When you look at a Pacific postcard, you most often find the picture of a bright, smiling islander, flower in-ear, wearing the most brilliant colors, with the beauty of the Pacific Ocean in the background.
For years this has been a drawcard to our islands. The lure of our pristine beaches and the beautiful exotic women of the south seas. We all know that picture.
In a world that is driven by a desire to box and possess things, this is exactly where some countries wish to contain the Pacific.
This narrative of an exotic place, a holiday destination in the sea and sun has dominated the world view on our islands for centuries but with the climate crisis threatening a people who have existed on islands for thousands of years, an extra layer is added to that.
Since the increased global media coverage of the climate emergency, Pacific people have been portrayed as victims of severe natural disasters and sea-level rise. Doom and gloom scenarios have been illustrated, sometimes for the purpose of news headlines, and other times to secure donor funding.
But the climate crisis isn’t just threatening our islands, our way of life and our identity. It has in fact given birth to a generation of young passionate activists who draw from the spirit, the stories and the lessons of the giants who have risen up to stand up for our people in the past.
The late Gabriela Ngirmang, Mirair of Koror, was instrumental in giving the world its first nuclear-free constitution. President Dr. Hilda C. Heine made history as the first woman to lead an independent Pacific Island nation when she was elected President of the Marshall Islands in January 2016.
One of the fiercest warriors in the climate movement, the late Koreti Mavaega Tiumalu, who was an organizer for the Pacific Climate Warriors, stood boldly in her truth and lived out the words “we are not drowning, we are fighting!” in every way. As a movement leader, she helped so many others speak their truth, weaving a great mat of stories and people from every part of the planet. One of her protégés, Brianna Fruean, is now taking a different approach to ensure the voice of the Pacific people is heard where it matters the most.
Twenty-one year old Brianna Fruean is not a newbie to climate activism. At the tender age of 11, she founded 350’s Samoa presence and was the leader of ‘Future Rush,’ both environmental activist movements focussing on rallying youth to tackle environmental problems.
As a Pacific Youth Ambassador, the then fourteen-year-old Brianna was one of the youngest people to attend the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in 2012. Two years later, she made history when she won the Commonwealth Youth Award for Climate Change, Environmental Protection Award – being the youngest to do so.
At the recent United Nations Convention of the Parties Conference (COP25), Brianna was invited to speak in various forums, and in doing so, illustrated the real issues that young Pacific Islanders face, and the common misconception about how Pacific people are surviving in the current climate emergency.
“Smiling through trauma doesn’t mean trauma doesn’t exist. I think too often the world thinks that vulnerable communities’ smiles of resilience mean we’re ok, but no, it means we’re surviving but you’re still failing us,” she said at the High-Level Meeting of Caring for Climate at COP25 in Madrid, Spain.
“I remember going down to our coastal village Matautu shortly after winds slowed down when Cyclone Gita hit Samoa last year. The floods were still high, trees blocking the roads and the community all out trying to clean up. I saw two little girls walking through the flooded street, water up to their hips, carrying loafs of bread on their head and they were smiling ear to ear.”
“I asked them, “ua?” meaning “how’s it going,” and they replied, “o mea masani,” meaning “just the usual”. My mom experienced her first cyclone at 19. If those girls were 9 they would’ve already experienced 3, not to mention several more cyclone warnings. THEY WERE USED TO IT. I saw the smiles on their faces and I knew the world had failed them.”
Despite the numerous reports released telling us just how close our planet’s ecosystems are to collapsing, Brianna showed up at every one of her various speaking engagements at the high-level conference in Madrid, with a flower in her hair, armed with a radiant, positive smile and the will to put forward solutions to help save humanity. The type of will that true leaders of the past have been known for.
“So today I bring the smiles of the islands, the light in my flowers – a symbol of resilience, and I hope that when you look at my face you see the face of every single little girl smiling through a global crisis. With my smile I say I have HOPE that within these rooms, negotiations, bilaterals and institutions, we stop failing our neighbors and starting doing right by them.”
“We have to, especially for communities like mine whose smiles and islands will not last another 25 years of COP.”
Brianna, it is our hope that you will continue to inspire other young people to rise up and battle the climate emergency with passion and positivity, because the Pacific way of solving problems is through communal consensus — a key element that is missing in the high-level negotiations.
By: Joseph-Zane Sikulu, Pacific Campaigner
For more information on the amazing work of the Pacific Climate Warriors, join the conversation on their Facebook page: 350 Pacific