By Simon Bradshaw, Advocacy Lead
A week ago I had the great privilege of being in beautiful atoll nation of Tuvalu for the Pacific Islands Forum.
Media coverage of this watershed meeting was understandably dominated by Australia’s abject failure to respond to the urgent calls from the Pacific for far stronger action to confront the climate crisis. You can read Oxfam’s own verdict here.
But there is another story worth telling too. One of calm resolve in the face of adversity, of dignity, of humour, and of the warm embrace of one of the most unique countries on earth.
Arriving for the final day of meetings, my heart warmed from the many random smiles from strangers during the short walk into town from a little way further up the atoll, it was hard not to feel in love with Tuvalu. And while it was a tough week for all on many fronts, I hope that every Tuvaluan, indeed every Pacific Islander, is swelling within immense pride for what they have just delivered.
The very fact that Tuvalu, a large ocean state of around eleven thousand people, and with so little land that it had to reclaim part of the lagoon to provide enough space to house and feed the thousand or so forum participants, managed to somehow pull off hosting a major international summit, was in itself a wonder to behold.
This was an all-of-country effort. Each night we ate food grown, gathered and prepared by a different island of Tuvalu, as each island also took it in turns to put on the most magnificent show of dancing and singing. And as we slept, a small army of local labourers and craftspeople worked through the night to put the finishing touches to the venues for the next day. No matter how far from home, none of the delegates could have felt lonely or vulnerable. Kindness was everywhere. Didn’t have a room to stay? Tired and looking for a ride home? Someone always had your back.
If you’ve ever been to the annual international climate change negotiation (COP), then you understand the pace and complexity of these types of forums. This was like a mini COP, in the middle of the Pacific. Yet different. So different. You could walk from an intense meeting inside the conference centre out into the warm tropical breeze, be handed a coconut, chat to one of your new friends, enjoy the scent of salt air and frangipanis, and then gaze out at the glistening ocean for a few moments, some faint angelic singing in the distance, and the world would seem alright again.
And then there were the moments of total hilarity. Not least the gentle ribbing from Pacific officials each time an Australian tried to mask their countries’ failings. “Thank you for the Sunday school lesson,” said Prime Minister Sopoaga, after Minster Alex Hawke tried weaving a biblical reference into one of his interventions.
From the moment one touched down, it was clear that Tuvalu does creative diplomacy well. Really well. The greeting for leaders as they arrived, which saw young children sitting in water in front of a model of a ravaged island behind them, was pure genius. So too the decision to hold the leaders’ retreat on a particularly narrow part of the atoll, where waves would be literally “lapping at the door”. Touché!
Then there was the grace and respect shown by Pacific leaders, even as Australia worked squarely against the number one priority of the region. The Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Enele Sopoaga, leader of one of the smallest sovereign nations on earth (at least by population), was a true statesman and a fighter. Calmly holding things together, standing in his power, and never wavering from his Pacific values.
A highlight of the week was listening to a group of civil society representatives have their formal dialogue with the region’s leaders. For months they had been working together, listening to their communities, listening to each other, and developing the statement they’d deliver to the plenary. The result was compelling to say the very least, beginning with a genuine effort to build trust and empathy with the powerful people in the room, and to couch everything that was about to be delivered in frames and values that all would relate to. The dialogue that ensued was also very encouraging, with leaders engaging with the community representatives with a respect, attentiveness, and thoughtfulness that I have rarely if ever seen in dialogues between politicians and civil society in Australia.
It is, of course, easy to overstate all these things. And to put other countries on a podium when you are feeling sad and angry about your own. To generalize. Or even to perpetuate unhelpful stereotypes. There is some ugly politics both within and between the many countries of the region. There are tricks played by all sides. There are short memories. And there are ample counter examples to the above.
That said, and after a long-awaited dip in the ocean with my dear friends and comrades before leaving for home, I left feeling once again that there is something truly special about Tuvalu and this great Blue Pacific.
By risking the future of these large ocean states, we are not only undermining people’s livelihoods and security – and people who have contributed nothing to this crisis, it must be reminded. We are putting at risk some of the most enduring, big-hearted cultures you will ever have the privilege to experience, and undermining people’s inalienable right to determine their lives, sustain their cultures, and maintain their deep and age-old connection to their land and seas.
The formal outcome of this Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ meeting, after Australia successfully watered it down, was predictably disappointing. But when we look at the bigger picture, there is no question that Tuvalu and the Pacific won the day. This Forum will be remembered as show of strength and vision from a rising Pacific determined to chart its own course and the lead the world to a more just and sustainable future. I left deeply humbled, happy and optimistic.
If Tuvalu loses, we all lose. And the challenges Tuvalu faces today in this climate crisis, are challenges we will all face soon thereafter. It is time to listen. It is time to act. We must save Tuvalu, to save the Pacific, to save the world!