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Profiling Torres Strait Islander solutions for environmental sustainability

Such is the threat of the climate crisis to Torres Strait Islanders that a group has lodged a case with the United Nations Human Rights Committee, arguing that Australia’s failure to take adequate steps to reduce carbon emissions has violated their fundamental human rights, including the right to maintain their culture.

In the article below, Torres Strait Islander researchers talk about a project that has developed a model to empower individuals, groups and communities to address complex social and environmental problems like the climate emergency.

This article is published as part of Croakey’s contribution to the global #CoveringClimateNow project.


Sanchia Shibasaki and Felecia Watkin Lui write:

The voice rang out with a powerful message:

“It’s 2050 and a tidal surge has sunk the last of our Torres Strait Island homes beneath the depths of the rising sea. Culture clings to a lifebuoy… Is there anybody out there?”

It was a key moment in “Woer Wayepa: the water is rising”, a short performance piece directed by our colleague Margaret Harvey and performed on the opening night of the 2018 Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.

It was part of the Meriba buay – ngalpan wakaythoemamay (We come together to share our thinking) project, funded by the Lowitja Institute, that mobilised knowledge on important concerns for Torres Strait to achieve impact.

Woer Wayepa told a story about a future when Torres Strait Island communities have been swallowed by the waters that surround them.

It’s a future that is looming for our communities, north east of Australia and on the frontline of the climate crisis, where rising seas are already washing away homes, fishing grounds, infrastructure and cemeteries.

The need to find sustainable solutions to serious social and environmental challenges is common to many communities around the world and is foundational to many research projects.

Western science plus local knowledge

As Torres Strait Islander people and academics, we know that approaches for developing and implementing sustainable solutions to social and environmental challenges require the mobilisation of both research and experiential knowledge.

Our project aimed to translate and harness both Western science and research, and local experiential (personal, traditional and cultural) knowledge, so that Torres Strait Islander people can develop their own solutions to the complex environmental and social problems on our doorsteps.

It is in the Torres Strait, in a relatively pristine marine and island environment, where you will find the most intact northern extension of the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef ecosystem that is rich in diverse flora and fauna and endemism.

In the past, the survival of its people relied on living harmoniously with the flora, fauna, land and sea, doing so based on local Indigenous knowledge systems.

The effectiveness of their knowledge translation practices was seen in sophisticated marine technology, such as large outrigger canoes that could remain at sea for long periods and hold large sea animals such as dugongs and turtles.

But over time, particularly through colonisation, local knowledge systems and practices were disrupted and replaced.

Plastic bottles now bob up and down in the ocean, tangled fishing lines wrap around propellers and micro plastics are to be found in seafood.

Although some Islanders still garden and hunt, these practices have significantly declined, replaced by community stores and more sedentary lifestyles associated with high prevalence of chronic diseases and lower life expectancy compared to non-Indigenous Australians.

Feeling the impact

As massive floods showed last year, Torres Strait Islanders are increasingly feeling the impact of environmental and man-made factors from rising sea levels, water shortages, population growth, pollution, and over fishing.

For generations, our communities prospered from the region’s socio-ecological wealth. Now this ecosystem is being depleted beyond the point of endangerment.

Meriba buay – ngalpan wakaythoemamay brought a group of Torres Strait Islander researchers together for the first time.

We had a wide range of expertise in health, education, science, environment, engineering, technology, economics, social sciences, community development, knowledge translation, performing arts and visual and creative arts, management and administration, and traditional knowledge systems and practice.

Our broad, overarching subject was the social determinants of health and wellbeing for people living in Torres Strait Islander communities and our focus was on the topic of the natural environment, and specifically on the issue of climate change.

Searching the literature found limited evidence of a social determinants of health approach for Torres Strait Islander people or policy or strategies on adaptation and/or resilience that were most likely to lead to sustainable communities in the Torres Strait.

An additional finding was that, from a knowledge translation or mobilisation perspective, little had been done nationally or internationally to integrate Indigenous peoples in relevant decision-making processes and, specifically, Indigenous knowledge into climate crisis strategies.

