Some of you have asked to share more information on Truth Talking: Voices from the Waves, the half-hour documentary on climate change and its impact on the South Pacific people that we produced in 2002.
It was the first-ever documentary on climate change and the South Pacific, made by a native Pacific islander (all films till then had been made by visiting foreign film crews). Directed and produced by Bernadette Masianini of Fiji (photo on extreme right below), its story was based on the experience and impressions of two teenagers growing up on two islands, a girl and boy, both facing uncertain futures.
Here’s what I wrote for the Truth Talking book that accompanied the film series.
Dilagi loves her village. Her parents and grandparents, and generations before them, were born and raised in this village. Her family has lived here for centuries, but by the time Dilagi has children of her own, her village might no longer exist.
In Fiji, where Dilagi lives, traditions and cultures are rooted in the home; the village is an integral part of a person’s identity. Like most of the eight million people who live in the Pacific island states, Dilagi’s village is located close to the sea. The bounty of the ocean has long sustained the islanders, but now the same waters have begun to threaten their future. Every year, the shoreline seems to move a little inland, and the beach gets a bit smaller. Before the current century ends, according to scientific projections, many low-lying Pacific islands will go under the rising seas either in part or full – and their histories, traditions and unique cultures will be lost forever.
Dilagi is somewhat aware of this perilous future, but can do nothing about it. The changes in global climate that are causing sea levels to rise and triggering severe storms and cyclones are the result of pollution and environmental degradation generated thousands of miles away in the industrialised world. Says Dilagi: “The villagers cannot understand why the waves are coming on to shore. They think these are signs that the end of the world is near.”
The Pacific contains 22 states, made up of thousands of small islands, with a multitude of cultures and traditions. Diverse as they are, they all share Dilagi and her neighbours’ concerns about the future.
Two thousand and five hundred kilometres north-east of Fiji, sitting on the island of Kiribati, Bernard stares at the same ocean that seems to be lashing out at his tiny island nation with increasing force every year. One of the lowest lying islands in the world, no place on Kiribati is higher than four metres (13 feet).
Building sea walls has provided only a temporary respite against the waves. Not even the grave yards or tombstones are spared. Bernard visits Mrs Saipolua’s house, which she has had to move twice to escape from rising seas. In her backyard, the gravestones of ancestors are being constantly battered by the waves. “Even the final resting places of our loved ones are not spared…the sea action had cracked the gravestones,” she says.
“With our islands being so small, the sea is our biggest resource,” says Bernard. “Over the years, the generations have perfected the ways to use the oceans respectfully for our survival. Ironically, it is the very ocean on which we depend that now threatens us.”
All Pacific islands – including Kiribati and Fiji — have their own unique culture and traditions. They may share the world’s largest ocean and sometimes common ethnicity, but no two island cultures are the same. From the way they collect their food to how they celebrate festivals, their traditions revolve around the geography and natural resources of the islands and the sea.
In this intricate tapestry weaving islands with humans, everything has a place and purpose. For example, the traditional dances entertain and also record the people’s history. Costumes for these dances are produced from plants unique to the Pacific and decorative garlands are made from the brightly coloured flowers. Extreme weather events and climate anomalies that now threaten the environment of these islands may soon drive many plants and animals into extinction. As Bernard asks, “If changes to the climate affect our environment, how long will these aspects of our culture survive?”
For a majority of Pacific island people, climate change is a very real concern that is already impacting them; it’s not a doomsday scenario sometime in the future. Closely linked as they are to their islands and the sea, they just cannot accept relocation in a far away land as a survival option.
“Everything I need in my life is here on this island — my elders, my parents, my friends,” says Bernard. “I cannot imagine life anywhere else, and I cannot imagine that I might have to go and live in another country if my islands are no longer habitable….”
From across the sea, Dilagi agrees: “Our villagers have lived here for hundreds of years. Their traditions and cultures are rooted in this area. They cannot imagine life anywhere else.”