Samoa: Local Knowledge, Climate Change and Population Movements

By Flores-Palacios, Ximena | Forced Migration Review, May 2015 | Go to article overview

Samoa: Local Knowledge, Climate Change and Population Movements


Flores-Palacios, Ximena, Forced Migration Review


Samoa, located in the southern Pacific Ocean and with a population of around 190,000 people concentrated on two main islands (Savaii and Upolu), is very vulnerable to climate change with at least 70% of the population and infrastructure located in low-lying coastal areas. The village of Lotofaga on the south coast of Upolu Island has a population of just over a thousand which is decreasing due to significant levels of out-migration.

Life in Lotofaga is largely guided by fa'a Samoa, the Samoan way of life, an umbrella term that encompasses the social structure of the village. Fa'a Samoa has remained strong, despite long exposure to Western influences. Land is held in accordance with Samoan custom and usage, and it represents identity, culture and community. Traditional coping mechanisms in times of hardship include customary safety nets, where remittances undoubtedly play a key role, and migration to diversify family income.

It is clear that climate change is affecting people in different ways. Those who suffer the most are the most vulnerable, such as families who do not have access to remittances or enough support from family members, and people - in particular women and elders - who have to rely on themselves to sustain their livelihoods. There are also differentiated gender impacts as a result of women's limited access to information and resources. In addition, in a situation of environmental stress women have reduced mobility because they are the ones who care for children and the elderly.

"Some family members have gone away to America, New Zealand and Australia. They have gone away in search of fortune ... and because of the change of weather and to look for work to help and support family, but no one cares, no one loves me and my small children. I would leave this place only if and when it is God's will. But I can't go away." (40-year-old widow)

Although the majority of people in Lotofaga are familiar with the term 'climate change', it is not clear for them how the 'scientific information' can be applied to their daily lives. In contrast, they are absolutely aware of the changes in their own environment and the effects that climate change has been having on their lives and livelihoods. Some people rely on their traditional knowledge to interpret the changes occurring in their environment and believe that climate change is part of a cycle, while others associate climate change with God's will. In general, people in Lotofaga do not describe themselves as victims of climate change. They said they have been dealing with a changing environment for centuries and they have learnt to adapt to these changes for generations.

Village residents need better access to information about climate change and its implications. An interviewed male village chief stated:

"... we hear all this very technological terminology from government and others, and on the radio, but we really need to make sure that we understand what climate change is ... because many of these concepts are in terms of global processes when it's very important for rural people to better align what they are doing at the village level ... and what we can do in our own villages."

Young people and migrants have better access to information through mass and social media and also through education campaigns about climate change and disaster risk reduction. Migrants living abroad are aware of the impacts of climate change in Samoa and they support family members when natural disasters occur. However, increasing needs increase the burden on migrants.

Village residents and migrants have political concerns related to climate change. One male village chief who lives in the capital, Apia, in referring to climate justice said:

"It's quite unfair to start talking about climate change, how you adapt to climate change or how much contribution you have to make towards a global responsibility when we have contributed a negligib le amount or even nothing to the problem. …

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