A new year

Reading climate change in the Torres Strait Islands

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FOR EACH NEW year that comes around, people make resolutions: they come up with ideas to improve their way of living. Mine usually consist of healthier eating, reading more widely, practising patience and kindness. But this year I want to focus on actions that sound stronger, on actions that tug more intensely at my heart. I want to make bigger commitments, and to think about the commitments I make as an individual and the ones we should be making as a community.

I’ve been writing this in bits and pieces. Sitting at my desk in the lounge, surrounded by my family. My mother, aunt, uncle and my aka (my grandmother) are all staying with me in my tiny apartment in Brisbane’s West End. It’s comforting to have their presence in my periphery as I write. I gather a strength from their energies that I greatly need, as writing about climate change – which is what I need write about, think about, hold at the centre of my commitments – is not a peaceful task.

Ngau zageth mina asin
Nitha sesthamau

My work is done
Sit back and learn

My mum and my aka taught me this phrase over the Christmas and New Year break. You relax your lips, Aka told me, on sesthamau.

When big people use these words – when thempla sit down with young people – they are asking us to sit and listen. To do something. So it’s appropriate, I think, to share these words as this new year rolls through. It’s appropriate to ask what my big people have taught me, and what they are teaching me now that I should be learning.

Learning culture and history is one of my commitments for this year, because we cannot make changes without looking at what has already happened. So, as this new year bloomed – as my family and I tried to put 2020 out of our minds – I talked to my aka and my mother more and more about where we’re from, and what’s happening there.

ZENADTH KES, THE Torres Strait Islands, is made up of hundreds of islands spanning from the tip of mainland Queensland to Papua New Guinea. The terrains of these many islands range from rich volcanic soils to islands on sandy cays. To reach them, you first traverse the Strait by plane from Cairns to Horn Island, and then pick your mode: dinghy, ferry or small plane. Our islands – Warraber (Sue Island) and Poruma (Coconut Island) – are sandy cays located in central Zenadth Kes. I visited Warraber as a teenager, stood at its centre and could see each side of the island from the main street. Although it is less than 1.5 kilometres long, I remember a sense of belonging there that I have not felt elsewhere.

The idea of taking care of place has a significant weight in the Torres Strait Islands. Our people have always upheld the responsibility of care required to maintain and understand the lands and waters where we live. Aka has told me about the five winds that guide our people in the Kulkalgal Nation: Kuki, Sager, Naigai, Zay, Waur. These winds tell us of what to prepare for. When Sager blows, the sands dunes will dance toward the north. Aka says, ‘It’s like the sand, e rotate, like they all follow each other around the island.’ This tells us that change is coming.

Of course, repositories of knowledge exist beyond the winds. Stars and clouds also hold this power. Our people study them – they study the natural world. Aka’s own father, my great-grandfather, could look at them stars – look at Zugubal, the whole sky, the constellations – and know what was to come. ‘The shark e turn the tail,’ he’d say about the constellation Baidham. And this signified the weather – rough weather, or calmness – that was coming.

The seasons – for our people not just the four seasons known to Europeans, but also small climatic variations that affect daily living – not only mark a change in weather: they’re also about preparing for the next part of life. They help us to understand turtle mating seasons and monsoon times; to know that the beautiful weather in December, when mangoes grow, will come and will go; to sail by the sight of stars, instead of the bearings of a compass. They’re about surviving in this world, and living sustainably.

These learnings are cultural, and they are impactful. They’re necessary: they allow my people to hunt and fish at the right times without endangering the natural species and to keep the land healthy and alive during natural weather changes. But climate change is undoing this care – at the same time as making it even more vital. Climate change, like so much change and human error, is threatening not only the beauty but the very real homes of my people, my family.

Aka told me she’s always known not to dig deep in the sands on the side of the islands. But when the government built the airstrip on Poruma, they took sand from the land. The spring water underground turned salty, and life dried out in these areas. When king tides come, exacerbated by the rising sea levels, the water flows into these holes, eating at more of the island. And the seas levels continue to rise. People have wedged tyres around the beach to prevent the further erosion. But tyres won’t stop it forever: just as the spring water turned salty, those rising seas will still take the sand. Only a significant change in how we treat the environment can make a true, lasting difference.

A group of Torres Strait Islanders are taking a climate change complaint against the Australian Government to the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations. It calls for the government to increase its emission reduction target to at least 65 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, to achieve net zero by 2050, and to phase out coal. It is not an unreasonable request. Making these bigger changes will not only help the world as a whole, but it will have a profound impact on homes in Zenadth Kes. As Kabay Tamu (my bala) from Warraber explains, ‘we have a right to practice our culture in our traditional homeland, where we belong. Our culture has a value that no money could ever compensate for. Our culture starts here on the land. It is how we are connected with the land and the sea. You wash away the land and it is like a piece of us you are taking away.’

A lighthouse once stood on an outstretched sandy bank on Poruma, the island where my aka was born. She would play at the lighthouse, climbing its height or diving from the sandy bank into the strong tide. Thanks to the encroaching sea, the bank and the lighthouse are no longer there. Many areas, many important places on these islands, have disappeared, and these disappearances are not stopping. You can sign a petition to support the complaint being taken to the United Nations. You can donate to this cause. Writing this is part of my work in raising awareness around this campaign.

While my new-year commitments involve my own learning about this culture and history, I am also in the middle of a postgraduate degree, exploring speculative fiction with Torres Strait Islander perspectives for young people. I want to find a way to write fictionally about the climate crisis, but something as monumental – and as personal – as this has proved hard to consider creatively. At times, it has seemed a disservice to write about this very real and threatening force in fantastical ways. In this new year, I know I also have to commit to find a way to do this.

And I’m listening to my aka and other family members when they speak in creole or language: I want to write their words down. Because words reach people – they let us trade feelings, they let us make magic that way. That’s why I’ve tried to include some in this short essay, as well as in the fiction I write. It’s a challenge to use what I know, ask about what I don’t know, and think too about how English readers will interpret and understand the words I use.

IN JUST A few days’ time, in early January, my mum will move to Mabuiag in the Torres Strait to work as a teacher and head of campus at the school there. My aka will go with her. And when the height of this summer has left us, its heat brushing yawo against the backs of those in South-East Queensland, some of us down here will also travel home to Zenadth Kes, to attend a tombstone unveiling for an athe (grandfather) of mine. I may have developed a fear of flying, but I’ve made another commitment for this year to conquer it and travel to join in this cultural event.

I am lucky: the importance of the oral history and knowledge that I have access to is immeasurable. I cannot quantify what it means for me to have opportunities to talk to my aka, to travel to Zenadth Kes, and to write about these places, these conversations, these ideas. During this past tumultuous year, it has been impossible not to think about the risks to our family home, our ancestral lands and waters. It has been impossible not to think about the depth of our culture and language and our place on this Earth. It’s important, now, to make and honour our own commitments to these things.

Koima esso – a big thank you all – for joining me here.

This article is part of The Elemental Summer, an online series featuring writing from a selection of Australia’s most respected thinkers on climate. 

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