How are Pacific Islanders coping with life at climate change ground zero?

By Tierney Smith

The Pacific Islands are ground zero for climate change.

They are some of the lowest lying countries in the world. With over half of the populations of the Pacific Islands living less than 1.5 km from the coast, they are incredibly vulnerable to sea-level rises and extreme weather.

Many nations in the region are already feeling the effects of climate change, including food and water shortages, rising cases of malaria and more frequent flooding and storms.

The worst case scenario for these countries is the relocation of entire communities or islands.

As the world meets in Doha for the latest round of the UN climate talks, the Pacific Islanders are calling for greater ambition on emissions cuts.

As part of RTCC’s youth profile series, I spoke to Krishneil Narayan, Director of Project Survival Pacific about the importance of building a greater understanding on climate change in the region and the impacts that are already been felt in the country.

What are your group doing and what areas of work do you focus on?

Project Survival Pacific (PSP) is a youth environmental organisation in Fiji that works to safeguard the survival of the Pacific Island people form the impacts of climate change and push sustainable development within the region.

We were born out of the Project Survival Campaign of the international youth climate movement at COP14 – the negotiations in Poznan in 2008. Since then we have been working around climate change and trying to work with the youth in the Pacific.

The international youth delegation at COP14 had a simple, but powerful message to communicate: survival is not negotiable.

Global youth asked all countries to commit to a global climate treaty that safeguards the survival of all countries and peoples. This principle, which became known as ‘The Survival Principle’ is also called for by the world’s most climate-vulnerable nations.

This triggered the birth of Project Survival – the notion that the youth movement had to work towards become truly global.

Our overarching aim is to build a generation wide movement on climate change by educating, inspiring, empowering and mobilising Pacific Islanders around the issue, and helping the Pacific youth to be more influential and engaged in solutions to our climate change challenges and sustainable development in the Pacific. We want to ensure the long-term survival of our people.

Our primary focus for 2012 has been on climate education. Early in the year we conducted a survey amongst environmental professionals in Fiji that indicated that young people here in Fiji need to learn more about the basics of the challenges imposed by climate change, and to use sustainable development principles as a means to addressing them.

We have been using that survey and based on that our focus has been on educating the youth in Fiji, starting with the basics. We have been targeting our activities at reaching out to youth institutions and providing them with a platform to learn and express themselves. And we tailor the programmes according to their needs and wants and the cultures of Fiji. We are able to accommodate people who are just being introduced to these projects.

We have four overall campaigns running this year. The first is community engagement and education through which we reached out to all of these institutions and other communities.

The second one was media and communication. We advocate for climate change and sustainable development through getting our message out using our national media. The PSP has a regular opinion column in the Fiji Times the most widely read daily print and online news service. We use that opinion column to write about sustainability and climate change issues related to young people.

That campaign has been really successful and we have been getting very positive feedback from the articles we have been writing.

The third campaign was the Future We Want. It was based around the Rio+20 summit and getting our members involved in that process for the first half of the year. We had our members write our own vision for the future we want; our 2030 vision. We submitted that to the UN at Rio+20 and we also went to Rio+20. Our focus for much of the first half of the year was around Rio+20.

Our fourth project we have been running this year was our Train-A-Climate Ambassador Program (TaCAP). PSP has a deep connection with the UNFCCC process and international climate change affairs since we were born out of a campaign at one of the negotiations in Poznan. Our climate ambassador programme is a year long leadership training programme for young people between the age of 18 and 28 years in the field of international climate change negotiations and international affairs so that the new generation entering the workforce here in Fiji can effectively oversee climate change policy and campaign implementation in the Pacific region.

It is through this programme that we are sending one delegate to Doha next week.

The group have been able to connect with other youth from around the world at the UN climate change negotiations (Source: Project Survival Pacific/Facebook)

What results have you seen from your work so far?

We saw a need for young people to really be introduced to this issue in Fiji. There is currently no other youth group like us that solely focuses on climate change in this country. When we started approaching people and getting them introduced to climate change we saw a real interest among young people to learn and get more involved.

When we did our outreach programme and community engagement programme we got more and more young people involved and we were able to get them really active around this issue.

One of our major successes this year was from our media outreach programme. The articles that we have been writing, we have been receiving really positive reviews about it. People now know that there is a group like us which is active and that young people in the country are really concerned about climate change and really want to do something about it.

The articles are currently being used by students at the University of Fiji as an education tool so that they can keep up with the current issues and learn what is happening around the world on climate change and also the impacts of climate change in Fiji.

The University of the South Pacific, which is another regional university based in Fiji have organised a national climate change quiz in Fiji. They have been using our material as resources for their quizzes. It was really interesting when they approached us and told us that they find our materials really appropriate for this.

One of the most interesting things is that we were approached by a school in China asking us for permission to use our materials to teach children in China about the impacts of climate change and sustainability issues affecting the Pacific people.

This shows that our work is really being put out there and that people are really looking into our work and are actually finding it useful for students.

The things which we have been writing and the material we have been producing, the International Labour Organisation’s regional office based out of Bangkok in Thailand, have been reposting them and including them in their monthly newsletters.

It really goes to show that our efforts are being recognised around the region and not just in Fiji.

What has also worked for us is that PSP is affiliated to the National Youth Council of Fiji and the Youth Assembly of the Fiji Islands– these are the two national umbrella youth bodies that represent all NGO based youth groups. Through these affiliations, we have managed to expand our networks and gather support from other youths.

There is no other youth based climate movement like PSP in Fiji. Our uniqueness works in our favor in attracting people to our projects.

What are the challenges you faced in your work?

