Monday, September 21, 2009

PNG environmentalist takes her story to the UN

Ursula Rakova (Carteret Islands, South Pacific). Tulele Peisa executive director Ursula Rakova was born on Han, the main island of the Carterets. After leaving the atoll to study social administration at Papua New Guinea University, she became a pioneer in the environmental movement, working for NGOs such as the Individual and Community Rights Advocacy Forum, Environment Law Centre and Oxfam. At the request of a group of Carteret Island chiefs, Ursula returned home to help form Tulele Peisa, an organization whose mission is to voluntarily relocate 1,700 Carterets Islanders, whose islands and food supply are rapidly eroding, to three safe and secure locations on mainland Bougainville over the next 10 years. She was awarded the Pride of Papua New Guinea award in 2008 for her outstanding contribution to the environment.
Watch Ursula: or
Ursula’s Testimony:
For Ursula, seeing her ancestral homeland disappear is a hard reality. "In the Carterets land is traditionally owned by women," she says.
"My grandmother passed land to my mother and then it came to me. Ten years along the line I would love to pass on this island to my daughter, but I will not be able to do that."

The Carterets are a small group of islands off Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. Seawater is swamping the islands, making them uninhabitable. The community has built sea walls and planted mangrove trees, but they cannot stop the erosion from eating away the shoreline and destroying their gardens. "We have lost our staple food crop, which is swamp taro. We can grow a bit of bananas, but that’s also going down," Ursula explains. Islanders are surviving on fish and coconut.

Ursula’s people are being forced to migrate, but she is determined they will have a place to go where their culture and dignity are preserved.

She now runs an organisation called Tulele Peisa, or “Sailing the waves on our own”, to coordinate the relocation. They have secured land in the Tinputz district of Bougainville and are moving forward with plans to build houses for Carteret Islanders and expand the local primary school to make space for new children.

Ursula acts as a bridge.

She meets with families in the Carterets to talk about what awaits them on the mainland and negotiates with the community in Tinputz to ease the way for those who are resettling and improve the lives of local residents. If she can generate enough support, she wants everyone in Tinputz to have better access to clean water, quality education and healthcare.

Convincing people to uproot their lives isn’t easy. Some of the youth and the elderly say they aren’t willing to leave the islands. Ursula explains: “For them to move to another location is basically leaving their livelihood and their values and their cultures behind.”

For Carteret Islanders the options are not all bleak. But Ursula is well aware that humankind needs to stop polluting the atmosphere or tens of millions more people could be displaced from their homes.

“Climate change is not just about statistics. Climate change is not just about science. Climate change is about human rights.

“Where are human rights when it comes to people being displaced from their communities to another location not of their choice?” asks Ursula. “They have to move because climate change is forcing them to leave.”

Constance Okollet (Uganda, Africa). Constance is a peasant farmer from Tororo district in Eastern Uganda and a mother of seven. She is also a community activist and chairperson of the Osukura United Women network which includes 40 regional groups in Uganda’s Osukura Subcounty. In 2007, heavy rains destroyed the homes and food supply of Constance’s village displacing all of the residents. Starvation followed. Once the situation stabilized, the community was dealt a second blow: an unprecedented drought which dried up crops and wells, reigniting the cycle of hunger and thirst. Besides her leadership role in confronting the adverse events of climate change, Constance is also a community volunteer, helping with health care and HIV/AIDS drug distribution.
Constance’s Testimony:
The village’s normal weather patterns changed dramatically in 2007, when heavy rains destroyed villagers’ homes, crops and food. To this day the weather remains erratic.

“It rained and rained until all the land was soaked and our houses were submerged in the water. This forced us to move to higher ground where we sought refuge. By the time we came back home, all the houses had collapsed, our granaries were destroyed and food washed away. The remaining crops were rotten, and our food was no more.”

As the ground in the village became waterlogged, mosquitoes bred and the rate of malaria increased drastically. Five of Constance’s family became ill with the disease. The heavy rains washed away the latrines, contaminating the water sources. This caused a high number of cases of cholera and diarrhoea, which killed many people in the village. Due to floods, none of the health centres was operational, and some were destroyed completely, leaving the sick to fend for themselves.

When hunger set in, the villagers had to rely on the government and aid agencies for food. “This was so humiliating for us,” Constance explains. “We have never depended on aid to survive. We had to line up for food and clean water. What’s more, this food was not enough to sustain our family.”
The villagers were given fast-growing seeds, but immediately after they planted them, an unprecedented drought came.
“We had never experienced such heat, all of the crops dried up and the wells where we used to collect water were also dry,” says Constance. “There was no water in the boreholes, and so the cycle of hunger and thirst returned, but this time caused by the excessive heat.”
This cycle continues.
“There is noticeable change in the seasons - more droughts and erratic, destructive rains that have led to floods. Food production is very low and some people in my village fail to get a day’s food at all.”

