Climate change takes a toll on island communities

Climate change takes a toll on island communities

The winds, the tides and the sands have shifted in the Torres Strait.

At Christmas time the breeze used to come to Saibai island from nearby Papua New Guinea with the smell of flowers in the air and dancing would begin. 

But that doesn’t happen now.

“The seasons, the weather patterns have all changed,” Uncle Paul Kabai tells AAP.

Mr Kabai and Uncle Pabai Pabai, Guda Maluyligal traditional owners from the Torres Strait, are taking the federal government to court in the Australian Climate Case.

They are fighting for their people, their ancestors, their country, their islands and their ways of life.

Because as sea levels rise due to climate change, the people of the Torres Strait are at risk of losing everything.

On Friday the Federal Court wrapped up two weeks of on-country hearings, from Boigu, Badu and Sabai islands and Cairns.

As well as hearing evidence from traditional owners, the court was taken on trips around the three islands to see the damage already done by rising sea levels to traditional food-growing, cemeteries, homes, sea walls and by erosion.

On Saibai Mr Kabai, Uncle Herbert Warusan and Aunty Jen Enosa showed the judge a place where there used to be a beach, which has now receded more than 10 metres and turned to mud and mangroves.

Ms Enosa explained that as children they would play where the beach used to be, fish, and collect shells.

“When we had a beach at the front of the village, when the tide would drop down, we would know that it was time to find crabs for food, and they were plentiful,” she says.

But that doesn’t happen any more.

Mr Kabai says there has been many changes around the islands.

“Where our parents and grandparents used to have the gardens has been destroyed.” 

And the magpie geese that used to have a break on the island as they migrate from PNG don’t come anymore.

“We used to hunt magpie geese, ” Mr Kabai says.

“There’s no more of that.”

The court was also taken to beaches along the north eastern section of Saibai, to see where the beach has eroded, coconut trees have fallen down after their roots have become exposed from erosion, and hear how traditional women’s business sites have been affected.

In Cairns Bala Boggo Billy was called as the first witness and spoke about his childhood on Poruma and his later life on Warraber. 

He explained that when he was young, he was taught traditional knowledge about gardening and the seasons for growing and harvesting. 

Now, changes to the weather and soil have made it difficult to grow crops, which impacts people’s livelihoods as well as the community’s ability to pass on this cultural knowledge to future generations.

Uncle Gerald Bowie is from Badu and works as a ranger supervisor. 

He spoke about different parts of his work, including the measurement of sea levels, sea life monitoring and school/community education.

Mr Bowie says watching the cemetery on Badu being washed into the sea was devastating for the community socially, culturally and spiritually. 

He also spoke about his experience hunting dugong and its importance in the cultural, ceremonial and spiritual life of his community. 

Freshwater lakes have become salty, sand has covered coral and seagrass meadows, which are vital habitat for dugongs and turtles, two species that are important to island life.

As a result, dugong numbers have declined significantly due to habitat loss. 

“And the passing of the culture – when a boy becomes a man there are parts of initiation ceremonies that we can’t do anymore,” Mr Kabai says.

“The practice that was taught by our ancestors is slowly fading away.

“It’s all very slowly fading away because of climate change.” 

Mr Kabai says, despite the high stakes and difficult subject matter, he felt privileged to be able to stand up and give his evidence.

“We are not doing this just for Saibai or Boigu or only Indigenous people,” he says.

“What we’re here for is to take our voices to the government for everybody.”

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