Gruelling Storms and Rising Tides: Pacific feminists demand climate justice

By Menka Goundan

Situated in the Southern Hemisphere is the earth’s largest ocean – the Pacific Ocean. Small island nations spread across the Pacific Ocean evoke a picturesque paradise for many around the world. The sandy beaches, the colorful coral reefs, the diverse flora and fauna are all integral to the myths, legends and herstories of the Pacific and its people.

But beyond the paradisal romance of the Pacific, a crisis is already occurring. Besides the impact of the global pandemic, the Pacific Islands has had to also face gruelling storms and rising tides of a changing climate threaten to swallow the land and lives of many who call it home. The Pacific Islands’ contribution to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is negligible, but—like other Small Island Developing States—they suffer disproportionately from the effects of global warming.

The Pacific Islands are already experiencing this stark reality. Some 1,700 residents of Carteret Island, Papua New Guinea’s 2,500 inhabitants have been named the world’s first environmental refugees; more than 20,000 Marshallese climate refugees have emigrated to the United States of America and in 2014, Vunidogoloa Village moved two kilometers inland, becoming the first village in Fiji to relocate because of the effects of climate change. Cyclone Pam, which blazed through Vanuatu in March 2015, left 75,000 residents without homes. Category 5 Tropical Cyclone Winston in February 2016 – the worst storm to ever hit the Southern Hemisphere—took the lives of 44 Fijians. By 2050, the World Bank predicts rising sea levels and increasing storm surges will swallow half of Bikenibeu, a Kiribati settlement home to 6,500 people. This past year, Fiji weathered two category 5 cyclones – Harold (March) and Yasa (December) that caused major damage, loss of lives and further economic hardship. This week Fiji yet again emerges from TC Ana which though only a category 2 cyclone has caused nationwide flooding and damage to many parts of Fiji.

Climate justice means addressing the climate crisis not merely as an environmental problem but as a complex social justice problem, placing at the center populations that are particularly vulnerable to its impacts. It means tackling the root causes of the climate crisis, including unsustainable production, consumption and trade while making progress towards equity and the protection and realisation of human rights.[1]

Our struggle with systemic climate injustice is neither new nor recent. Generations of Pacific Island women have voiced concern about climate change and its impacts on changing weather patterns, food security and forced migration of people. In 1996, Pacific feminists marched on the streets of Suva (Fiji’s capital) demanding a nuclear-free and independent Pacific.

Pacific feminists have also organised in groups like Women Defend the Commons or as individuals to contribute to significant bodies of work like the Suva Declaration issued in September 2015 by the Pacific Islands Development Forum summit as a call to the world to take firmer action on climate change. Specifically, Pacific Leaders said that the standard that would eventually be adopted in Paris later that year of limiting global warming to 2⁰C was “no longer safe for the survival of our Pacific Small Island Developing States,” and called for global commitments aimed at “limiting warming to well below 1.5⁰C above pre-industrial levels.” The Pacific Islands have joined the Climate Vulnerable Forum; they have ratified international climate change accords, like the Paris Climate Change Agreement; and widely advocate to limit temperature rise from global warming to 1.5⁰C. Pacific feminists continue to work with Pacific Leaders to make climate change advocacy for the Pacific more inclusive as experienced at the 13th Conference of Pacific Women and 6th Meeting of Ministers for Women (2017).

In October 2015, CIVICUS quoted Fijian Feminist Maria Nailevu’s call for more inclusive climate policies from the local to the global levels. Nailevu said that United Nations (UN) climate negotiations often claim technical expertise as a reason to exclude diverse voices, but fail to recognize the specific expertise of women, LGBTQI people, people with disabilities, sex workers, rural and remote communities and young people in responding to the climate crisis in inclusive ways.

In 2019 feminists from all over the Pacific region attending the 2nd Pacific Feminist Forum, celebrated and reaffirmed their commitment towards sustaining solidarity, strengthening resistance and revolution for gender equality in the call to action – Pacific Feminist Forum Charter 2016. “This is an important follow-up step to turn a ground-breaking feminist document into a practical plan that can be carried out by diverse feminists in the 2nd PFF. It’s been a creative, exciting, substantive space to move forward, the feminist movement in the Pacific,” said Noelene Nabulivou of DIVA for Equality Fiji.

Why is it so important that their voices are heard? Because climate change disproportionately affects women, girls and gender non-conforming people. Pacific women make up the highest global victims of violence and inequality but despite this, they continue to persist; making significant contributions to human security within their families, communities and nations. In times of disaster, women though unrecognized are usually at the forefront of recovery efforts in their homes and communities. Women’s experiences are not necessarily accounted for when decisions relating to climate change are made.

Despite the myriad of climate adaption and green funding available for the Pacific, feminist climate activism remains largely undervalued and underfunded. Due to this, women’s groups have felt the brunt of shrinking spaces and resources to participate and mitigate the challenges of this crisis in the Pacific. Many of the feminist climate activities on the ground over the last couple of months has been funded through gender equality and humanitarian grants.

A case in point is the Fiji Women’s Fund’s grantee partner, Naitasiri Women in Dairy Group who are already experiencing the onset of climate change and exacerbated natural disasters creating both short term and long term hurdles to their work. The group of 31 women dairy farmers located in the interior of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu run family-owned dairy farmsteads and are shifting social norms (patriarchy) and contributing to decision-making epicenters in a male-dominated industry. Floods and tropical cyclones have continually disrupted their farm infrastructure and their ability to supply milk to the Fiji Dairy Cooperatives Limited (Fiji’s main dairy organization) that purchase their milk on a contractual basis. With temperatures expected to continue to rise, their cattle will face greater heat stress. In hotter conditions lactating cows feed less leading to a fall in milk production. If climate change continues in the current trajectory, these women will be faced with income reduction and may not be able to support their families or maintain their current independence.

In 2020 as the year began with TC Rita, Tino and Harold. The impact of the category 5 TC Harold was felt in Fiji and Vanuatu in early April amidst COVID-19 lockdowns particularly in Fiji. The trauma of COVID-19 in Fiji was coupled with the scare of being in an intense cyclone situation with limited mobility to prepare for the cyclone.

Prevention and response to gender-based violence (GBV) remains a key priority for humanitarian agencies. This is particularly true in the context of COVID-19 which has deepened existing vulnerabilities and inequalities. In the Pacific, as well as globally, unequal power relations, intolerance, lack of respect and value, and the lack of access to and control over resources characterize the position of women relative to men. This fuel the pervasive nature of violence and the exclusion, marginalization and invisibility of women at all levels of decision making detrimental to human security.

As we emerge from yet another cyclone (TC Ana in January 2021), Pacific feminists are already organising to fight climate injustice and we call on our global sisters in solidarity. Today also we reminisce the words of beloved Pacific Feminist, the late Teresia Teaiwa: “We sweat and cry salt water, so we know the ocean is really in our blood.” And with all our hearts and in solidarity we will continue the legacy of feminists in the Pacific to claim our voice and to claim justice for the climate.

About the author
Menka Goundan is a Feminist Activist. She is currently the Senior Program Manager at the Fiji Women’s Fund. She is also a member of the Program Advisory Committee of the Asian-Pacific Resource and Research Centre for Women (ARROW). Menka was formerly employed at the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement and has been a past Secretary to the NGO Coalition of Human Rights in Fiji.

[1] Council of Canadians. Online.

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