Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Advocating for climate justice in the Pacific

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Climate change has the potential to undermine people’s right to life, security, health and culture, perhaps nowhere more immediate than in the Pacific, where entire communities are bearing the brunt of rising sea levels and changing weather patterns.  ActionAid is an international NGO that is currently carrying out research to find out how women in the Pacific can claim their rights in the face of climate change. This article is based on responses provided by Kate Morioka, Research Project Manager of ActionAid, who is currently collecting research data in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Solomon Islands. As Ms Morioka explains, climate change is a global problem that requires global action. Governments of the affected countries need to strengthen national policies with community-level action that incorporates indigenous knowledge and practice. With greater power comes greater responsibility, and as such it is also up to citizens in developed countries to take more responsibility in rising up, speaking out, and reaching out to be part of the solution.

What are the key environmental issues that PNG/Solomon Islands are facing and how do these interplay with social/economic concerns?

Over 80% of the population in PNG and Solomon Islands live a subsistence lifestyle and are dependent on natural resources. Environmental destruction caused by logging, mining, agriculture and other large scale commercial activities are directly impacting on the ecosystem and people’s livelihoods.  Unlike other indigenous populations around the world, over 90% of the land in PNG and Solomon Islands remain under customary land ownership.  However over the last decade there has been an increase in government-supported land grabs and customary land is being annexed for commercial purposes, often without the informed consent of the landowners.  Because land is what determines all aspects of human security in the Pacific context, all development issues – whether they be environmental, social, economic or political – come down to land at the end of the day.  With this in mind, the issue of climate change also related to land.  Many low lying atolls in PNG and Solomon Islands are experiencing rising sea levels and coastal erosion.  For example, the Carteret Islanders have already started relocating to the mainland because the islands are sinking. Whilst the Carteret Islanders have been able to negotiate land for relocation, this is certainly not the case for others. Displacement from climate change has the potential to ignite social tension between the displaced and the host communities, with possible tensions over land, access to water and food, and other natural resources.  If tensions escalate, then there is a serious concern for the safety of women and children who are most vulnerable to violence.

As such, climate change and environmental problems are not a matter for ‘scientists’ to solve.  They are development issues, requiring solutions from a whole range of disciplines, including indigenous knowledge and practice in natural resource management, governance, disaster response and social resilience. As for developed countries, who are the real emitters of greenhouse gases, they need to take responsibility to cut down on their share of carbon emissions and to monitor and enforce ethical businesses practices for companies operating in developing countries. Until such actions are taken, environmental issues will remain a major impediment to the development of people in the Pacific Islands.

What are governments doing to address these issues and what, if any, are the problems being faced?

The PNG and Solomon Islands Governments are taking some action to address the issues identified above.  Both countries have prepared and adopted a National Adaptation Programmes of Action (NAPA) which identify key priorities to minimise risks associated with climate change. The Solomon Island Government’s NAPA (2008) expressly recognize the effect of climate change on the nation’s agricultural production, food security, water supply, sanitation, human settlements and health. To achieve these goals, the Solomon Islands Government aims to increase the adaptive capacity and resilience of key vulnerable sectors.  In March this year, the Solomon Islands Government was successful in securing US$5.5 million from the Kyoto Protocol Adaptation Fund.

In Papua New Guinea, the recognition of customary land and environmental sustainability are enshrined within the National Constitution.  However, the reality has been a far departure from what is stated in the constitution.  Whilst climate change mitigation funds have poured into the country, corruption has overshadowed the business of ‘carbon trade’ with government officials seeing it as a profit making opportunity – in fact, the PNG Government’s climate change office has folded three times due to corruption and governance issues.  Adaptation initiatives are yet to be fully implemented with some donor funding being held back until such time when the climate change office has sorted out its governance issues.  This month the former Acting Prime Minister announced the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate illegal and unauthorized land grabs which has angered many landowners.  There is also a current review of the country’s Mining Act, which may see the ownership of underground mineral resources being reverted to the hands of customary land owners.  All of these events are likely to have a huge impact on how PNG tackles the issue of climate change.

The challenge for both countries is to strengthen national policies with community-level actions, as ‘top down approaches’ are not effective in responding to the immediate climate change impacts that people are experiencing.

What is the role of ActionAid in addressing climate change?

ActionAid advocates for climate justice. We believe that developed countries are accountable for the majority of the global greenhouse gas emissions but small developing islands are bearing the brunt of the climate change impacts.  This unfairness results because of the power imbalance between rich and poor countries.

ActionAid is specifically calling on leaders at the COP 17 meeting in Durban this year to:

  • Invest in farmers, especially female small holder farmers to adapt to climate change
  • Hold governments accountable for their pledge to invest US$30billion by 2012 towards fast start adaptation financing
  • Promote sustainable agriculture and low carbon impact
  • Rejecting soil carbon market/carbon markets in agriculture – to stop developed countries pushing the climate change burden onto poor farmers

ActionAid is mobilising citizens in developed countries to lobby their governments to take responsibility for their country’s share of the global emissions and to commit to a low carbon future. Our position is for developed countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 40% by 2020. To do this, we are pushing them to invest in green technology.

What can be done to enhance citizen participation in addressing environmental issues in the Pacific?

Various individuals and civil society organisations in PNG and Solomon Islands are using social media to speak out against corporations, businesses and governments that abet and cause environmental destruction. It’s not enough however for people and organisations in climate change-affected countries to speak out.  Individuals in developed countries also need to stand up in solidarity and make their governments accountable for taking immediate action to help people adequately respond, mitigate and adapt to climate change. Failing to do so will have devastating consequences for humanity and our planet.

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Dominika Ricardi

A mum of 2, always dreaming of a better world for our children. I have a Master of Development Practice from the University of Queensland and have worked in local government planning and the multicultural sector. I'm part of Future Challenges to learn, share and contribute to positive change.