Tag Archives: fieldwork

“We are not drowning, we are fighting”: Pacific Islanders want you to know that they still have hope for their islands

This blog post originally appeared on the Ocean Leaders blog, which highlights the work of Ocean Leaders fellows. Please consider giving them a follow on social media at @oceanleaders on Twitter or OceanLeadersUBC on Facebook!

This past weekend, I was on a discussion panel for the documentary film Anote’s Ark, which follows the former present of Kiribati, Anote Tong, in his quest to bring the plight of Kiribati’s people in the face of climate change to the western eye. This sounds harmless enough, but since the film was released a new president was elected, the filmmaker was banned from entering the country, and the Kiribati ambassador to the United States attempted to prevent the film from showing at Sundance Film Festival (this is according to the filmmaker, you can read his take here).

It’s important to know that the current president of Kiribati objects to this film not because he doesn’t believe in climate change, but because of the language and messaging the film employs. “We are not sinking, we are fighting” is a battle cry heard all throughout the Pacific. The dominant Western narrative about climate change is one in which people who live in the Pacific Islands are helpless in the face of rising sea levels and erosion, and Anote’s Ark uses language that reinforces this narrative. For example, the first thing you see when you visit the film’s website is the question, “What if your country was swallowed by the sea?” While it is true that Pacific Islanders are not responsible for creating climate change, they are far from helpless when it comes to facing its effects, and language such as that used in Anote’s Ark removes their autonomy.

Tokelau warriors participate in the Pacific Warrior Day of Action in 2013 (image via 350.org).

I was asked to be on the panel because I had just returned from Kiribati, where I spent two weeks scuba diving around Tarawa and Abaiang Atolls with my advisor, Simon Donner, and master’s student Heather Summers, to study the coral reefs for my Ph.D. fieldwork. While we were there, we worked closely with staff from the Kiribati Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development. I have also worked with communities on other “sinking islands”: in the Marshall Islands (just north of Kiribati) and in the outer islands of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. While these places are different in many ways, they are all united by their status as lands on the frontline of climate change. However, none of these communities are ready to give up the fight to save their homelands. Language evoking drowning and disappearing islands gives the impression that their fate has already been determined.

Before we left, we had an opportunity to share our research with people from various ministries in the Kiribati government (mainly, the Ministry of the Environment, Lands and Agricultural Development, the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development, and the Ministry of Education). These ministries are being proactive and doing lots of great work to slow the effects of climate change. For example, the Ministry of the Environment has planted mangroves in various places in Tarawa’s lagoon to slow erosion, and they appear to be doing well. Healthy coral reefs can play an important role in protecting low-lying atolls like Tarawa and Abaiang from erosion because they break up waves that can cause erosion (in fact, coral reefs dissipate wave energy by an average of 97%). Everyone at the meeting was eager to brainstorm potential ways to protect and restore reefs around the atolls, and we discussed our preliminary findings and their potential implications for over an hour after the presentation. For me, the meeting was a much-needed reminder of how crucial healthy reefs really are to Pacific Island communities; this is easy to overlook from a Western viewpoint, in which people tend to think of their value mostly in terms of tourism and aesthetics.

Pacific Climate Warriors lead the People’s March in Bonn, Germany on November 4, 2017 (Image via Hoda Baraka, 350.org).

Anote’s Ark featured a scene from the COP23 meeting in Bonn, Germany, in which a group of Pacific Climate Warriors led the People’s March on November 4, 2017, a gathering of 20,000 people demanding action from the international community on climate change. This international congregation of people united behind the Climate Warriors who chanted as they marched, “We are not sinking, we are fighting”. One of these warriors was Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, a Marshallese activist, poet, and teacher, who was also featured giving a speech. She has given talks all over the world, including one during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Leaders Summit in 2014 (you can watch it here). Kathy has actively spoken against the narrative that Pacific Islanders are helplessly waiting to sink into the sea. I’ll end with a poem she shared that was written by another Pacific Climate Warrior named George:

Yesterday

Sounded like the calm ocean breeze blowing through the Baka Tree. The laughter of my Dreu’s* making jokes about the Baigani incident. The mixing of Yaqona at 10am and the call from across the village going mai, mai, mai, dua mada na bilinimua.

