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Earth Hero: Clemmie James

Telling the world about Tuvalu.

Written by Cari Steel

tuvalu Clementine James
Clementine James in Tuvalu.

I met up with Clemmie James at Coffee@ on Brick Lane. Until recently, she was about as far away from this part of noisy, urban East London as you can possibly get. For just over a month, she was living on the small island of Tuvalu, nestled in the South Pacific. I had read her blog about her time and experiences on the island, and was keen to learn more. Before she could describe her time on the island, I waxed lyrical about a relatively similar experience of my four month stay on a small Hawaiian island called Kauai which was fiercely independent. Remembering the beauty of the light, the sound of the sea, the stunning landscape and the kindness of the people, I was alarmed to hear Clemmie’s description of an island which is being directly affected by climate change, to the extent that many are describing the situation as a ‘calamity’. She explained that the highest point of the island is less than five meters above sea level, so is already at risk from flooding. However, this defenseless little island’s problems keep getting worse; Clemmie explained;” During the WWII the Americans dug up large parts of the island of Funafuti. They used this ‘earth’ to fill out the centre of the island to build a runway in their fight against the Japanese. As a result, large pits called the ‘taisala’s’ have been left. As the island is so low, they are filled with sea water from the ground and consequently increase and decrease according to the tides. It is these that often flood.”


Furthermore, these landfills also get treated as waste depositories for all of the islanders rubbish. And as Clemmie explains; the effects of global warming are changing the eco structure of the sea, which is (in)directly having an impact on the amount of unrecyclable rubbish that fills these holes. “The temperature of the sea has risen to the extent that the coral reef is dying, and as a result of this, the fish have nothing to feed on so are dying or swimming away. The islanders are fishermen. This is the way that they have always lived. With no fish to catch they have to resort to eating imported tinned and processed food – and everything has to be imported to Tuvalu. Then they throw the empty cans into these landfills, which compounds the situation.” Put in layman’s terms: the island is in danger of sinking under the weight of itself, estimates say that it could take as little as 25 years for this to occur. While this situation is dire, there are also issues which are running parallel; socioeconomic issues which are directly affecting the islanders. For example, the rise in consumption of processed food has led to a rise in obesity and diabetes. While this may not seem as much of an emergency, in their own way they are equally as devastating, and make no mistake, they are most definitely linked.


I asked if all the islanders are unanimously in agreement that it is climate change which is affecting their world, and what they are going to do about it. “They are a predominantly Christian population, who believe in the story of Noah and the Great Flood. The Bible says that God has told them that there will never be another flood, so they feel that whatever happens to the island, God will protect them”. A comforting thought, but a realistic one? I’m not so sure. Astutely acknowledging that to overwhelm a religious island with scientific facts and figures is counterproductive, Clemmie assures me that there are people and groups on the island who are very aware of what is realistically going to happen to the island, but are still respectful of the islanders cherished religious beliefs. I wondered aloud “but essentially, if this island is sinking, isn’t the best option just to evacuate the islanders?” “If you were told some bad news, would you just accept it, or would you fight it, and do everything in your power to change the outcome to a positive one?”, replied Clemmie. “there is an organisation that already exists on the island that will do everything in its power to keep the Tuvaluans on the island, and to make sure that the island and it’s inhabitants survive. Appropriately, the organisations name is called ‘Alofa Tuvalu: Small Is Beautiful’


So what can we do? And what about those who would say that the situation of a tiny island in the middle of the vast Pacific ocean is not their problem? “Essentially, the island is a microcosm of the problems that we are facing in the UK, and Europe, and the rest of the world. If it comes to the time that nothing has been done and Tuvalu disappears into the sea then Britain won’t be far behind. And that is a very frightening thought.” Whilst on the island, Clemmie started Climate Friend, an idea that will aim to establish a link and dialogue between the children and teenagers on the island and young people in Britain. “It would establish solidarity and grassroots links’ she explained to me, “we need young people to explain to each other how they are being affected by climate change.” Clemmie and I shared the opinion that the beauty of youth is that their thoughts are unfettered by the harsh angles of life. When something is wrong, they simply believe that it should be put right, whereas two adults in dialogue are usually influenced by outside factors.


With a backround in art, Clemmie also hopes to create an inter-active instillation to take to the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in Dec 2009. She showed me pictures of the islanders holding cards which are posing questions about climate change and their island to the outside world. These images may form part of the instillation. In each picture, no matter how serious the question, the islanders are smiling. “Even when they are facing catastrophe they are positive” I remarked. Clemmie agreed “They are not an aggressive nation, they are so polite and kind. Being demanding is just not in their nature”.


I know that I want to do all I can to help Clemmie. She wants to help these islanders find their voice, and make it heard. Regardless of the outcome (although, for all our sakes I hope that it is a positive one), the people of Tuvalu are dealing with the impact and repercussions of the Western worlds over consumption; the least that we can do is hear what they have to say. Do our readers have any suggestions or thoughts on how Climate Friend can develop? If so then get in touch.


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