The team took part in discussions at the Pacific Regional Climate Change & Health Symposium (Source: Project Survival Pacific/Facebook)

There is no other group like us in Fiji so this whole concept of youth mobilisation around climate change is really new in the country.

There is no set format and there is no funding for us to really tap in to. That has been one of our major challenges.

Also trying to get our work recognised by the government and by other NGOs who already have a base here in Fiji.

What support have you seen for your activities?

We have been slowly trying to build networks with other NGOs with a base in the region and trying to find ways where we can work together. As we are reaching out to the people more and talking about these issue more we are seeing that people are being more receptive to our work and recognising that the things that we are doing are really genuine and that we are an organised group.

People write to us to add on their thoughts and give ideas as to how we can engage in their localities. Networks such as the UNDP Pacific Solutions Exchange Platforms, Pacific Globalization Network, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) and the Fiji Times have all worked with us in our education efforts.

We have had people inviting us to be at events and requesting us to speak at events and inviting us to put up our educational booths at their events. Slowly we are making better connections with other organisations.

Even with the government of Fiji, we have been trying to find ways we can work together on national policy work and taking that policy work out at the grassroots level.

What impacts are you already seeing in your country from climate change?

Fiji has recently been really affected by extreme weather patterns. Earlier this year in January and then in April of this year we had two major floods of the type that we had never really experienced before.

It had rained for a few hours and places where it never used to flood were really affected. Farms were destroyed, people’s homes were destroyed, a few lives were lost. Basically the whole Western part of the main island of Fiji was really affected and devastated and the whole of the infrastructure was really damaged. That has really cost Fiji in terms of development.

The Minister of Health also said that during these extreme floods the tendency of dengue, leptospirosis, typhoid and diarrhoea were increased ten fold. And they had really difficult time trying to contain those health related issues that cropped up after the flooding.

Sea level rise and coastal erosion has been reported in the outer islands of the country. We have had reports from Kadavu and Vanua Balavu, one of the two largest islands in the country.

Also the variety of sugar canes has really been affected. They have been trying to test with different varieties in Fiji, trying to see if any other variety works really well. Currently they are all using one variety of sugar cane and currently sugar cane is Fiji’s third largest contributor to GDP.

What would be your vision for 2050? How do we get there?

Project Survival Pacific’s vision is a future where survival, prosperity and the needs of the people of the Pacific are ensured and where the problems of climate change and environmental degradation are solved through global cooperation.

The UN negotiations in Doha are beginning next week so we would really like to see more commitment and some tangible pathways as to how the new treaty to be implemented by 2020 will be formulated by 2015. Less talk and more action is what is needed.

I am not going this year but from my previous experiences of participating at COPs I have learnt not to expect too much from these negotiations because the expectations that I usually have, the results that we get are usually significantly less than what is urgently required to tackle the climate change impacts.

What would help your group move forward in your work?

We are a small but powerful group but funding is really really our drawback. Funding for youth based groups like us in this region is extremely limited or next to none.

So far we have been sourcing our money from our own personal pockets to fund our projects and activities. We could really use more funding. It would really help us in executing more of our work at the grassroots level.

Why did you get involved in the climate movement? What do you think youth groups bring to the debate?

(Source: Project Survival Pacific/Facebook)

I got involved with climate change when I was introduced to the topic at university. I was able to make the connection between the impacts and the things that we are seeing here in Fiji. I was one of the lucky ones to go through some training with Al Gore in 2009 and that got me really involved in climate change in that year.

I was then introduced to Project Survival Pacific that was just starting up at the time; it was only a few months old. I was really attracted to the mission and idea of such a group here in the Pacific, and I saw the potential for the youth movement around climate change here in Fiji.

I think youth are more motivated and are more passionate about these issues I guess than other groups. I guess it is because we have the most at stake from the long-term impacts. The older generation will slowly fade away and we will be the ones who have to deal with the extreme impacts of climate change.

We as one of the major stakeholder have a lot at stake and for me myself; the passion that drives me to do this is securing a future for myself as well as my future generations to come. My brother is still young and a future for him is something that I would like to see more sustainable.

More RTCC Youth Profiles:

Youth Profile #19: The new group taking the green world by storm – meet the Arab Youth Climate Movement

Youth Profile #18: The young African scientists linking modern research with indigenous wisdom

Youth Profile #17: The African youth group driving climate adaptation in rural communities

Youth Profile #16: Inspiring climate change action through education in Africa

Youth Profile #15: Canadian youth rise above dirty domestic policies and push for climate action

Youth Profile #14: Costa Rica’s youth eye a carbon neutral future

Youth Profile #13: Giving youth a platform at the European Parliament

Youth Profile #12: European activists demand governments put their futures ahead of ‘dirty industry’

Youth Profile #11: China’s young activists out to prove they do care about climate change

Youth Profile #10: Life on climate change’s frontline with the Australian Youth Climate Coalition

Youth Profile #9: Young entrepreneurs driving sustainability at US campuses

Youth Profile #8: Why education is key to developing climate awareness in Ghana

Youth Profile #7: Why Indonesia’s biodiversity is at the front line of the fight against climate change

Youth Profile #6: Meet the African coalition that brings together 54 countries to tackle climate change

Youth Profile #5: Bangladeshi youth fight to give world’s second most climate vulnerable country a voice

Youth Profile #4: Nepal’s youth fight to save Himalayan paradise from effects of pollution and climate change

Youth Profile #3: Canada’s climate coalition on taking on the Tar Sands lobby and fighting for Kyoto

Youth Profile #2: How PIDES are working on practical solutions to climate change in Mexico

Youth Profile #1: How Nigerian Climate Coalition are building green bridges ahead of COP18

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