Apr 13, 2021 Last Updated 11:41 PM, Apr 12, 2021

Last month, the steamy world of climate change heated up a couple of degrees: Just as a group of climate scientists hit the headlines saying there was new proof that 95% of global warming was because of human activity, the instant media got busy labelling a Kiribati man trying to get his visa extended in New Zealand as the world’s first ever climate refugee. Ioane Teitiota, who faced deportation to his native Kiribati after his bid for refugee status in New Zealand following the expiry of his visa was rejected, launched a legal appeal to stay on in the country on the grounds that going back to Kiribati would put him and his family at grave risk because of the effects of climate change.

His High Court appeal detailed how king tides were causing erosion, breaching seawalls and how rising sea levels were causing crops to fail, flooding homes and polluting groundwater used for drinking. The man’s appeal expectedly made delicious copy for the global media. Teitiota was catapulted into becoming the world’s first climate change refugee, with the mainstream commentariat and all manner of social media chatterati and twitterati sharply divided on whether the instance was a harbinger of a new class of refugee or a clever stunt surfing on the rising wave of climate change.

Teitiota’s New Zealand lawyer told the media that the case potentially set a global precedent for people of countries threatened by climate change to claim refugee status in other countries. But do the perceived deleterious effects of climate change such as rising sea levels hold enough water to legally deem an entire nation’s population as being at risk of mass destruction and therefore qualifying for mass refugee status in another country? Not as things stand today. In fact, the New Zealand High Court’s original decision ruled that the immigration authority was correct to refuse Teitiota refugee status, made on the claim that returning to Kiribati would pose a grave risk to him and his family because it fell short of the legal criteria such as fear of persecution or direct threats to his life—in accordance with how a ‘refugee’ is legally defined today.

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Protocol and decorum all too often define dealings with people in power. There is an undercurrent of political correctness even in what is palmed off as candidness in freewheeling media interviews with politicians because consummate politicians know well that there is no such thing as an off-the-record comment. It is therefore not very often that a scribe is witness to a remarkably no holds barred verbal sparring between an astute politician and an intelligent, well informed and articulate private individual, where both parties let their hair down in a rare display of free and frank collegiality.

Recently, I was caught up in such an intellectual, articulate verbal crossfire between two very eminent gentlemen. In deference to the senior and sensitive positions that these gentlemen hold in their respective fields of work, I wouldn’t venture to even give so much as a clue to their identities, let alone mention their names. Besides, it was an informal social outing and, as the two men began their verbal sparring, I had promised I wasn’t wearing my journalistic hat. (Even then they squinted at me from the corner of their eyes more than once during their conversation.)

But some of the very sensitive and controversial issues these men discussed and cogently argued about is something I thought would be well worth sharing with Islands Business readers, especially because of the enduring interest in this topic around the region and beyond for the past several years. To set the context, however, I would need to give a brief background of the two men: one is a dual citizen of Fiji and one of the ANZAC nations, and the other is a lawmaker of one of these ANZAC nations. This is not an exact, verbatim record of what each of the men said but it certainly is a faithful narration of how the largely collegial but sometimes heated conversation went (it must be remembered that the setting was informal and the two men had their wine glasses topped up twice during the pow-wow).

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This year, traditional Pacific art and design have hit the headlines in the media for good reasons and bad. While good is of course good, bad is good too—there’s no publicity that’s bad publicity; bad news is good news so long as you are in the news, as any astute politician will tell you. Let’s start with the ‘good’ news. Pacific art blazed into the world’s consciousness earlier this year with the brilliant new insignia on Fiji’s rebranded national airline.

Bold, unconventional and distinctive, the dark brown traditional masi (tapa) motifs on the tails of the airline’s fleet stand out expressively among the blue and red aircraft tails—conventional airline colours—at busy airports. The airline has done its storytelling around the new designs rather well, too. It has explained every motif and its significance and focused on the traditional indigenous artist and her art.

The new insignia have been well noticed, discussed and appreciated in the branding circles, even outside the aviation industry. It is undoubtedly a success story—not just for Fijian traditional art but also for the rest of the Pacific. Now, for the ‘bad’ good news: last month, international brands and fashion designers made global headlines for not acknowledging the source of some of their recent design themes as being inspired by the islands’ traditional indigenous art.

It involved both Fijian and Samoan motifs. In one instance, a New York fashion designer used iTaukei masi or tapa motifs on her dress and passed it off as being Aztec-inspired. When Pacific art experts blew the whistle on her bluff, the designer acknowledged the motifs as being of Fijian origin and apologised on her website.

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In a novel that is set one thousand years into the future, in AD 3001 to be precise, my favourite science fiction author, the late Arthur C Clarke, has an interesting character—a scientist who has Japanese first and last names but who is brown skinned, yet has Caucasian features, Afro hair and comes from Scandinavia! Ever the master craftsman who had a ready, rationally credible explanation for every single detail in his fabulous storytelling, Clarke explained what seems to us an anomaly today as the norm a thousand years from now: because of large scale migration and interbreeding across 40 generations, ethnicities as we know them today had become so mixed up that in the 30th century it was impossible to guess which geographical region a particular person came from merely based on their looks or names. Migration has existed ever since early humanoid bipeds ventured out of Africa’s Olduvai Gorge—all those hundreds of millennia ago. Eventually they branched out into every continent, setting up civilisations wherever they went, flourishing and perishing, while also pushing their geographical range ever further. It is this migration and the intermingling of different strains of diverse humans across the ages that has produced the diversity of ethnicities that we know today. Being in the middle of oceanic migratory routes, the Pacific islands region has been witness to several waves of migration down the centuries—more than many peoples from larger landlocked regions. Despite being isolated geographically, the human gene pool of some of the Pacific islands has a high degree of diversity because of this reason. In the past millennium or so, ethnicities from several parts of the world have made the islands their home and intermingled with people who came here generations before them, continually adding to the diversity. The last major migration happened in comparatively recent historical times—the past two centuries.

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A recent report on global child malnutrition* trains the spotlight on the parlous state of affairs as regards the health of children and young mothers in most parts of the developing world. While child malnutrition has been a subject of many studies over several decades, the focus has generally been on health and wellbeing. New research as outlined in this report, however, shows its far-reaching consequences on a range of matters that go well beyond health to include the quality of human resources, economic performance and the wealth of nations.

Consider these facts, for instance: malnourished children score seven percent lower in math tests and are 19 percent less likely to be able to read at the age of eight years; poor health and education limit job prospects with childhood malnutrition cutting future earnings by at least 20 percent. Children with good nourishment are 13% more likely to be in the correct grade at school, therefore boosting life-long skills. The report investigates in great depth the effect malnutrition has on cognitive development and education, and the overall effect this in turn has on economic outcomes in the life of the child and its impact on national development. The study is exhaustive and multi-disciplinary offering a number of perspectives on a global issue that has been largely seen as one related primarily to health and little beyond that. According to estimates in this report that has been put together by the global NGO Save the Children, the current levels of childhood malnutrition could cost the global economy $125 billion when today’s children grow up. And the cost of fixing this gargantuan problem would be more than 100 times bigger than the funds and resources needed to provide good nutrition to all of the world’s malnourished children.

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