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Luisa Tuilau: Tackling a changing climate

Luisa Tuilau: Tackling a changing climate

From conflicting emotions to a sense of togetherness

Image above: Luisa fishing on the Pacific Ocean

Luisa Tuilau tells Leading Change how Pasifika Queen’s Young Leaders are working together to help communities and leaders in the region come to terms with the most dramatic and urgent crisis in human history.

Luisa Tuilau won the Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work with Youngsolwara – a group of activists who campaign against sea-bed mining and human rights abuses in West Papua, and who advocate for action on climate change.

“I had conflicting emotions to be quite honest, in terms of talking about colonisation,” says Luisa recalling the day she heard she was a Queen’s Young Leader and her misgivings about the Commonwealth.

“But if we are to look into a more positive direction, this has opened up more opportunity, more exposure to the work around the Pacific.”

When she reflects on her Queen’s Young Leader year, Luisa talks enthusiastically about her mentor, Vanisha Mishra-Vakoti, who helped Youngsolwara refine their social media presence.

The Leading Change course “really helped in terms of pulling activities, projects, that we hope to achieve and giving our project development a timeline”.

Tutor and students study their phones

Social media training with Vanisha Mishra-Vakoti, March 2017

But one of the biggest and most profound outcomes of the programme, was connecting with young leaders in the Pacific region. 

Pasifika Queen’s Young Leaders

The most pressing issue in the Pacific is the enormous and rapid change caused by the rise in sea levels. In the last few years, some of the very smallest islands have disappeared altogether, while others have lost vast tracts of inhabitable land.

The Pacific Islands Regional Climate Assessment (PIRCA) 2012 report lists numerous impacts of the changing climate.

Among them is the "destruction of coastal artefacts and structures, reduced availability of traditional food sources and subsistence fisheries, and the loss of the land base that supports Pacific Island cultures".

The urgency, and very real and visual impact of climate change in the Pacific, has pulled Queen’s Young Leaders in the region to work together. As well as Luisa, Pasifika Queen’s Young Leaders, includes: 

  • Christina Giwe, 2015, from Papua New Guinea
  • Easter Tekafa Niko, 2016, from Tuvalu
  • John Taka, 2015, from Papua New Guinea
  • Mary Siro, 2016, from Vanuatu
  • Nolan Salmon, 2016, from the Solomon Islands
  • Tabotabo Auatabu, 2016, from Kiribati Island
  • Willy Missack, 2015, from Vanuatu.

“We thought as Queen’s Young Leaders in the Pacific, we should take proactive action in addressing it, in the best way we can with the right stakeholders.

“There’s already impacts of climate change around Fiji itself with the sea level rise stealing our crops and those who are living near the seashores moving towards the higher ground,” says Luisa.

“It has become a very sensitive issue. No one wants to talk about it but we all know it’s here. No one wants to leave the land.”

And yet people are being forced to leave their homes. 

Climate change migration

Earlier in 2017, the Pasifika Queen’s Young Leaders held a Skype session to discuss their plans. During the session, one member of the group, Tabotabo Auatabu and his family were packing up their things to abandon their home.

“He said that they were moving because of sea level rises – as we were speaking. It was raining, raining in Kiribati,” says Luisa. “It’s really for us an emotional rollercoaster.”

Many people are being forced to abandon coastal areas for higher ground and yet migration, says Luisa is “a sensitive issue in our home community”.

The importance of land is enshrined in Pacific island cultures. “We want to fight for our land, and our dignity and security here in the Pacific,” Luisa explains.

But looking ahead, and thinking about Pasifika Queen’s Young Leaders, she adds, “What comes with that we also realise, is the need to look hard and be proactive in terms of the next generation.”

Some migration is inevitable. The worry is that it might cause conflict between different communities. Luisa cites the purchase of some land in Fiji by the Kiribati state in 2014. Kiribati is made up of 32 atolls which on average are only a few metres above sea level.

“They’ve bought it because they know they’re going to need it,” says Luisa, but adds that this move has caused tension in Fiji.

For Luisa, the most pressing issue about climate change “would be specifically about migration with dignity”. That is, the need to avoid the conflict and tensions that might arise between people who are moving to higher ground or other islands as the sea claims their homes, and those who are already settled there.

Homes in a flood with debris all around

Aftermath of Tsunami that hit Solomon Islands in 2007. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent because of climate change, as are rising seas. Image credit: AusAid

Sense of unity

Coming together as Pasifika Queen’s Young Leaders, says Luisa, “really brings out the unity that we have for our islands – one ocean”.

“It has really brought a sense of togetherness, belongingness and unity to fight against climate change and know the best way to safeguard for the next generation together as young leaders.”

Pasifika Queen’s Young Leaders is hoping to get people in the region to face up to what’s happening and be prepared. The group is looking at how it can educate the people and how it can work with heads of states.

“We plan to use our network to gather together indigenous people, indigenous youth with climate change experts to have discussions on this very important topic,” says Luisa.

Being a Queen’s Young Leader has also reframed the way Luisa now views the Commonwealth. “It has changed for me,” she says.

“Now there’s a sense of belonging and of global citizens coming together as one. We’re fighting our own battles but together shaping the world that we believe is going to be good for the next generation.”

Youngsolwara protest against human rights abuses in West Papua, on Human Rights Day, in Suva, Fiji

This has opened up more opportunity, more exposure to the work around the Pacific.

Luisa Tuilau

Youngsolwara protest against human rights abuses in West Papua, on Human Rights Day, in Suva, Fiji