Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Voluntary Immobility: Indigenous Voices in the Pacific

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Voluntary Immobility: Indigenous Voices in the Pacific

Article excerpt

Indigenous people of the Pacific are increasingly expressing a preference to stay on their lands for cultural and spiritual reasons, even in the face of significant deterioration in health and livelihoods associated with climate change. In some cases, they say that they are prepared to die there rather than relocate. Those working on climate change-related planning and policymaking need to recognise indigenous people's concerns, and communicate with them in ethically and culturally appropriate ways.

Indigenous people, who form a majority in many Pacific communities, tend to have a good understanding of the risks associated with climate change, such as coastal areas becoming uninhabitable. In some cases, communities have been engaging with climate change issues for several decades, and their governments have been active in international climate change negotiations since their genesis in the 1980s. Changing environmental conditions in the Pacific, affecting weather patterns, crop yields and fish stocks, have been widely identified and discussed in indigenous knowledge systems, and local climate change adaptation initiatives - often funded by international donors - are now commonplace, even in remote areas.

Normalisation of climate change in everyday Pacific life notwithstanding, for some indigenous people climate change is an existential threat to their culture, identity and connections to land and sea, a risk to their self-determination and indigenous rights, and some individuals cannot countenance life without a homeland to live in or return to. A range of indigenous leaders, elders and activists across the Pacific Islands are clearly articulating their carefully considered intention to remain on climate-impacted indigenous territories for cultural, spiritual and political reasons. The most important issue, according to those voluntarily resisting mobility, is not 'where will we go?' or 'how will we survive?'; it is 'how do we maintain our identity and build pathways to a self-determined, resilient future?'. Voluntary immobility is an important coping device, helping to strengthen cultural and spiritual agency among those facing the loss of their homeland.

Supporting voluntary immobility

The voices of the voluntarily immobile are not being listened to closely enough, nor are their needs being taken into account in mainstream climate adaptation and mobility policy frameworks. Indigenous choices need to be better recognised and supported, even if only a minority of indigenous people choose voluntary immobility.

Voluntary immobility cannot be addressed by externally developed policies or simply by providing more information about climate risk. Those who choose immobility are already closely attuned to knowledge of climate risk, and the complex links between climate, people and place. Rather, international humanitarian responses must support voluntary immobility through employing approaches that are ethically and culturally appropriate. Perhaps most importantly, indigenous people should not feel that they are forced to make a binding decision about mobility or immobility at any particular point in time, since such pressure is likely to exacerbate anxiety associated with loss of homelands. As livelihoods deteriorate over time or as a disaster occurs, indigenous people may need to be able to change from being voluntarily immobile to voluntarily mobile and perhaps even back to voluntarily immobile. …

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