The real threat of climate change
I’ve never met anyone with a memory as sharp as my mother, Lesina Ateli-Ugavule. She is a true orator, passionate about honouring the stories of our peoples. Each story she spins breathes life into my ancestors, weaving together family trees that extend more than seven generations, conjuring vivid images of the events that disrupted their lives.
I asked Mum recently if she remembered seeing or feeling climate change affecting Tokelau, the Pacific Islands nation where she was born. “1966 was when we first noticed the difference,” she told me. “1966 was my first hurricane in Tokelau. I was only four, but I remember that hurricane. Grandma actually tied me to this small coconut tree with a lavalava [sarong]…
“It was all about timing. My grandma tied me to the coconut tree, waiting for the big waves to go. Once the big wave came from the ocean, it would come past our house, into the lagoon and round to the outer islands. She waited until the big wave passed to untie me. And then we ran for our lives. Elderly were pushed in wheelbarrows or piggybacked. Some of the elderly people who weren’t strong enough to hold on to anything were taken out by the waves. Luckily, a few days later, they were found on other islands, but for a few days they were alone with no food and no help. There was no form of transport – no cars, no bikes, no boats – nothing.”
Oceanic peoples, my peoples, are threaded through the backbone of the British colony’s economic success in Australia, and Scott Morrison’s recent actions at the Pacific Islands Forum in Funafuti, Tuvalu, only reinforce how they continually attempt to sever our tongues.
Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack’s comments after the forum, which reduced Pacific peoples to nothing more than labour for Australia’s economy, were similarly hurtful and unsurprising. This colony is built on the enforced removal of custodians from their land, their Country. How can we, their Oceanic neighbours, expect compassion?
A few years ago, I became curious about the Pacific slave trade, known as blackbirding, when I was filming for a TV series titled The Code. Working in Far North Queensland, I learnt about how blackbirding displaced the South Sea Islander community, forcibly bringing them to Australia to tend to sugarcane plantations.
Of all crops, sugarcane is one of the most brutal. It takes about 12–16 months to grow. What follows is six months of intensive and gruelling labour, harvesting under the Queensland sun. There is the crushing humidity, and the constant fear of being bitten by snakes. Those trafficked into slavery in Australia had to negotiate language and cultural differences between South Sea Islanders, Chinese immigrants who came with the gold rush, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. There was little to no food; their wages were stolen. This is the reality South Sea Islander peoples endured to build Australia’s sugar economy. This month, South Sea Islanders celebrate 25 years of national recognition from the Australian government.
As I tried to learn more about the rich history of our South Sea brothers and sisters, I asked Mum if we had an ancestral connection to blackbirding. She told me that my great-grandfather Ateliano Perez is a descendant of Cecil Perez, one of three Portuguese stowaways who jumped off a ship that came through Tokelau in the early 1800s. It’s estimated some 90 per cent of our men were kidnapped by that ship. They were to be taken to work the guano deposit mines in the Chincha Islands off Peru, but most didn’t make it there alive. Those who did were baptised and given Christian names.
Mum recalled how my great-grandmother Grandma Hei had “never left Tokelau but somehow she knew the name Peru. She used to say, ‘Peru... Peru is where they took our tūpuna.’” We are still trying to find the descendants of those taken.
Our play, Te Molimau, is set in 2060, on Tokelau and in the arrivals hall of Western Sydney’s long-promised Badgerys Creek airport. We wanted to show our audience Tokelau’s final hour of life before the island is submerged, after decades of global inaction against climate change. This play is a construct, but for us, as Tokelauan people, this is a very real threat. For years, I have heard predictions from elders that we will see our isolated low-lying atolls disappear under water in our lifetime. Now smaller islets have already started to disappear. There is no higher ground; our choice is to leave or to sink.
In Te Molimau, we see Vitolina and Fatia, two young Tokelauans, fight over whether it’s possible to continue practising culture without land. We watch those raised on their ancestral lands fight with diaspora over whose fault it is – a reality we know too well. It’s a narrative that serves ignorant governments well, our people fighting one another. Absorbing the lie that we are the reason we are drowning. But it’s a distraction. They want us to blame one another, to believe our individual actions alone are not enough. What they don’t want is for us to work collectively, across nations and cultures to push back and say this must stop now.
Today, Tokelau is the world’s first truly renewable nation; all of our power comes from renewable sources. We are watching our own Pacific leaders cry as they are drowned by world leaders who refuse to even attempt to follow our lead. Who will fight us, tooth and nail, for 12 hours straight, to deny us even a commitment to a transition away from coal.
I remember asking Mum, when discussion began once again about nuclear energy in Australia, if she knew anything about nuclear testing growing up on Tokelau. “Yes,” she told me. “One day I remember being very small, and we heard this huge bang and the entire sky went black.” This was the first nuclear test on Mururoa Atoll, French Polynesia, on July 2, 1966. It was just one of 193 nuclear tests initiated by the French across the South Pacific.
Across the world, indigenous peoples are rising up against governments, to protect their land in a bid to ensure a future for their descendants. Ihumātao, Djab Wurrung birthing trees, Uluru, Mauna Kea, West Papua, Adani. We didn’t arrive here by accident. These protectors are responding to the traumatic imposition of hundreds of years of imperialism. Indigenous peoples make up 4 per cent of the population, but we are custodians of 90 per cent of the world’s biodiversity. And we are seeing thousands of years of environmental preservation come undone.
To think that climate change is not affecting us, as citizens of “developed countries”, is to fool ourselves into believing that time is linear. As a Tokelauan-Fijian woman, I know that the intrinsic connection between my people, our lands, reefs and waters means that as long as those in power continue to see land as nothing more than a resource, they will continue to ruthlessly dislocate us for their own gain. After Jair Bolsonaro won presidency in Brazil and handed indigenous land to the Ministry of Agriculture for farming, we have been watching the Amazon rainforest, coined the world’s lungs because it produces 20 per cent of our oxygen, burn for 16 days straight. Where is the global outcry?
I am left to envisage what kind of world I will hand on to my descendants. To be honest, I don’t want to, but – for the sake of my peoples – I have to. I have to force myself to depict what could happen to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren if we don’t fight back against Morrison’s apathy. We have to force our allies to awaken their imaginations, to embody loss and regret, to feel what we will all inevitably feel if we don’t stand up.
I try to imagine the parallel to Mum’s story of the 1966 hurricane in Tokelau – to imagine her having to tie my sister’s four-year-old daughter to a coconut tree with a lavalava, hoping the girl won’t drown under the weight of the crashing waves; my grandparents floating in outer islands, unsure if anyone will ever find them – and I just can’t. And yet, that story is real. It happened to my mum. And it’s happening right now.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Rising above apathy". Subscribe here.