Posted inOpinion / Tuvalu

In my house is a Tuvaluan basket, a tiny piece of an island the world cannot fail

I will never throw away this basket from Tuvalu, an island nation that could become completely uninhabitable and disappear under the sea in the terrifyingly near future, writes Kate Lyons

I own a basket I can never throw away.

It is deeply impractical, with a wide base that means it takes up the entire surface area of any coffee table it sits on and a tall, rigid handle that makes storing it on any sort of shelf impossible.

Several times, I have rescued it from the pile of items to be donated to a charity shop. Last Christmas when my husband and I were packing to move house and taking savage inventory of the things we owned, I rescued it once again and spelt out my feelings for the basket and the long future it would have with us.

“I will never throw this away,” I said. “Ever.”

The woven basket comes from Tuvalu, an atoll nation in the South Pacific 4,000km north-east of Sydney. People from the Pacific often roll their eyes at the constant use of the epithet “tiny” to describe any Pacific island mentioned in international media, but in Tuvalu’s case, it actually does apply.

The fourth-smallest country in the world by land size, and, at 11,000, the third smallest by population, Tuvalu also has the cruel distinction of being one of the countries most under threat due to rising sea levels. Tuvalu and Kiribati are often mentioned in the same breath as countries that could be first to become completely uninhabitable and then disappear under the sea in the terrifyingly near future.

Salinity in the water table, heatwaves, king tides, flooding, destruction of coral reefs, coastal erosion – have all already begun. The skinny spit of land that makes up the main island narrows at one point to just 20 metres across – the ocean raging on one side, the lagoon on the other.

Three years ago when I visited Tuvalu, buying the basket from a small market full of sarongs and flower headpieces, taking it home to Australia, felt like an act of salvage. The privilege of having a tangible piece of an island that is so terribly threatened. A reminder of the culture and craft of a country I am lucky to have seen, that we might lose.

This week, as the world prepares for the next UN climate summit, COP27, we’ll bring you a series – Before it is lost – of essays from Pacific writers about the things on their islands that are threatened by the climate crisis, the things they are fighting to save.

We all have a lot at stake in the climate crisis, but none more than the Pacific. The climate story in the Pacific is a story of deep loss and injustice. As a region it has contributed negligible amounts in greenhouse emissions but disproportionately suffers its effects.

Surface temperatures and ocean heat in parts of the south-west Pacific are increasing at more than three times the global average rate, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Five of the 15 countries most at risk from weather-related events are in the Pacific. In the last 30 years, the mean sea level has risen approximately 10cm–15cm in much of the western tropical Pacific, according to the Pacific Islands Climate Change Monitor report 2021, compared to the global mean of 9.7cm.

The losses that have already been endured: of entire islands, of safety, of lives, of species, are enormous. The losses that could come are unthinkable.

I visited Tuvalu in 2019 to cover the Pacific Islands Forum. At the forum, then prime minister Enele Sopoaga, used Tuvalu’s culture and natural beauty as shameless weapons to try to win over the visiting politicians, policy wonks, NGO bosses and the media to his country’s fight.

Most nights, there would be a fatele, a feast with dancing and traditional music. Different islands took it in turns to host – saving their fish and lobster catch, bringing their coconuts and taro – to put on a huge meal for the hundreds of visitors. Afterwards they performed songs and dance; the mood was competitive between the islands, with groups calling challenges and friendly taunts to one another.

One morning, before sunrise, Sopoaga invited visitors to come to the beach and learn a traditional Tuvaluan fishing method that involves swimming into the lagoon in a line, banging the water with palm branches, herding the fish, before forming a circle around them in the shallows and catching them with nets.

I have not experienced many things more beautiful than swimming at sunrise in that perfect warm water, along that white-sand beach, surrounded by people singing and calling out from the shore as they built fires on the sand to cook our catch.

It was diplomacy by cultural sledgehammer. The prime minister was trying to get us to see what might be lost to the climate crisis, to see the specificity of Tuvalu, so that it would not, in our minds, be just one in a list of small Pacific countries, interchangeable and unremarkable.

Fiji has offered land to Tuvalu for relocation, but that offer, while generous and perhaps, God forbid, necessary, is not a solution that the international community should be content with. Tuvalu is not Fiji, just as the islands of Tuvalu themselves are not interchangeable and in fact are fiercely competitive on the dance floor.

I only spent a week in Tuvalu, but if it is lost in my lifetime, my heart will break for it. This is why I bought that basket, it’s why it has occupied far more space than I can spare in a tiny apartment; it is a physical piece of the island that the world must not be allowed to fail. Something that can be touched and held from a country facing a future of digital statehood; a dispersed or relocated nation.

The writers you will hear from this week, from across the Pacific, have those islands, those beautiful threatened lands, in their bones, in their blood.

They are – to a person – extraordinary: an acclaimed poet and national climate envoy, a veteran climate journalist, a renowned academic, a Pulitzer-nominated essayist who is also a human rights lawyer co-leading the campaign seeking an advisory opinion on climate change from the International Court of Justice. I mention this, not just because I am proud to be publishing their work, but to reinforce the fact that while Pacific peoples are undoubtedly victims of the climate crisis, they are also, without question, heroes of the climate fight. It is a fight they have been leading – fiercely, creatively, intelligently – for decades. It is a fight they need the world to join, before it is lost.

This opinion is by Kate Lyons, originally published at The Guardian on 30 October 2022, reposted via PACNEWS.

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