“I request that developed countries reduce their emissions so that we can look forward to rains to plant our crops without having to face floods that wash them away, destroy our houses, increase diseases, and stop our children from attending schools. That’s all I am asking for on behalf of my fellow villagers.”

Sharon Hanshaw (Biloxi, Mississippi, USA). Sharon is the Executive Director of Coastal Women for Change (CWC), launched in January 2006. The group brings together community members in Biloxi, Mississippi to discuss and participate in long range planning and reconstruction. For over 20 years, Sharon ran a hairdressing salon and worked as a community advocate, until Hurricane Katrina propelled her to a position of leadership in Biloxi. She is also an Oxfam America Sister on the Planet and a Ms. Foundation for Women grant recipient.
Watch Sharon’s story:
Sharon’s Testimony:
Three years after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina, one grassroots leader is harnessing the power of community.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit Biloxi, Mississippi. Thirteen feet of water crashed through the streets, filling Sharon’s house with mud, scattering her belongings. The waters also flooded the hairdressing business she had run for 21 years. Months later, all the homes on her block were bulldozed to build a parking lot for the Imperial Palace casino.
“There it is; there's my tree," says Sharon, pointing to a spreading oak which once shaded her driveway and mailbox—but now it marks the place where her house used to stand, before Hurricane Katrina. "That's where we found my daughter's bed, afterward," she says, indicating a red car in the car park. "This was my backyard. This was the front porch."
She says the storm not only brought her destruction, but also transformation. As executive director of Coastal Women for Change, she has become an advocate and role model for her fellow survivors and is working to recreate the community that Katrina destroyed.
"This is a left-behind community," she says of East Biloxi, the close-knit, predominantly African-American and Vietnamese neighborhood where she was born and raised. Many houses in the neighborhood now stand abandoned. Some damaged homes, like hers, were razed after the storm, leaving behind only vacant lots. Others are flanked by white caravans, where families still have to live as they await government grants, insurance settlements, or other resources they need to finish rebuilding.
A few restored houses have "For Rent" signs, but rents have nearly doubled since the storm, and good jobs are hard to come by—so many displaced residents can't afford to move back home.
"We need affordable housing—not projects, but homes that people can pay for on a living wage in Mississippi," says Sharon. She points out that Biloxi's beachfront casinos and wealthier neighborhoods began rebuilding soon after the waters receded. But somehow those funds never reached this mostly low- and middle-income neighborhood.
There are many things, she says, that were lost and have not yet been replaced. “There's no housing going up here that's affordable, no library, no activity center, or anything for the children. ... So I have to do what's in my face right now."
Among other activities, CWC founded its own in-home child care program, it sponsors dinners and computer training for elderly residents, and it's taking steps to help locals prepare for the next, inevitable storm.
“This is our community," Sharon says. "We want it back the way it was or better."

Ulamila Kurai Wragg, watch her story:
Her testimony: “My story is just one of millions of untold stories from the Pacific Islands. The saddest part of our stories is that we are the most innocent in this man-made catastrophe, yet we are the ones paying the highest price. The Copenhagen summit is around the corner and I am not seeing a good picture so I am on a mercy dash to tell the world our many stories in an effort to get the leaders to save our islands. To our world leaders I say, display good leadership and let me remind you that if you do not consider our plight while you negotiate, you are essentially saying ‘heads we live, tails we die’.
I was born and raised in my father’s coastal Natewa village in the Fiji Islands, an archipelago of over 300 islands in the Pacific. Forty-one years on, I am still living on the coast, but in the Cook Islands, a neighbouring island state where my mother hailed from.
In 2005, five cyclones hit the Cook Islands within three weeks damaging buildings, killing marine life, flooding root and vegetable crops, flooding a good part of the islands with seawater leaving debris in their wake. Schools were closed and government workers spent days on end with the rest of the islanders cleaning up. Increasing sea surges, eroding shorelines, frequent cyclones and dried riverbeds are already impacting on my daily life and the livelihood of my community.”
The Cook Islands, like the other islands in this part of the Pacific, have been warned of El Nino setting in towards the end of this year. El Nino is when seawater warms, a lethal catalyst for cyclones and devastating seas. “Lagoons that once fed my mother and grandmother are no longer safe as ciguatera fish poisoning is increasing every year.” Coral bleaching has increased and the colourful coral reefs that her mother visited as a young girl are no more.
WAVE coordinator Ulamila Kurai Wragg is one of four climate change witnesses in New York raising the voice of advocacy to world leaders attending the UNGA on Climate Change, and witnessing that women as agents of change are truly making their voices heard. She is filing regular postcards from New York whenever she is near an internet terminal and with some minutes to spare.

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