Interview: Pacific island poet marshals youth against climate threats

 20 Nov 2016 - 18:44

Interview: Pacific island poet marshals youth against climate threats
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner (Reuters file photo)

By Laurie Goering / Thomson Reuters Foundation

MARRAKESH, Morocco: To help protect her low-lying island home from climate change, Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is building an unusual army.

The poet, performance artist and teacher at the College of the Marshall Islands, working in her spare time, is seeking out promising young people in the Pacific nation’s villages, and training them to apply for grant money that can help families cope with worsening extreme weather and rising seas, and find innovative ways to protect their communities and threatened culture.

“Our big concern is the loss of culture. We’re so rooted in our land. We could point at a reef and know the story behind it, the fishes there. If we lose the reef, we lose all the stories, all the knowledge,” she said. “This programme is about safeguarding that knowledge and preserving it for the future.”

Jetnil-Kijiner, who is part of her country’s delegation to the U.N. climate talks in Marrakesh this week, came to prominence in 2014, when she performed one of her poems - a heartfelt letter to her baby daughter, Matafele Peinem - at a climate change summit hosted by the U.N. chief in New York.

Now the 28-year-old - who will publish a first book of her poetry in February, and whose mother, Hilda Heine, became the nation’s first woman president this year - hopes the experiences of other islanders could be a driving force to spur more rapid international action to curb climate change and prevent countries like hers being eaten up one day by rising seas.

“We’re the ones living these experiences,” she said in a interview on the sidelines of the climate talks. “I recognise poetry is a weird thing to have in this climate world, but it seems to work. And I want to do more of what works.”

FLOODS AND DROUGHT

Most of her students don’t dwell much on climate change, she said. But for them - and for her own family - it’s becoming harder to ignore.

The country - a nation of about 53,000 people and more than 1,000 atolls and islands - has just emerged from one of the worst droughts she can remember. And two years ago, one of her cousins lost the house she had lived in all of her life to flooding, she said.

For many people, “it’s something you’re waiting to see happen. You never know when the high tide will hit but you’re prepared for it,” she said. “When there’s a high-tide warning, everybody’s worried about the sea wall.”

The result of these growing pressures, she said, is that the government - which had always focused on developing the country - is slipping into a different kind of mindset.

“It’s not development anymore. It’s more like preservation,” Jetnil-Kijiner said. “It’s changing how we think of our country, how we prepare for its future.”

Just how at risk the country will be from sea-level rise is evident in its geography, with its 70 square miles (181 sq km) of land sitting an average of 2 metres (6.56 ft) above sea level now.

As rising seas fuel larger “king tides” which regularly sweep the island, as well as more severe storm surges, roads and homes are going underwater more often, leading some to collapse or be abandoned.

Scientists predict the world could see as much as 2 metres of sea-level rise by 2100 or sooner, at current rates of climate change.

Already some Marshallese have migrated to join growing communities of fellow expatriates in Hawaii and elsewhere in the United States.

‘STILL TIME TO FIGHT’

The changes Jetnil-Kijiner’s students see make them increasingly anxious. At a youth arts camp she organised, one picture drawn showed the country’s capitol building, in Majuro, underwater.

Much of the poetry young people produce, she said, “comes out of their fear of losing their culture and their island”.

“They don’t know how to use that fear. That’s why we’re trying to empower them,” she said. “They shouldn’t just be seen as victims.”

In schools across the islands, teachers are now discussing climate change with their students, she said.

Jetnil-Kijiner’s “earth champions” - young people trained through her youth non-profit group Jo-Jikum - are being taught practical skills, including how to navigate the complicated process of making applications for climate change funds.

“A lot feel we will have to move at some point,” she admitted. “Lots of the outside rhetoric they hear tells them that. But I tell them it’s not over yet. There’s still time to fight.”   

(Reporting by Laurie Goering and Megan Rowling; writing by Laurie Goering; editing by Megan Rowling)