NEW YORK — A young mother, small in stature and dressed in traditional clothing from her native home in the Marshall Islands, stepped up to the podium at the U.N. Climate Summit. Her message dug beneath the diplomatic jargon that would comprise most of the conference. Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a twenty-six-year-old indigenous Pacific Islander, simply delivered a poem written for her infant daughter. And through the poem’s personal imagery, voicing the unsung struggles of a mother concerned for the world her daughter is entering, she delivered arguably the most powerful speech of the conference.
Jetnil-Kijiner put a face to the immediate threat of climate change many indigenous cultures have already been forced to battle. Her homeland has encountered record droughts and sea level rises. Its abnormal climate crises has put it amongst the most endangered nations, according to a report by the United Nations radio.
“No one is drowning, baby,” Jetnil-Kijiner recites to her daughter. “No one’s moving, no one’s losing their homeland.”
Indigenous cultures, especially in the Pacific region, face the most urgent threats of climate change. Despite a surge in legal recognition of rights, with the rise of international groups like United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, mother nature is projected to offset many of the political battles for which these cultures fight.
In addition to the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Papua New Guinea and many others could be completely submerged within the century, according to the United Nations.
Pacific indigenous cultures are already losing vital resources. Communities largely centered around livestock face foreign pests as a result of shifts in climate, and many who rely on river flow for clean water are experiencing abnormalities in water patterns due to drought and flooding.
In Tuvalu, the collection of islands resting between Australia and Hawaii, invasive saltwater has already made crop growth difficult. In fact, New Zealand immigration recently granted a Tuvaluan family legal residency after their attorney cited climate change as the reason they could no longer maintain life on their native island.
“It’s already like a weapon of mass destruction,” said Tuvalu Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga on the impact of climate change.
Loss of land for indigenous cultures doesn’t just mean relocation. It threatens the sustainability of their culture completely. According to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, cultures can rarely maintain their unique customs outside their native lands. Losing them means urbanization and forced abandonment of traditional lifestyles as their members disperse.
For these cultures, already faced with historic oppression and systematic violation of human rights, the immediate implications of climate change threaten any progress they’ve made in preserving tradition.
“We deserved to do more than just survive,” said Jetnil-Kijiner. “We deserve to thrive.”
– Ellie Sennett