We know Torres Strait Islander people previously had a keen sense of ‘knowing’ the physical and human environment in which they lived, of ‘owning’ how to survive in that environment, and of working within traditional customs and ways of interacting with their environment to ‘flip’ circumstances to better cope with that environment.

These concepts formed a model we called ‘Know, Own, Flip the Risk’.

Knowing the risk

This is the first step to working out if a person or group is aware that there is a problem and if they fully understand it and associated risks.

At this stage, research knowledge complementing experiential knowledge can be used to better understand the nature, scale and potential consequences of the environmental and social threats for Torres Strait Islanders from the climate crisis.

For example, we have experiential knowledge about the present such as changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, coastal inundation, movement of people, loss of language and so on.

But what does the future world look like? What are the scientific predictions on risks to our communities? How do we inform people about these risks?

Owning the risk

Once we know and understand the nature and scale of the problem, the next step is taking ownership to address the risks.

In our example, Own the Risk refers to how the causes of the climate crisis lie outside the control of Torres Strait Islanders, but we must accept and own these consequences and be prepared to adapt.

We must work out who is bearing the risks and who will take care of the issues at local and regional levels.

At the individual level, what can be achieved through local willingness to tackle anxieties and fears and how can a willingness to act be fostered?

Flipping the risk

This is the most challenging stage because it involves accepting and then adapting to changed circumstances.

Flipping the risk refers to research knowledge complementing experiential knowledge to help make well-informed decisions about adapting to the impacts of the climate emergency, just as we have accepted and adapted to past environmental changes.

How do we empower our families and communities to be resilient to the projected future?

Putting the model on stage

The Know, Own, and Flip the Risk process model is simple, easy to remember, and useful for assessing awareness and readiness to address problems large and small.

It is easy to apply, driven by the knowledge user, and requires no external resources such as training.

And it is practical – to help knowledge producers effectively mobilise knowledge and knowledge users to make informed decisions.

In its limited life, it attracted positive feedback at the “Woer Wayepa” performance in Cairns and encouraging responses at conferences, workshops, and meetings around Australia and in Canada.

We believe it is generalisable to a wide range of social and environmental settings.

The climate crisis in the Torres Strait is happening now and in real time. Torres Strait Islanders have the solutions to adapt and respond but they need resources and political goodwill to do so.  Action is needed now, there is no Plan B.

Watch this video about the project.

• Dr Felecia Watkin Lui is a Torres Strait Islander woman with giz from Erub, and Mabuiag.  She is an Associate Professor of Indigenous Studies in the Indigenous Education and Research Centre, James Cook University.

• Dr Sanchia Shibasaki was born and raised on Thursday Island and is of Torres Strait Islander descent. She has lived and worked in communities in Queensland, Northern Territory and Western Australia, and is currently the Director of Research and Knowledge Translation Program at the Lowitja Institute.

Researchers (L-R) Margaret Harvey, Felecia Watkin Lui, Sanchia Shibasaki and Lynda Ah Mat: members of the Torres Strait Islander research network at the Lowitja Institute #KTthatWorks forum earlier this year

• This article is published as part of the Covering Climate Now initiative, an unprecedented collaboration involving more than 300 media outlets around the world that is putting the spotlight on the climate crisis in the leadup to a Climate Action Summit at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 23 September. It is co-founded by The Nation and the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR), in partnership with The Guardian. Croakey invites our readers, contributors and social media followers to engage with these critical discussions, using the hashtag #CoveringClimateNow. See Croakey’s archive of climate and health coverage.

If you value our coverage of climate and health, please consider supporting our Patreon fundraising campaign, so we can provide regular, in-depth coverage of the health impacts of the climate crisis, taking a local, national and global approach. All funds raised will go to a dedicated fund to pay writers and editors to put a sustained focus on the health impacts of climate change. Please help us to produce stories that will inform the health sector, policy makers, communities, families and others about how best to respond to this public health crisis.

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