Connecting with Torres Strait Islander communities on climate change

Wendy Flannery

Chain Reaction #120, March 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/120

Since early 2013 the Climate Frontlines collective of Friends of the Earth, Brisbane has been involved in developing and implementing a project titled, 'Climate Advocacy with and for the Torres Strait Islands communities'.

Some efforts to highlight the islanders' situation had been made in 2004, in both FoE Australia and FoE International publications on climate justice. Towards the end of 2012 the capacity to engage with these communities in a more focused way became possible through enhanced Climate Frontlines membership following Pacific-focused consultations in September and October of that year, and through the successful application for a grant through the Australian National Committee for UNESCO.

The aim and objectives of the project were framed in this way: The Torres Strait Islands are particularly vulnerable to climate change due to geographic, cultural and socio-demographic factors. Previous research has shown that higher temperatures, rising sea levels and changes in climatic conditions are already having an impact on island communities. Of particular concern are low lying islands of Boigu and Saibai in the northwest and the central coral cay islands of Iama, Masig, Poruma and Warraber.

Protecting island communities from the threat of climate change requires the support of the Australian public. By gathering, documenting and sharing Torres Strait Islanders' stories on climate change, the project aims to educate the Australian public about the plight of the islands and to strengthen advocacy efforts to ensure relevant levels of government are responding to the concerns and needs of the communities in the Torres Strait.

The specific objectives of the project are:

  • To educate and mobilise support from the Australian public on climate change issues in the Torres Strait;
  • To develop a strong collective voice for advocating on the adaptation needs of Torres Strait Islander communities;
  • To positively influence government policy and decision making processes to ensure timely and culturally-appropriate responses are delivered to increase the adaptive capacity of the Torres Strait Island communities.

Key to the development of the project were initial efforts to build connections with key elders and leaders in the Torres Strait Islander community in Brisbane, several of whom have become closely involved with the ongoing planning, implementation and evaluation process.

Strategic initiatives undertaken to implement the project include:

  • Two visits to the Torres Strait by a two-person project team, Uncle Thomas Sebasio, Brisbane-based elder, originally from Erub (Darnley) Island in the eastern Torres Strait, and Kate Morioka, a key member of the project team;
  • Three public events following the first visit, one with the Torres Strait Islander community on the south side of Brisbane, a public event in Brisbane city, and a public event in Cairns on February 28;
  • Organising an MOU for the use of a website set up by two Sydney-based researchers to highlight climate change in the Torres Strait www.torresstraitclimate.org;
  • Negotiating public screenings of 'Dire Straits', a short film on the impact of combined extreme weather events and king tides on Saibai Island;
  • Developing a network of organisational and individual collaboration within the Torres Strait, and in the wider community;
  • An online petition on change.org and a parallel postcard campaign to advocate for the release of promised funding from the federal government;
  • Efforts to generate mainstream media interest, and on-going contact with the two main media outlets in the Torres Strait, Torres News and Radio 4MW; a recently recorded interview with Uncle Thomas Sebasio can be heard on www.torresstrait.climate.org;
  • Establishing a link with the UQ Centre for Communication and Social Change, especially with a view to exploring channels for documenting community experiences of climate change in the Torres Strait.

In support of persistent efforts on the part of the Torres Strait Regional Authority, initial advocacy efforts of the project have focused on infrastructure to protect threatened island coastlines from coastal erosion and flooding, a process that is speeded up with every extreme weather event. At a meeting of the Senate Estimates Committee in November 2013, Senators Christine Milne and Jan McLucas lobbied hard for promised commitments to the Torres Strait to be honoured. The Abbott Government confirmed on December 4 that it would release from the Regional Development Australia Fund $5 million of the $12 million promised for the Torres Strait Coastal Protection Works (Seawalls) Project. The remaining $7 million from Commonwealth Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs remains in limbo and the project will continue to advocate for this to be released.

With the one-year UNESCO grant period about to finish, the Climate Frontlines collective is faced with the challenge of how to continue the momentum of the project, knowing that it has already gathered significant support from Brisbane-based elders and community members, and increasingly from community leaders within the Torres Strait. Two key funding requirements will be for travel to the islands to maintain connections and documentation of on-the-ground experience as the impacts of climate change gather momentum. In the next stage of the project, the collective anticipates the need to explore the complexity of the impacts on the lives of Torres Strait Islander communities as they face an uncertain future.

Wendy Flannery convenes the Climate Frontlines collective in Friends of the Earth, Brisbane.

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Brisbane Symposium: Climate-related displacement and migration

When people have to move: Climate change related displacement and pre-emptive migration pathways in the Australia-Pacific region

Friday 23 May 2014

Cost: Free

Venue: P Block, QUT Gardens Point Campus, Brisbane City

For registration information, contact wendy.flannery@foe.org.au

A one day interdisciplinary symposium hosted by Friends of the Earth and the Faculty of Law, Queensland University of Technology, to explore the potential solutions for addressing the emerging challenge of climate change related displacement in the Australia-Pacific region. The symposium will draw on knowledge and experience from academia, civil society and government in examining existing legal and policy frameworks and envisaging new migration pathways and alternative responses.

Themes to be addressed include:

  • Setting the Scene:  Experiences of Displacement
  • Overview of International Frameworks   
  • The Pacific and International Negotiations 
  • Migration Pathways: Programs and Experiences
  • Panel Discussion: The Way Forward
  • Mock Trial: Climate 'Refugee' Application
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