‘Climate Change’ with Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Jared Thomas and Jacynta Fuamatu

Amy Robertson, Monash Journalism

“Climate change is not simply an environmental issue but a matter of livelihood and cultural survival. It is a human issue, affecting our communities.”

Canadian Inuit environmental and human rights activist, Sheila Watt-Cloutier (The Right to be Cold: One Woman’s Story of Protecting Her Culture, the Arctic and Whole Planet 2015), a writer who explores the impact of climate change on the human rights of the Inuit, perfectly encapsulates the vulnerability of Indigenous people to climate change and industry.

How can an Indigenous person utilise their right to hunt and fish if their land has been disseminated and the local water is polluted?

What is the purpose of conservation and protection of Indigenous lands if those rights can be overridden by western destruction, and their land occupied without informed consent?

This was the centre piece of an event called ‘Climate Change’ at Deakin Edge as part of the recent Melbourne Writers Festival.

As the title reflects, the event examined the impact of climate change and industrial expansion on Indigenous communities and land, reframing it as a human rights issue.

Moderated by poet Tony Birch (Ghost River 2015), other panelists included Indigenous writer Jared Thomas (Calypso Summer 2014), whose novels have received worldwide attention for their universal themes, and 350 Pacific activist, Jacynta Fuamatu, whose stories highlight lived experiences of those in the Pacific.

Indigenous communities like the Inuit and Pacific Island people are extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and have invaluable traditional knowledge about the issue.

The panel called on governments to allow their communities to have a greater say in international decision making around climate change.

Fuamatu and Cloutier offered the most devastating examples of industry exploitation and climate change effects on their communities, eliciting gasps and moans from the audience.

Fuamatu begrudgingly described the plight of Indigenous groups in West Papua, whose rainforests are being deforested for timber without the consent of locals, and where people are being exiled and misplaced.

Cloutier presented a vivid description of life in the artic and talked about the loss and thinning of the ice, which becomes a safety issue for the Inuit – “The ice, the snow and the cold are a life-force for us.”

Melting permafrost and coastal erosion forces people to relocate their homes, Cloutier said. Ice breaks earlier in summer and forms later in winter. These factors impact the Inuit ability to hunt and fish, as conditions are no longer predictable and traditional knowledge becomes superfluous.

As the moderator, Birch was informed and passionate about the topic and kept the audience engaged with compelling and thought provoking questions.

However, the panelists did not acknowledge the challenges to Indigenous engagement in regards to climate change activism, like the acceptance of environmental degradation in exchange for financial security or job opportunities provided by mining or extractive industries.

Despite this the ‘Climate Change’ event at MWF was motivational as a call to arms to confront climate change through a human rights lens. It also pinpointed the value of Indigenous engagement and knowledge on climate change.

Indigenous and human rights, and the treaties that protect them, represent the most powerful barrier to protect our environment and create a sustainable future, the panel suggested.

In the words of Sheila Watt-Cloutier, “we protect what we love.”