Florence at table
Image: Florence Swamy (left) and Fijian Minister for Women, Children and Poverty Alleviation at a dialogue with rural women leaders, Fiji. Credit: Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding.

Florence Swamy is the Executive Director of the Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding (PCP) based in Fiji. She works with communities across the Pacific Island Countries to develop conflict-sensitive responses to environmental change.

For the people she works with, climate change is not a future threat, but something they are already experiencing. The most obvious impact of sea-level rise is flooding and coastal erosion but Florence has seen how saltwater is seeping into the groundwater and leaving communities without drinking water, or water for farming. Cyclones and storms are also getting stronger and more frequent. Florence remembers working with communities in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston in 2016:

“We had a lot of work to do after Cyclone Winston – the need for communities to get trauma support was very great, for children in particular. On one of the islands in Laucala, one of the schools was washed away and to this day we get reports that when it rains heavily, children start hiding under their desks.”

Florence believes that this lack of dialogue can be especially damaging when it comes to the issue of relocation. In Pacific Island Countries, communities have already had to move inland or to other islands to escape from sea level rise. Engaging with and respecting the histories of each place and its people, land and environments, is crucial but this often does not happen.

“There is not enough support provided during the process of relocation. It is a massive change. You are taking coastal communities inland. They are fisherfolk - how are they going to farm? How are they going to earn their living now?”

It is also important for officials and governments to understand that there is a huge amount of value in traditional and indigenous knowledge when it comes to the environment. Conciliation Resources works with the Pacific Centre for Peacebuilding to address the growing social, political and environmental conflict risks associated with climate change and climate mobility in Fiji and to support communities facing relocation to mitigate and resolve conflicts that arise.

“We have provided extensive training to the communities, because we do anticipate that there will be conflict in this space driven by climate change issues. A lot of our work has been focusing on conflict resolution tools and helping them to identify the issues. What we also have been doing is enhancing the skills of the community in terms of mediation and negotiation and identifying who to enage with on different issues. So, we have been sharing a lot of skills depending on where the community is and we also have been sharing contextualised information for them as well [for] when they talk to stakeholders about what’s affecting them.”

Florence has already seen the impact of this work:

“Communities are more vocal now. They are taking to social media and talking about the issues. We see that they are finding ways to join government consultations. Recently, we helped organise a meeting for the Prime Minister [of Fiji] and members of the communities we work with. One woman that was part of our training in negotiations and mediation actually found a gap in the discussion and raised some issues directly with the Prime Minister. So, we are seeing that some of this training is actually very effective because now they are able to frame issues, they are able to see where the gaps are and they have the confidence to articulate what’s happening in their communities. Normally the community leader would raise those issues but you know, she had the confidence to stand up as a member of the community to say this because she knew she was trained to do that so that’s a really good thing.”

Going forward, Florence feels like there needs to be more joint action like this between the people living in areas affected by climate change, and others working on solutions:

“Joint action is absolutely necessary because right now governments are doing their thing, civil society organisations are doing their thing, the academics are talking about something else – so there is a need to bring in all this data into a collective pool so we can all strategise together. There’s a lot of traditional knowledge and indigenous communities have also built on their own resilience, we need to capture what the communities have themselves, what can be brought in by government or other partners and to have that joint open conversation on how we can come to a space where we all can move in this space together.”

Without these consultations, the voices of the people facing the struggles and threats of climate change can be lost, and valuable indigenous knowledge ignored, and opportunities lost for finding appropriate, sustainable and effective solutions to address this crisis.