Social Justice is Climate Justice in Tuvalu

February 20, 2024
TCAP Tuvalu

New “Berm Top Barriers” aim to prevent wave overtopping in Nanumaga, January 2024

Photo: UNDP

Teresa Lifuka-Drecala has worked with the Tuvaluan High Commission in Suva; The Ministry of Health and the Office of the Attorney General of the Government of Tuvalu. She was also the Director of the Tuvalu Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (TANGO) and the Tuvalu Family Health Association.   

Since she was young, her ambition and passion has been to support the vulnerable and strengthen capacity building at every level of society.   

“When we were younger, my mother encouraged me to learn sign language while waiting for her to finish work. This opened my eyes to the need to just be kind to everyone and treat everyone fairly, far before I learned the terms ‘sensitization’ or ‘inclusion,’” she explained.   

In her spare time, Teresa volunteers with various non-governmental organizations such as Fuligafou: a youth-led organization focusing on coral replanting and backyard gardening for a sustainable future, and the Fusialofa association: the only organization working with people with disabilities in Tuvalu.   

She also actively encourages women and more vulnerable members of society to play sports. But integrating gender into all aspects of her work has become more important, and today she advocates for connecting issues such as how health challenges women face can be exacerbated by climate change. 

Engaging in community-based adaptation projects, Teresa collaborates with other residents and organizations to implement sustainable practices aimed at fortifying coastal defenses, preserving natural habitats, and promoting renewable energy initiatives.   

“Through my involvement in awareness campaigns and advocacy initiatives, I strive to amplify the voice of our people on the global stage, advocating for urgent action to address the root causes of climate change and secure a sustainable future for Tuvalu and other vulnerable nations.”

“As women, we grapple with the harsh realities of climate change on a daily basis,” said Teresa. 

“Living in a low-lying island nation vulnerable to rising sea levels, intensified cyclones, and coastal erosion, women face numerous challenges exacerbated by environmental degradation. 

“Witnessing the encroachment of seawater into once-thriving communities, the loss of arable land, and the depletion of freshwater sources, we must confront the stark consequences of climate change. Despite these adversities, women in Tuvalu remain resilient and proactive to safeguard our homeland,” she added. 

TCAP Tuvalu

Teresa Lifuka-Drecala aims to support the vulnerable, with a passion to strengthen capacity building at every level of society.

Photo: Teresa Lifuka-Drecala

Education: knowledge is power 

While access to education for men and women is becoming fairer for people in Tuvalu, as Teresa notes that most heads of departments are women, it is men who tend to make decisions in Parliament and at higher levels.   

Supporting women to become more educated about climate issues is therefore a first step in tackling injustices caused by climate change. The work of the Tuvalu Coastal Adaptation Project (TCAP) has supported scholars to become more aware of climate challenges and their solutions, in addition to building new infrastructure to combat sea level-rise.   

For example, 7.3 hectares of new, raised land has been installed in the Tuvalu capital of Funafuti, providing flood-free areas for island communities. Now, plans are underway to safeguard the long-term future of the island, with barriers stretching 665 meters along the coast on the outer island of Nanumaga and 1,330-meters on the island of Nanumea.   

These “Berm Top Barriers” consist of bags filled with local sand and water, revegetated to fit in with the natural environment. The barriers will protect communities from salt intrusion in food and water, and from large cyclone events and waves overtopping road infrastructure and buildings.   

The vision is not only to protect the island, but the community and wider identity of the people of Tuvalu.  

“Climate justice means providing a safe environment now for people, and for action now and not later. Scientists have predicted Tuvalu will be uninhabitable by 2050. This is why we are advocating for social justice alongside climate justice,” she said.   

More than infrastructure alone  

“Yes, we need more money for infrastructure and to raise our land so we are able to withstand climate change and disasters that will plague the Pacific,” she adds.  

“Since migrating is not an option for most people, for a better life on the island, we say: no more fossil fuels. 

“It is a cliché, but we also need everyone to come together and play their role. When other countries are emitting carbon and using up fossil fuels –and when that increases– it seems like we are at an impasse.   

“We cannot keep building infrastructure. What we need is assistance that does not come with conditions attached. Money is not enough, if it only gives permission to other countries to carry on business as usual. We are not looking at reducing emissions – we want action now to reduce emissions and fossil fuel use globally.”   

Concrete gardens   

Already, climate change is impacting and changing the lives of all people in Tuvalu.  

“Most Tuvaluan people recognize that we are almost living in the last days. People are sharing photos of the spring tides, rough seas and rainy weather; motorists have to be careful because of water was splashing onto the roads carrying rocks and debris. 

“When you speak with our elders, there are so many changes happening today. Tuvalu has always been a hot country, but this year has been warmer than usual. Very soon it might be a mandate to have air conditioning in every house, that is how hot it is. 

“On the outer island of Nanumaga, pulaka [a crop like taro that grows on the Pacific Islands and is a key source of carbohydrate] pits have been moved into concrete gardens, so that sea water and salt does not intrude into the soil and food supply. Vegetables taste more salty than usual. More salt is becoming part of the diet, which is a health issue,” Teresa said.   

Indigenous knowledge: not a “token”   

In addition to building new infrastructure and reducing fossil fuels, the power of indigenous knowledge must be tapped for a sustainable future.  

“Nature-based solutions take time to implement, and it is important that the knowledge of indigenous people does not become tokenistic. It is more important now than ever before,” she adds.   

“For example, in Tuvalu, communities have practiced zoning of conservation areas for hundreds of years. Fishing bans are put in place with the agreement of the local community for years, and people are not allowed to collect resources like clams, fish, crabs, crustaceans unless stocks recover, and there is a community decision to open those areas again.   

“These practices have been framed and given a modern name, but they have been passed down by our forefathers. Social justice also means protecting this indigenous knowledge and supporting indigenous communities like those in Tuvalu to thrive, so that such practices can help us fight climate change and support nature in a more holistic way in future,” she said.   

With determination and solidarity, Teresa together with many other Tuvaluans embody the spirit of resilience and hope, standing firm in the face of adversity and working to mitigate the impacts of climate change for themselves, their communities, and the future generations.