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Contributed by Stephen Olsen, NewsRoom_Plus

Imagine you live in a small group of islands. Islands only four metres above sea level. Imagine those islands are on a planet where the inexorable impacts of climate change are mounting month by month. 

This is the lived reality of Reverend Tafue Lusama of Tuvalu, a founder of the Pacific Islands Climate Action Network and a visitor to New Zealand this week as part of a concerted effort to present the reality of climate change in the Pacific through a series of breakfast briefings for church leaders, as well as evening discussion fora in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

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Rev. Lusama had disturbing stories to share that have left the people of Tuvalu – with a resident population nudging 10,000 – trying to “make sense of what’s happening to us… and always posing the question, why us?”

It was a matter of fact that droughts had become lengthier and more damaging. It was a matter of fact that coral bleaching has been leading to a twofold distress: loss of stocks of fish, and loss of a first line of defence against storm surges. It was a matter of fact that the intensity and frequency of strong winds have increased with harsh consequences. It was a matter of fact that salt water has intruded into the underground water table.

How though, to come to terms with an extreme yet imaginable scenario of becoming a forced migrant from the one place on earth that invests you with an all-encompassing identity that protects you from being homeless?

How to face what a future of inevitable assimilation holds if the time came to leave Tuvalu, to become second class citizens in a place that isn’t home. Rev. Lusama: “You cannot build a Tuvalu within New Zealand… (this represents the) literal death of a people, of a culture”.

Speaking after Rev. Lusama was Trish Toupu – current graduate student in Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland, co-convenor of the Pasifika Network of the Green Party of Aotearoa, and a New Zealand born member of Tonga’s own diaspora.


For Toupu, mythology and poetry provide a way to speak to, and of, the inherent connections across the Pacific and environmentalism.

She read lines from poet Teresa Teaiwa – “we sweat and cry salt water, so we know | that the ocean is really in our blood” – and from Kokala Folau (a gift of love) by Konai Helu Thaman, a poem that ends:

take this kakala
sacred symbol of our oneness
tie it tightly around you
where it will remain fresh
in the nourishing flow
only the sky knows

Toupu spoke of climate change as an issue that can only be tackled with unity, and underscored the privileged position New Zealanders are in to freely exercise our voice(s).

Challenges of climate change, fast becoming beyond mitigation, require Pacific leaders like Starling Konainau of the Solomon Islands, also on tour and a Pacific Climate Warrior, to be at the prow of the Vaka.

Toupu pointed out that at the same time, there is plenty of room for exertion by non-Pasifika people on board, in the middle of the Vaka. Exertion that might take forms like, for instance, moving to put our money into banks that don’t fund fossil fuel giants, and that are divesting from environmentally harmful industries and investing in environmentally sustainable ones.

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And that was really the point of the coming together of supporters for this event, the TEAR Fund, Oxfam New Zealand, Auckland Diocesan Climate Change Action Group (say it slowly) and 350 Aotearoa. Joining together to show a brotherly and sisterly love to our neglected neighbours by getting on board the Vaka, and encouraging others to embrace New Zealand’s wider place in the Pacific – a symbolic place that saw our nation use its privilege chairing the UN Security Council last month to put forward a debate on the issues surrounding SIDS (Small Island Developing States).

Tuvalu is not ready to throw in the towel. Rev. Lusama made that known very clearly.

In the spirituality of life and death, something is not right, he said, in a disturbing story, when islanders gathered on Thursday 16 July to give a proper burial for loved ones whose remains were unearthed during Cyclone Pam earlier this year. Something is not right in waking to fields that are strewn with huge debris, or being in a state of not knowing if landfalls you look to on the horizon will be above the waterline from one cyclone to the next. “Something is not right”.

Have the ‘big brothers’ of Australia and New Zealand been turning their back on their neighbours for too long – yes they have, said Rev. Lusama. Are they doing enough to “show they are standing with us to fight the fight we are fighting” – no they are not.

“We know we are not fighting a people (in fighting climate change), but we are fighting against an unjust system dominated by the powerful and rich … (you might say) capitalism at its best…”

To convert the 2600 hectare scale of Tuvalu into a topical metric, that would be the equivalent of 18 average-sized dairy farms. Its land mass would make up less than 0.2 percent of all the land in use for, or converted to, dairy in New Zealand.

Tuvalu’s scale is beside the point.

You could pick up a dart and throw it anywhere at a world map, and still not find a point on the road to the Paris Climate Change Conference in three months’ time that matters more than Tuvalu.

And if you have trouble seeing that, just close your eyes and imagine living in a small group of islands on a small planet where the inexorable impacts of climate change are mounting month by month. Now open them.


Extra information link: Listen to and read a transcript of a Radio New Zealand interview with Reverend Lusama.