To save communities from rising seas, we must open our ears

Comment: As modernity creeps into Tanna, Vanuatu, climate change is just one of many new challenges. We cannot fight the former without understanding the whole

"There are ‘bottle caps’ everywhere! It’s a strange relief." Kerrie Foxwell-Norton in Tanna (Photo: Johanna Schliephack)


On our way to a remote forest village on Tanna, an island in the Tafea province of Vanuatu, we stop at Lenakel to buy water. 

In the local creole, Bislama, the phrase for the boxes of plastic water bottles we are buying is ‘Carton big fella plastic!’. We buy boxes and boxes of the bigger bottles with the blue caps because our host tells us that the tap water is ‘not good to drink’: the surrounding coral reefs leave high levels of calcium carbonate that can cause kidney stones and bacteria in the water could make us sick if we were to drink it –  like the locals do, I presume, but we need water, so there is no option but to buy plastic.

This seemingly innocuous exchange, between researchers and the kindest of hosts about plastic water bottles epitomises the many challenges that threaten Tanna and its environment. We are here to work with four remote villages on Tanna to address the existing impacts of climate change and to develop adaptation projects. We are here to help, but our presence is also symptomatic of the march of the modern to Tanna.

I am part of a research team consisting of a forest ecologist and climate change science expert, two oceanographers, a sustainable tourism doctoral candidate, a coastal geographer and myself, an environmental communication scholar.

Tanna is becoming enveloped in ways of life that will shake its capacity to retain traditional culture, their way of life

Mine is an internal conflict. These people are not the Anthropos of ‘anthropogenic climate change’. I am. And I arrive with my plastic bottles, my muesli bars and my toiletry bag fall of chemicals and more plastic crap. On radio, television, on my phone, I bring the modern world – or, ‘modernity’ to the Tannese. I am not the only one, of course. A development corporation is building sealed roads on Tanna and there are rumours of increased tourist traffic and more direct flights from China.

When I go snorkelling early the next morning, I see one of the water bottle caps in the water and I reach to pick it up. But it’s a brilliant blue fish. My ‘tsk!’ turns to laughter and excitement. There are ‘bottle caps’ everywhere! It’s a strange relief.

‘Climate change’ fails to encapsulate what is happening on Tanna. True, the villages I visit communicate changes to local weather patterns and the consequences for their crop yield, but their challenges include and are much more than those identified by weather patterns and science.

In the haze of volcanic ash from Mt Yasur, villagers repeat the negative effects of recent population growth. Part of the explanation is the breakdown of the traditional custom of arranged marriages that means young women are getting pregnant earlier. The formula is simple: more babies, and thus more people, which has consequences for local food and resources.

On Tanna, population increase and associated breakdowns of traditional culture converge with climate change, which leads to compounding threats to resource security and ecologies. The local people look outwards for a response to climate change threats and to projects to remedy new challenges. And while our responses are mostly ‘environmental’, I am struck by the environmental impacts of social and cultural change.

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Evidence abounds that Tanna is becoming enveloped in ways of life that will shake its capacity to retain traditional culture, their way of life. For example, the film, ‘Tanna’ was nominated for Best Foreign Film category at the 2016 Academy Awards, attracting more international attention. 

Women tell us that the film has received a mixed response, with some angry about exposing Tanna to the world. Others are happy that it empowers Tannese women, to make their own marriage and other choices, perhaps one of the more welcome impacts of modernity. Science, technology, markets, tourism, wealth – and global communication and media – descend on Tanna bringing both risk and reward, opportunity and challenge.

On Tanna, land has been customarily owned forever, with a sense of ecological stewardship that is, or should be, the envy of those pursuing climate change action. Before I left for Tanna, I had read Australian indigenous elder and philosopher, Aunty Mary Graham – a Kombumerri person and also affiliated with the Waka Waka group through her mother – who described two basic premises of an aboriginal world view. These are:

  • The Land is Law
  • You are not alone in the world. 

As a majority indigenous population and with a still strong commitment to custom, Tannese people seemingly share this perspective.

So when I arrive with my learned insights and a genuine desire to help adapt to climate change, there is voice within me – a critical voice – that will not be silenced.  We go there to listen and our responses seek to remedy declining food and water quality, and to provide early warnings of impending natural disasters. It is life-saving, critical work with real impacts for these beautiful people and their magnificent island.

But what have we heard?  What could the Tannese tell us about our relation with the land and each other? And we, with all our hindsight and foresight about the impacts of modernity, what could we tell the Tannese about the direction they are headed?

I know that my research colleagues are mindful of the challenges of this intercultural exchange. What to do? My best is to offer this ongoing and often uncomfortable examination of myself, and how this may impact my engagement with local people, my teaching and research. And honestly, I make mistakes as I navigate the complex terrain that is meaningful, thoughtful and respectful climate change communication.   

But they are mistakes worth making.

Dr Kerrie Foxwell-Norton is a senior lecturer in climate change communication at Griffith University, Australia

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