A landmark case is under way to prosecute Australia for failing in its duty to fight climate change and protect the First Nations people of the Torres Strait, with significance for all Pacific island communities threatened by rising seas. By Rev Dr Cliff Bird and Professor Rebecca Monson.
Australia’s climate neglect on trial in Torres Strait Islands
On the steaming morning of Monday, June 5, in a community hall on Boigu Island, Uncle Pabai Pabai began to explain to the Federal Court the impacts of climate change on his people.
“The ancestors gave birth to our land, the ancestors are very important for us. Their knowledge, my understanding, passed on from generation to generation. This is why I’m saying – my people should never be removed from our land.”
At various points during that hearing and the days that followed, heavy rain disrupted proceedings, drowning out the voices of the people gathered. At one point the presiding judge, Justice Michael Wigney, commented on the irony of the weather as Fiona McLeod, SC, struggled to be heard above the din on the corrugated iron roof. June should be the dry season, but local people report that weather systems are changing.
The Federal Court is hearing evidence from Torres Strait Islanders in what promises to become a landmark climate case. Uncle Pabai Pabai and Uncle Paul Kabai from Boigu and Saibai islands have filed a claim against the Australian government, arguing it has failed to fulfil its duty of care to First Nations people, who now find themselves on the front line of Australia’s escalating climate disaster.
Aunty Jen Enosa of Saibai told the court that when she was a child, there was a beach at the front of the village. When the tide was out, it was time to catch the crabs, which were plentiful. At Christmas time, a breeze from Papua New Guinea would carry the smell of flowers, and dancing would begin. Today, there is no beach and the winds have shifted.
Elsewhere, the beaches are expanding and swallowing up trees and vegetation. Uncle Peo Ahmat of Badu explained the spirits of his people go to a particular island after their death, but it was now drowning in sand. When pressed on the implications of that, he said if the island went, “the spirits will be wandering souls”, in search of somewhere else to go.
We are not from the Torres Strait Islands, or Zenadth Kes as it is known by people who have cared for its land, waters and skies for thousands of years. However, the stories shared by the plaintiffs in this case are similar to many we have heard and our lived experiences across Solomon Islands and the wider Pacific region. Those stories also tell of the shared dependence on subsistence, the interconnection of people with land and waterways, and the interwoven histories of navigation, diplomacy, conflict and trade that stretch from the Torres Strait into Papua New Guinea and across the islands of the vast blue Pacific.
In Marovo Lagoon in Solomon Islands, the words of elderly people echo those of Torres Strait Islanders: they say the seasons are “all mixed up”, and people are no longer sure when to plant or harvest the crops crucial to livelihood security and ceremony. In Marovo, the currents, tides and movement of fish have changed beyond all recognition, making it harder to catch anything.
In February 2019, king tides breached seawalls in the capital of Kiribati, and rushed across a huge section of South Tarawa. Coastal homes were inundated for days.
Dr Maina Vakafua Talia, a Tuvaluan, was part of the response team to support communities on the island of Nui in Tuvalu following Tropical Cyclone Pam in 2015. He recalls that Nui was devastated, a massive number of graves unearthed, and the bones of ancestors scattered as waves surged over and across the island. This had not happened in recent memory.
Parallel disasters have long been traceable to colonisation and extractive industries. Australian National University professor Katerina Teaiwa recounts how the people, lands and ancestors of Banaba in Kiribati were dislocated by phosphate mining from the turn of the century until 1980. Teaiwa’s work and scholarship shows how phosphate was wrenched from the earth, then strewn across south-eastern Australia and beyond in the service of industrial agriculture that had already displaced local Indigenous people from their lands and waters.
In Kiribati, Tuvalu and other low-lying islands, there is no higher ground to move to. It is well known that Fiji has developed a plan to relocate at least 42 villages within its larger and more mountainous islands. It is perhaps less well known outside the region that similar discussions have been occurring within communities, churches and governments across the Pacific islands for at least 20 years. For people who understand themselves by reference to their ancestral lands and waterways, the prospect of relocation raises profound existential questions.
