In Samoa we are born into land, climate change threatens to take it away from us

·7 min read

My daughter was born between cyclones.

It was January 2013, and as we drove to the hospital, we passed the wreckage left by Cyclone Evan which had devastated my home island weeks earlier. Evan had been the worst tropical cyclone to hit Samoa in over two decades. There were huge holes in the road. Debris where homes once stood.

That night another cyclone – Cyclone Gary – was expected to make landfall. Massive clouds hung heavy in the sky, growing darker by the minute.

Driving, I felt so scared for my baby. I was thinking about all the things that could go wrong. What if the hospital could not withstand the winds? What if I had to seek refuge in my final hours of labour?

When we arrived I was taken to a bed. Then at around 1am just as the winds outside picked up, my daughter’s heart rate plummeted. The doctor made the call to deliver her by caesarean just as the power went off across most of the island of Upolu. As they lifted me on to the operating table I felt a deep fear. What if the hospital generator failed?

Related: ‘Catastrophic pathway’: UN secretary general urges action to save Pacific lives

In what seemed like only a few minutes, I heard a voice, a little cry, as she made her entrance to the world. I cried too, out of sheer relief that she was safe and with very healthy lungs. We named her Aoilelagi, which means cloud in the sky, befitting the events that occurred at the time of her birth.

My story, my daughter’s story is not uncommon across the Pacific, a region that has been the first and worst hit by climate change.

Everyone in the Pacific has a story of when the climate crisis became real for us. I’ve spent the last few months doing interviews with people for the Guardian’s podcast series, An Impossible Choice, exploring the decision Pacific communities, families and entire countries have to make whether to leave or stay on their land, and I’ve heard story after story of the moment that people realised climate change had hit their home.

I think that was when I realised ... how frail we are in the face of these kinds of massive climate disaster events.

Vanuatu politician Ralph Regenvanu

For Enele Sopoaga, the former prime minister of the tiny nation of Tuvalu, a low-lying Pacific country considered one of those most at risk of being submerged due to sea level rise, it was in the 1990s when he was home on a university break and he was swimming around coral reefs that used to be beautiful but were dead.

For Vanuatu politician Ralph Regenvanu, it was stepping out of his home the morning after Cyclone Pam hit in 2015, when he was foreign minister.

“And just coming up the front gate and seeing how it was just totally covered in debris, there was no way to move,” he told us. “I sort of just lost it at that point, I just thought there’s no way, I can’t think of how we are going to make any decisions to get ourselves out of what we’ve just experienced, what’s before my eyes. And I think that was when I realised that, you know how frail we are in the face of these kinds of massive climate disaster events.”

Related: Vanuatu to seek international court opinion on climate change rights

What is scary is how we have normalised these unthinkable traumatic events in the Pacific.

When Cyclone Gita hit in 2018, our neighbours who lived across the river, carried their babies and pulled their children across the river to seek refuge in our house, which stood on higher ground. They stayed for two nights. As soon as the winds died down, they packed up and returned to their home and rebuilt.

My friend Vanessa crossed raging floodwaters holding two of her children and wondered whether she would have to decide which to let go of if the waters became too strong for her to keep hold of both.

Samoans are naturally resilient, and we take these types of events in our stride. When a cyclone or flood hits us, we protect our children and our homes, and when the cyclone ends, we return to life as normal.

But of course none of the stories of what we are going through in Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, are normal; not the cyclones of increased frequency and severity, the king tides that turn school football fields into rivers, the rising sea levels that render entire islands uninhabitable due to erosion or salinity in the water table that stops us growing crops, not the terrible choice so many in the Pacific are having to face of leaving the land that we were born into and hoped to be buried on.

I’ve been reporting on climate events since I was 19, at my first job as a journalist for Samoa Observer. In the 20 years since then, I have consistently reported on the climate crisis, interviewing communities, leaders and covering UN climate negotiations. But this has been the most emotional story I have ever reported on.

In this podcast series, we talk to islanders who have either already migrated due to the climate crisis or those who will soon have to reluctantly leave the land of their birth, because staying may no longer be an option.

Related: The world could hit 1.5C warming in a decade. That’s terrible news for the Pacific | Mark Howden and Morgan Wairiu

Grown men cried during the interviews as we spoke about the details of mass migration, of the mammoth job of relocating entire communities, along with infrastructure, along with their gravesites, along with the bones of their dead, whom in our cultures, still belong with the living, regardless of when they departed.

We’ve spoken to islanders who have said they would rather die than leave their homeland, so tied up is their identity, culture and spirituality in that fine sandy ribbon of land, that meanders through the lazy waves of Oceania, that is their home and the place of their ancestors.

Standing to lose it all

The fact that Pacific nations – who are suffering the greatest impacts of the climate crisis – are also the ones who have contributed the least to global emissions, is not lost on the leaders of our humble islands. Now, these very islands, the atoll nations of the Pacific, stand to lose it all, if the world continues on the business as usual scenario.

You are born to land, to the same land of your ancestors, and that is where you die.

As Satyendra Prasad, Fiji’s ambassador to the UN, told me for this podcast: “1.5C [warming] seems to be a very ambitious goal, but it’s a compromise we in the Pacific small island states have agreed to. But we also need to tell the world that even at 1.5C across the Pacific is something like between 30-100% of our economies cease to exist … We are too, too close, too dangerously close to 1.5. And for many of our countries … what a future beyond 1.5C is something we don’t even want to imagine.”

In Samoa, fanua is the word for both placenta and land. In our tradition, the placenta, or the umbilical cord, is buried on your land. Mine is under a frangipani tree, on my mother’s ancestral land, in our village, on the island of Savai’i. My daughter’s belongs there too, as that is her place.

This is something that I truly love about being Samoan – being a part of the islands we come from. You are born to land, to the same land of your ancestors, and that is where you die. I want my daughter to always have this land, the land of her grandmother, of her great grandmother and all those before her. But for Aoilelagi this may not be possible.

World leaders, including some Pacific leaders, will gather in Glasgow next month to debate policies and adaptation measures, to debate our future. Without concrete pledges to prevent warming beyond 1.5C, Glasgow will just be another talkfest.

At the end of the day, those who truly pay for inaction at the global level are the children of the atoll nations of the Pacific, the ones whose lives are already affected by severe weather events, and whose futures may include fleeing the very islands of their birth.

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