Women keeping the South Pacific islands afloat

The indigenous communities of Kiribati, an island nation located between Australia and Hawaii, know that climate change is a reality. Three decades ago, the United Nations warned that it would be the first country to disappear under water.

Carmen González Benicio, in Tlapa, Guerrero, Mexico

Kiribati Islands: a story of resistance

Climate change is impacting Indigenous Peoples around the world. Indigenous Women from the South Pacific islands shared their realities at the Second World Conference. ‘When the sea level rises on the island with high tide, people are afraid. They do not know what will happen and we feel unsafe. We get scared as it generally happens in a flash at night, houses are wiped off the map due to flooding,’ explained Anna Nuariki from Kiribati—an island nation comprising a chain of 33 islands halfway between Australia and Hawaii. 

In 1989, the United Nations warned that Kiribati would become the first country to disappear under water due to climate change in the 21st century. Just ten years later, two of its uninhabited islands had been submerged. During her intervention, Nuariki decried that the inhabited islands are located just three metres above sea level which, twinned with the strong tides, leads to constant flooding that has impacted the scarce agricultural land in island communities. 

Moreover, floods mean seawater contaminates drinking water and the land, impacting food sovereignty for families, as well as their culture and native crops. Land erosion has a huge effect on communities and the environment, as well as human rights, since communities are wrenched from their homes and have to move inland. This is already leading to disputes over land, where families and communities fight with one another over where they can live,’ explained Nuariki.

In spite of this situation, Indigenous Women of the South Pacific are not idly standing by. In response to the crisis, Nuariki joined the Outer Islands Food and Water Project that is improving food sovereignty, nutrition and access to water for households through inclusive, participatory planning and training for active community committees, and water user groups. These groups particularly rely on women and young people. They have created a mobile telephone warning system as internal prevention. Moreover, Nuariki stressed the importance of expanding the programme through technical and financial support from local authorities. 


The Marianas—islands with a female voice

Moñeka De Oro, a Chamorro Indigenous Woman from the Micronesian Climate Change Alliance on the Mariana Islands joined the conference session. De Oro highlighted the work carried out by Indigenous Women in the fight against climate change and its impact—a movement that has spread from grassroots level to the highest decision-making forums. ‘As women, we always make sacrifices for community wellbeing,’ she stated, recounting a legend from her community where women cut their hair to jointly hunt a monster, ‘an ancestral example of participation, joined together in a network’. 

The Mariana Islands are a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. Their political union with the United States means they suffer militarisation of their territory. De Oro was highly critical of the army’s presence and mass tourism, since both function with an ‘extractivist logic’ that affects the landscape and natural and economic resources. She believes in the need for a regenerative and circular economy that brings life and justice, and that values Mother Earth by granting dignity to people. Moreover, she is committed to progressing towards inclusive, participatory governance with anti-racist and feminist approaches that work with the community. 

Chosen by the US State Department as a Youth Pacific Leader in 2019, Moñeka De Oro highlighted youth participation in community work to fight climate change as, ‘they know they are contributing something’. The organisation where she collaborates runs programmes in pursuit of economic empowerment for Indigenous Women based on training, glass-making and traditional recipe books. As a result, the political participation of Indigenous Women has risen, as they are speaking out to promote food sovereignty, as well as other rights. 


The way forward

The representatives from the Kiribati and Mariana Islands agreed on the importance of technical and financial resources to create early warning systems for possible devastation due to flood surges. In addition, they highlighted the need to continue working with local tools, ancestral knowledge and ongoing expansion and strengthening amongst coordination networks.