Communities hit by climate change need the option to "stay with dignity"

29 July 2022

People affected by climate change in regions such as the Pacific are often portrayed as victims and their history of resilience to environmental challenges is too often overlooked in policy and research.

  • Pacific field study

    Dr. Dalila Gharbaoui with Matawalu's customary chief, Josaia Rakoto and his family at a traditional Fijian kava ceremony in Matawalu village, Ba province, Fiji.

Sustainable Development Goals 10 - Reduced Inequalities

Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 10 - Reduced Inequalities

While it’s true that some people are choosing to, or are forced, to leave their homes and land because of climate change, others are staying, says Dr Dalila Gharbaoui, a researcher at the University of Canterbury.   

“We need to understand the whole picture. Raising awareness on the impacts of climate change is very important but it is counter-productive to keep the focus only on alarmist talk. It can lead to a paralysing fear.

“What we need for the future survival of our planet is the opposite. We need action. There are so many examples of resilience to climate change in the Pacific that are still overshadowed by ‘climate victim’ talk.”

Dr Gharbaoui believes there’s a huge knowledge gap about those most vulnerable groups who are either forced to stay or want to stay despite the challenges of climate change.

Her work looks at the neglected category of people that are either “trapped” or not willing to move to adapt to climate change.

“Not everyone can or wants to move as is often assumed. There are those who, for cultural reasons, voluntarily refuse to move, and there are also ‘trapped populations’ who are unable to move from environmentally high-risk areas or are forced to stay for various reasons. My aim is to rethink mobility and put forward another approach of ‘staying with dignity.’”

Dr Gharbaoui says that Pacific leaders and their communities are indicating they would prefer to stay on indigenous land rather than relocate.

“My research looks at how to best support communities in the Pacific, and in other regions of the world facing similar challenges, by listening to their stories and understanding their real needs, away from sensational or alarmist discussions commonly spread on climate change.

“This is particularly important at a time when Pacific Island countries are asserting their sense of self-determination in global climate negotiations and when there’s insufficient research specific to what adaptation to climate change means for this region and their communities.

“The human impact of climate change in the Pacific are real.  After meeting families, women, and kids in villages affected by climate change in Fiji, I realised that there is still so much to be done.”

Dr Gharbaoui says regions such as the Pacific have rich systems, knowledge and a deep understanding of how their ancestors have been dealing with environmental impacts on their daily lives for generations.

“Pacific people are not ‘victims’ and they are proudly dealing with the issue today. We need to listen to what the communities need, respecting and reflecting on their values and perspectives with the aim to have that knowledge going back to support and serve communities that are the most affected.”

She is particularly interested to explore how indigenous concepts from the Pacific could be applied to other regions and countries such as New Zealand which is currently developing its first National Adaptation and managed retreat plan.

“From both a Māori and Pasifika perspective, attachment to place and space is an essential part of being and loss of land would also mean loss of history and belonging.

“Aotearoa’s unique Treaty of Waitangi obligations and arrangements between Māori and the Crown require that policy development and policy responses must also involve iwi, hapū and Māori and acknowledge the whakapapa links Māori have with Pacific people and Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa,” Dr Gharbaoui says.

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