Yesterday tasted like sui mada by my mother. Fresh fish and Yaqona made by my people.

Yesterday looked like the Bula smiles and respectful gaze of my elders. It looked like hope.

Yesterday smelt like the voivoi picked to weave the finest mats, like the masi used to wrap my son and daughter the first time they came home.

Yesterday felt like 

We are not drowning.

We are fighting.

 

*Translations:

Yaqona – Kava
Mai, mai, mai, dua mada na bili ni mua – come, come, come, one farewell mix
Sui – meaty bone soup
Voivoi – pandanus leaves
Masi – Tapa
Baigani – Egg plant
Drue’s – traditional address for people from Vanua Levu, the other bigger island in Fiji.

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Tiabo for now, Kiribati

I’m currently sitting in the departure terminal in Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati. It is a small room made of mismatched wood paneling, with one wall open to the tarmac, and a concrete floor. There are no lights, and a huge fan in the corner keeps the air moving, although it’s still sweltering. My back is to the tarmac, and I can feel the heat rising off of the asphalt. It’s just before noon, the hottest part of the day, and we’re waiting for the plane to come in so we can board. We are getting ready to depart for Fiji, the first stop on my long trip back to Vancouver.

My time in Kiribati has come to a close, at least for now. My head is spinning slightly from just how quickly this trip flew by, which I’m sure is aided by whatever stomach bacteria I’ve been battling the last few days. Sadly, because I was sick, I spent most of our time in the beautiful Abaiang sleeping in a traditional sleeping hut and didn’t get to dive or explore much of the atoll. I did talk Max, one of the guys we’re working with from Fisheries, into giving me a motorcycle ride along the atoll’s single road the morning before we left (he said he could tell it was my first time on a motorcycle). Abaiang is lovely. People live in picturesque, mostly traditional style housing equipped with solar panels, and there is a surprisingly large kava bar with multiple pool tables and karaoke. Apparently, some of the guys sang karaoke our first night in Abaiang. I’m so sad that I missed it, but Heather thoughtfully recorded it for me so I could live vicariously through her. Fortunately, I brought antibiotics with me and started taking them as soon as I was feeling sick, so I was feeling better by the time we were heading back to Tarawa (we only spent two nights in Abaiang).

 

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An Abaiang sunset.

 

 

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Our sleeping huts in Abaiang.

 

The highlight of the last few days in Tarawa was our presentation of our findings to various stakeholders, hosted and organized by the Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) Trust. We spoke to representatives from Kiribati’s Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources Development, the Ministry of Environment, Lands, and Agricultural Development, and the Ministry of Education (although Simon and Heather will give a more detailed presentation to the Ministry of Fisheries folks). People had a lot of great questions and I really hope that our work will be useful for them as they plan for the future of Kiribati. We spoke a lot about how coral reefs can help prevent erosion and therefore help protect against sea level rise. It’s an important reminder that those of us who travel to scuba dive on coral reefs tend to view them through a Western lens in that their value to us is in their beauty; to Pacific Islanders, the health of coral reefs is directly linked to the health of their communities and the survival of their islands. The meeting was a great reminder of how important this work is and it left me feeling motivated to do more.

 

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Explaining the differences in coral diversity between less disturbed sites (N. Tarawa and Abaiang) and more disturbed sites (S. Tarawa).

 

My advisor, Heather, and Erietera and Max from Fisheries all accompanied me to the airport this morning. Heather and Simon will both be staying in Kiribati for an extra week, but I’m returning early because of family obligations (oh, the joys of being a single parent in academia). It’s hard leaving when I know there’s still work to be done, but I hope to return to Kiribati in the next couple of years to continue my work here, and to continue working with the Ministry of Fisheries. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to spend time in Kiribati and to learn so much from all the people I’ve met. So, until next time … Tiabo (goodbye, pronounced sabo), Kiribati!

