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Part of: Small islands and climate change
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Pacific islanders draw a line on coal - and climate change

by Arianne Kassman
Thursday, 23 October 2014 12:45 GMT

Traditionally dressed representatives from South Pacific nations push their canoes into the water as they prepare to participate in a protest aimed at ships leaving the Newcastle coal port, located north of Sydney, on October 17, 2014. REUTERS/David Gray

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Traditional canoes block Australia’s largest coal port

Over 700 islands, more than 800 languages and cultures and some 1500 bird species - Papua New Guinea’s diversity is without a doubt unique and the country is home to some of the world’s most beautiful flora and fauna.

Land is one of the most valuable assets in PNG. More than 90 percent of the land is customary land and owned by the people.

I was born and raised in the capital city of Papua New Guinea, Port Moresby. I was brought up in a strong Christian family and my traditions and my culture were also a part of my upbringing. I also learned the importance of different cultural obligations I had to my people and the land.

Today, all of this continues to be threatened by climate change. Rising sea levels, coastal flooding and king tides are all too common along the coast and for many of the islands.

This month, I travelled to Australia together with my 30 brothers and sisters from the Pacific to bring a message to Australia that decisions being made are having serious consequences on my home.

Even though it is one of our closest neighbours, Australia’s continued commitment to expanding the fossil fuel industry is destroying my home. Australia is the world’s second largest coal exporter - with plans to triple those exports in the coming years.

It is also one of the world’s largest gas exporters, with plans underway to make Australia the largest exporter in the world.  These are plans that are distant from me, but ones that are felt by me and my people.

For Pacific Island communities the connection to the land, and to the sea, is paramount. The land plays a central role in our culture. But now, as sea levels rise, storms increase, and droughts hit, we are losing that connection. The sea, which used to play a central, calming role, in our community has now become a force to be feared.

For the Cartaret Islands this loss couldn’t be felt more. Their entire connection to their land has been lost. And that is the fate being faced by communities all across the Pacific. Just recently king tides hit Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands.

When a king tide hits in those countries there is nowhere to go - the land is literally flooded. These are nations that have already been given a death sentence, told by scientists that within decades their entire land will be under water, that the only connection they will have to their land, and their culture, will be a passport.

This is what the fossil fuel industry is doing to us. Through their reckless plans to massively expand the mining of coal and gas they are trying to lock us into a future of disaster, one of rising sea levels, floods, storms and the destruction of livelihoods and places we call home. It is a future of destruction based on a shallow desire for greater profits.

This year, however, we have decided to no longer let this future be dictated for us. For years we have tried to negotiate with global leaders to halt emissions and stop climate change. But it has fallen on deaf ears.

That’s why I joined 30 Pacific Climate Warriors who traveled to Australia, leading a peaceful blockade of the Newcastle Coal Port on October 17. We are calling out the industry for their plans to drown our Islands. And we were joined by thousands of other Australians - those who joined us in Newcastle, or the others who led peaceful occupations of the headquarters of the fossil fuel industry in the week that followed.

We are refusing to drown; we are fighting for our islands, and for a safe climate for all of us. We’re creating a line not in the sand but in the port with traditional canoes that we have built, which no coal ships shall pass.

It is not too late. We can save the Pacific. We must save the Pacific and we must stand up, not only for the Pacific, but for all those around the world impacted by climate change. But to do so we need to stand up to the industry that is willfully destroying our home. We need to stop these destructive plans in their track.

I came to Australia not because I wanted to, but because I had to do whatever it takes to preserve my culture, my traditions, my home, the birth place of my heritage and my identity. I am proud to join the 30 Pacific Climate Warriors, and the hundreds of Australians who are standing up in support.

This is the action we need to take to save our islands. This is the action we need to take to keep our islands above water.

Arianne Kassman, from Papua New Guinea, is one of the Pacific Climate Warriors who participated in blockading Australia’s largest coal port.