The struggle to secure the future of ancestral lands and wider climate justice is therefore shared by Indigenous people across Australia and the Pacific. In April this year, the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, visited communities in the Torres Strait to communicate the support of Pacific Elders’ Voice, a group of former prime ministers, presidents, and high-level officials in the Pacific. These groups issued the Mura Kalmel Sipa (all together we stand) statement, which stresses both the solidarity and shared threats faced by communities in Torres Strait, Kiribati, Tuvalu, the Marshall Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific: “We stand together in asking Australia and those responsible for perpetuating the climate crisis, including the fossil fuel industry, to hear our voices and act immediately to ensure the survival of our homelands, peoples, cultures and way of life.”
Similar demonstrations of Indigenous diplomacy and demands for accountability have long been made by Pacific civil society leaders. Almost two decades ago in Tarawa, Pacific church leaders issued the Otin Taai Declaration, demanding that major producers and consumers of fossil fuel transition towards less carbon-intensive economies and take financial responsibility for addressing the climate crisis they have produced.
The general secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches, the Reverend James Bhagwan, reiterated that call this month, noting the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change “is still failing to deliver on what the planet and the people so urgently need” – namely “a system based on clean energy sources and produced with respect for nature and the sovereign rights of Indigenous peoples”.
Indigenous people of Australia and Oceania are not only bearing the brunt of carbon capitalism, they are leading the fight against it in the courts and elsewhere. Last year, a group of eight Torres Strait Islander people made legal history when they successfully petitioned the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The committee found climate change was already affecting Torres Strait Islander people’s daily lives, and that Australia’s poor climate record violated the global human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In March this year, a campaign initiated by students at the University of the South Pacific and led by the Vanuatu government reached the floor of the United Nations General Assembly, which unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the International Court of Justice to provide an advisory opinion on the obligations of countries to protect the global climate system.
More than litigation is needed, however, if we are to shift away from the predatory economic systems that have driven planetary boundaries to their limits. In the Pacific, organisations such as 350 Pacific and Pacific Climate Warriors are calling for systemic change, insisting: “We are not drowning, we are fighting.”
In 2020, the Pacific Islands Forum and Pacific Theological College launched Reweaving the Ecological Mat (REM). This framework calls for a critical rethinking of the prevailing economic growth model that is highly extractive and destructive to ecosystems, cultures and livelihoods, and primarily responsible for the planetary crisis affecting the islands of the Torres Strait and the Pacific. REM encourages approaches that prioritise biodiversity, cultures, indigenous knowledge and relationships. It has now been woven into at least five pillars of the Forum’s 2050 Blue Pacific Strategy.
These priorities are shared by many Indigenous people across mainland Australia, the Torres Strait and the Pacific Islands, where people’s identities, relationships and knowledges are embodied in place names, ancestral sites, immanent spirits and indigenous totems. They are not confined to the past; they are constantly lived as people draw their livelihoods from land and waterways, communicating with human and non-human life during planting, harvesting and fishing expeditions. Nor are they confined to the territorial boundaries laid down by colonisation. Colonial powers may have drawn lines across the landscapes and seascapes of mainland Australia, the Torres Strait and Papua New Guinea, but as the stories shared in the Federal Court remind us, Indigenous people continue to live their lives and pursue justice grounded in land, sea and kinship between people and environments in many interwoven places.
Indigenous knowledges, diplomacies and spiritualities that are grounded in earth, sea and skies have already been devastated by colonisation and now face the onslaught of climate change. Yet they are crucial to the future of all humanity and the planet. Their continuation and flourishing requires the active dismantling of structures that continue to undermine them and relegate Indigenous people to the sidelines of efforts to reform social, legal, economic and political systems.
After years of inaction, the Australian government is investing not only in rebuilding relationships with the Pacific but advancing Indigenous diplomacy. The question remains as to whether anyone in government is paying attention to leaders’ clear and consistent demands to mobilise on climate.
Uncle Paul and Uncle Pabai join Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior this week on its journey to Vanuatu in solidarity with Pacific communities who, like those in the Torres Strait, are working to hold governments and corporations to account for their active, ongoing investment in carbon capitalism. The ship sails in support of Vanuatu’s campaign for an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice, with the first round of written statements due on October 20. Of the visit, Uncle Pabai says: “The most important part is that we engage together in sharing our experience of climate change and our cultural ways of connecting together, and that gives us strength.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 24, 2023 as "Not drowning, fighting".
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