 

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Corals are smelly and other anecdotes from the field

There are so many things to love about fieldwork. As scientists, it’s an opportunity to finally get our hands dirty (so to speak) and interact with the systems we’re studying. It’s also invaluable to get to know the communities and people who live in the places we work (scientists commonly treat people as separate from our environments, but that’s never the case) … and what is the point of our research if it doesn’t serve local communities?

The work I’m doing here in Kiribati (and that my advisor, Simon Donner, has been doing for over a decade) will hopefully provide information that will help communities make informed decisions about how best to protect their marine resources and coastlines. We are working closely with the Kiribati Department of Fisheries and have been fortunate to have their divers join us on the boat. We also are collecting data about the coral reefs here that we can compare to other places to get an idea of how past ocean temperature may affect susceptibility to bleaching events. On this trip, I’m comparing the photosynthetic rates of corals collected from each of our sites, which I hope will give us an idea of how productive various sites are, and how the productivity of individual types of corals changes across sites.

While our work has serious implications, it’s great that we can have some fun doing it. We get to dive some of the most beautiful reefs in the world (although we also dive some of the most degraded reefs). I mentioned in my last post that people in Kiribati love to laugh, which makes every day on the boat a joy, even when we’re diving in rough conditions. It definitely helps the days go by faster, too — we’re usually on the boat for around 10 hours a day, and then we come back to our hotel room to do data entry and do coral measurements before we go straight to bed, so having fun while working is imperative.

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Measuring photosynthetic rates of coral samples with a PAM fluorometer. I do these measurements in the dark (hence the headlamp). We took this photo after I’d finished the measurements for the night (it’s staged!). (photo via Heather Summers)

 

Collecting coral samples is fun but challenging. I lost two sets of sample bags in the first few days because they are buoyant and will float away if you’re not careful, so I’ve had to come up with a system to weigh them down. Some of the corals are really difficult to break, so I dive with a hammer and a chisel for the bigger corals and a rongeur (which is usually used for cutting bone during surgery) for the smaller, branching corals. I have to wear a full wetsuit (even though the water is around 30 degrees Celsius) to protect my skin because I’ve gotten slammed into the corals by big ocean swells. But the most challenging part of sampling corals is also probably the most surprising: they smell horrible!

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Collecting samples of Heliopora using the rongeur.

 

I have to dispose of the coral samples each night after measuring them with the PAM (pictured above), and we very quickly learned not to empty the water from the cooler (where we keep the samples) in the bathroom because it smelled so bad that we could barely stand to use it. I’m learning that some corals smell worse than others, too — I hate sampling Pocillopora, for example, because it stinks so badly, and the massive Porites emit a stinky mucous that looks like snot. The smell was so bad while we did the measurements earlier tonight that I had to hold my breath to keep from throwing up, and we were so desperate that we sprayed half a bottle of sunscreen in the room just to try to cover up the stench afterward. It turns out that corals are really gross when you take them out of the water!

By far my favorite part of fieldwork is getting to know the communities we’re working with. My colleague Heather, a masters student in Simon’s lab, is doing some really interesting work looking at reef complexity and erosion, and as a part of her work, we are taking a few days to do some on-shore measurements. We usually get a lot of attention from curious onlookers when we’re doing measurements on the beach. Children here are not shy and it’s so much fun to engage their curiosity. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes children will come running from all directions to see what we’re up to! It’s a great opportunity to get them involved and to talk about the importance of coral reefs.

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My colleague, Heather, on the left and my advisor, Simon, on the right, with a curious onlooker  in the middle.

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These kids were super curious and it was great to be able to involve them in our work.

Fieldwork isn’t for everyone and there are certainly a number of challenges, but it’s my favorite part of my work and what keeps me motivated to keep going. I feel incredibly lucky to be here in Kiribati. We’ll be heading to Abaiang, an outer island atoll, tomorrow and will be offline until Tuesday night (late Monday in North America). Tomorrow is also my 33rd birthday. I couldn’t ask for a better way to celebrate!

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