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Climate Change Stories: A Traveling Sisterhood

The Climate Wise Women visit SXSW Eco

By Jessi Cape, 11:00AM, Mon. Oct. 14, 2013

Climate Wise Women (from left):
Sharon Hanshaw, Constance Okollet,
Ulamila Kurai Wragg
Climate Wise Women (from left): Sharon Hanshaw, Constance Okollet, Ulamila Kurai Wragg

Rising sea levels and a deluge of data can sometimes obscure the ordinary human cost of environmental politics, and one small group of women is using the time-honored tool of storytelling to “put a face to climate change.”

The Climate Wise Women gathered Tuesday at SXSW Eco from around the globe, to share personal accounts of how shrinking shorelines and unprecedented weather patterns destroy homes and empower unlikely heroes. Founding Director Tracy Mann introduced the group, and acknowledged SXSW and Eve McArthur’s support since Climate Wise Women’s inception in 2009; Vicky Markham, Founding Director of The Center for Environment and Population, moderated the presentation.

Returning from eastern Uganda to the SXSW Eco platform, original member Constance Okollet (last year’s link) shared her journey from peasant farmer to activist and Chair of Osukuru United Women Network. Okollet witnessed her village wash away in the floods of 2007, leaving 29 people to live in her single family home. The subsequent severe drought of 2008 exacerbated widespread disease and starvation, and called to action the group of rural women. Food shortage, poverty, and rapidly cycling weather patterns inspire Okollet’s globetrotting work to advocate and educate, including speaking before the Clinton Global Initiative. “My plea, when we are here, she said, is ‘let us go, spread the gospel, and reduce the pollution.’”

Ngozika Onuzo, a recent Smith graduate and current member of the National Youth Services Corps working with the Nigeria Hydrological Services Agency, returned home after graduation to witness firsthand the devastation of the Nigerian floods of 2012. Also a Sierra Club Global Population and Environment Fellow, Onuzo used her environmental policy education to start an NGO and young women’s social group. “I’ve been working with [people] in the communities, especially women, to collect the stories they’re telling and match them with all the data I’m showing you today. There is so much data – proof or evidence of how the planet is changing.” Onuzo discussed the need to disseminate the burgeoning piles of scientific information regularly cited by media and advocacy groups alike, to the often rural and unconnected communities most affected. “We want people to be able to think and act, not just listen...We want some emotion to be evoked…The tool of storytelling is one of the biggest, strongest, most powerful tools that women have, especially when we go to places when there is so much being said but nothing being done,” she said.

If change is to be possible, connecting human stories with political action is essential. The Maldives serve as a unique microcosm for the current state of global environmental affairs. Thilmeeza Hussain, native Maldivian, former Deputy Permanent Representative to the Permanent Mission of Republic of Maldives to the United Nations gave a riveting account of her country’s whirlwind quest to navigate democracy and climate change. In an historic 2008 election, the small, low-lying islands voted out a longstanding dictatorship, and the newly elected President Nasheed immediately took action by announcing environmental challenges as the most pressing national issue. The Maldives pledged to become the first country to go completely carbon neutral by 2020, and the nation gained a reputation as a new “global leader in combating and voicing the challenges of climate change.” An underwater cabinet meeting spotlighted “what would happen if we stayed dormant and didn’t take action,” said Hussain, also the founder of NGO Voice of Women.

“Unfortunately, three short years into democracy, we had a [military] coup that overthrew our democratically elected government,” she continued. Fighting and mass protests ensued, and the unrest, fueled by a new taste for democracy, empowered the nation’s women. “In large numbers the men and women were out in the streets, confronted by water cannons and batons. … [They were] brutally beaten … arrested … but the spirit of Maldivians was not destroyed. We kept fighting. We continue to fight for democracy in our country.” Hussain taught the large SXSW Eco audience – in-house and via livestream – their slogan: “Kuriyah, Kuriyah, Baarah Kuriyah … which means Forward, Forward, Fast and Forward.” In a long-awaited election held last month, Nasheed won again, by a large majority, but a Supreme Court injunction annulled the election and placed a temporary hold on restoring democracy. The second round is scheduled for October 20. Hussain quoted President Nasheed: “We cannot have a planet without having democracy and we cannot have democracy without having a planet.”

In a post-panel Q&A, an audience member asked Hussain to comment on a rumor about a Maldivian government deal with Australia that would allow a portion of the Maldives’ population to relocate in exchange for fishing rights. She said, “We don’t have any agreements with any countries right now. Our policy right now is to focus on democracy…but our policy is Mitigation and Adaptation. We feel that we haven’t reached the point of no return yet. There is still time. And with positive action … and with global will power… in countries like Maldives, populations can stay in their own countries for generations to come.”

Filling in for Climate Wise Women member Ursula Rakova, Jacinta Helin enlightened the completely engaged audience on the urgent plight of the people of Carteret Atoll Islands. A native Carteret Islander, Helin teaches in Hawaii and advocates for NGO organization Tulele Peisa. The name translated means, “Sailing the waves on our own,” and is seemingly indicative of the marooned population’s desperate need of relocation to Bougainville, in Papua New Guinea. The group of five islands, “most about the size of a football field,” has lost so much land that scientists declared the small nation will be uninhabitable by 2015. The community’s food gardens wash out to sea, and the land is rapidly becoming unsuitable for vegetation due to the extremely high saline content of the soil, thereby adding food shortage to the already dire situation.

Rakova formed Tulele Peisa “so [the Islanders] can have a better quality of life” because currently “their future is very bleak. They have to move out,” said Helin after showing a video clip of elders lending their firsthand accounts. During the Q&A, Helin was asked the total cost for relocation of all the families, and she replied, “Ursula mentioned that for [all] the islands to be resettled it would be a couple million U.S. dollars, which is a very huge amount.” Markham followed, “Plus, there are other costs, that aren’t just monetary, too,” spurring a question regarding cultural loss due to relocation. Helin answered, “Of course when you move to a new place, the culture is not the same … Carterets’ people are a peace loving people. They dance, they go fishing, they hunt together, and they laugh a lot. But the main island where they are moving to is a whole different culture. It’s still recovering from a civil war that started in the 1980s. It’s quieting down now, but there is still tension.” Each newly constructed house costs approximately $5,000 (US) and includes five acres on which the families can build food gardens and cash crops. Interestingly, due to cultural conflict, the houses are built from a combination of Western materials and traditional materials, such as woven bamboo, to reduce potential ill will from existing Bougainville residents toward their new neighbors. “There is a lot of cultural conflict there, but it’s the best choice to move because the Carteret people have nowhere else to go.”

The women mentioned various strategies being implemented around the world, from planting trees to researching new technology for growing food on smaller plots of land to facilitating door-to-door flood preparedness training and disease vaccinations. Markham said, “Solutions come in all shapes and sizes, and I think you are witnessing solutions here… They witnessed the climate change impacts on their communities and their families, they thought about it and organized, and [they] take the trouble to travel and come and speak to us. That is a solution right there…all of the women are presenting us with pieces to the puzzle that add up to a solution.”

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