonialism. Next to issues like racism, migration, homophobia and economic dispossession, a major thread explores decolonisation and the revitalisation of native cultures. This involves traditional customs, languages, histories, identities and politics.
Pacific poetry is just as diverse as the communities found in Oceania. Its forms draw from styles ranging from formalism to free verse, ecopoetics to avant-garde, surrealism to protest politics. Documentary, projectivism, vid-po, vis-po and conceptualism, besides postmodernism, confessionalism, free verse and multilingualism are other styles found in Pacific poetry.
The following excerpt of “Layers”, a poem by the spoken word artists Terisa Tenei Siagatonu from the Bay Area with Samoan heritage, captures the Pacific Islander perspective regarding the climate catastrophe.
[…] But this is what I know about climate change. I know the academics who take my community’s pain and turn it into a grand proposal without our permission. The reporters who take my community’s grief and turn it into a fear tactic. I know the price of greed and the people who have to pay for it a third world away. I know how to trace the puppet strings back to the corporations who hold the worlds wealth for hostage in their back pockets. And how the rest of us spend our lives paying for the gun. I know what it is like to come from the most powerful country on the planet, forever pregnant off of its own power. Some want to talk about climate change yet don’t want to talk about those who are affected the most can’t prioritise it in the first place, because prioritising it would mean forcing them to pull the layers back and also talk about the poverty, the racism, the injustice, the privilege, the hush-money, the hitlist that climate change is operating from, the rounds that it makes on earth, starting with the most vulnerable. […]
The following poem by Serena Ngaio Simmons (Ngati Porou) serves as a further example of Pacific poetry in which climate change is addressed from a Pacific Islander view. Simmons is a writer and performer as well as an activist and she was awarded the Ernest Hemingway Award for Undergraduate Poetry in Spring 2014. In her poem “Gaia” she digs into the topic of the climate catastrophe as a form of earth’s retaliation for the exploitation and maltreatment of nature. Especially in Oceania, the exploitation of mineral resources in a big issue as China owns some regions, such as Papua New Guinea, and the oil resources are therefore theirs to extract and profit from.
I reached into my pockets yesterday
And pulled out two bodies, dripping
Soaking from the carnage I created
They reminded me of abandoned cigarettes
You know, the ones that get washed down storm drains
No one cares about ‘em, insignificance at it’s finest.
I am Gaia
Mother of lands and all encompassing,
Terra, Haumea, Prithvi, I am earth
Humans take refuge within my fertile spaces and yet
I haven’t received respect since the Mycenaean’s age.
Instead I have been rejected, bruised, poisoned
By those who roam my waist line with leisure.
This activity is no longer tolerable.
I took the liberty of teaching mankind a lesson
Breaking my peace treaties with Haiti, Indonesia, Iceland,
and finally Japan
I commenced on breaking every bolt
And double-knot in their foundations,
I disemboweled crevices, releasing manifold demons
To arise from the cracks
Oceanus, I beg of you,
Help me bring about this armageddon sneak peak,
for this is only the beginning.
Nothing better to do than create havoc upon my skin
Having to heal new sores everyday is a nuisance and I am tired,
Of all the wreckage these mortals have created, Japan,
Will be swift and unexpected, an education in morals.
No one will ever see it coming.
I will make sure that every household
Is a disheveled bird’s nest, that every family
Is either enduring search party anticipation
Or floating lifeless in each other’s arms,
I will make sure that every road and grass patch
Is covered in black mass and building debris
This is but a blueprint that I have made for you, Tsunami
My favorite daughter, you have been nothing but successful in your past endeavors
I ask you to aid me.
I have more in store for Fukushima and its inhabitants.
You are water and this is acceptable
But your brother Fire plays a key role in the plans
There will be explosions…
Just menial balloon pin pops
But actual hysteria dressed in orange
I will release giants hidden in gas tanks
I am letting you know this so you don’t hurry to extinguish him
He is our ally, darling. Devastate with him.
With the other elements and CRUSH
All who try to interfere with it
I don’t care what contraptions are set against you
You are nature! And nature does not fail
Make your mother proud and bring forth mountains
Of damage for people who neglected to pay attention to the earth’s changes.
Such trials can be daunting for one so young, but
This is a travail that none of your siblings could solely handle
Child of Gaia, you hold the fate of lives in your brackish hands
Seal them with warnings, tell them of what awaits for those who don’t listen
Follow the examples I have set up for you
Become more than a wave or a grain of sand for others to step on
You are a legend in the making, history books will read of the turmoil
You have placed on this nation
Do not give up.
And when the last corpse is seen floating
And the last hopeful prayer is said…
I will select a star for you in the night sky, all your own
To have for all eternity and I will make sure that all humans
See it shine brighter than any constellation.
You will become a reminder of Gaia’s wrath
and a forecast
of what is to come
- Global Call for Climate Action. (2015). “Layers” – Terisa Tinei Siagatonu. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgXYP6zqzJk [Accessed April 29, 2020]
- Mcleod, E. et al (2018). Raising the voices of Pacific Island women to inform climate adaption policies. Marine Policy, vol. 93, 178-185. Elsevier. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X18300344 [Accessed April 29, 2020]
- Santos Perez, C. (2020). Pacific Islander Poetry and Culture. Poetry Foundation. Available at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/collections/142017/pacific-islander-poetry-and-culture-5913874061754 [Accessed April 29, 2020]
- The Missing Slate. (2017). Gaia. Available at: https://themissingslate.com/tag/serena-ngaio-simmons/ [Accessed April 29, 2020]