In January at the height of the Australian bushfires, I received a message from James Walau, a ni-Vanuatu Seasonal Worker Programme (SWP) team leader, informing me that he and his team of 47 had left Batlow due to the impending fire. Since September 2019, Australian firefighters have been battling bushfires and it is estimated, currently, that over 12 million hectares has burnt. Among the many affected are farmers and workers participating in the SWP. This blog discusses the impact on a group of 48 ni-Vanuatu SWP workers evacuated from Batlow in the New South Wales Riverina region. It is in no way intended to neglect or downplay the experiences of the thousands of people who have lost their homes and livelihoods, and those who have lost their lives and loved ones. Rather, this blog is part of a larger discussion on experiences of SWP workers in Australia.
In the first few days of 2020, the community of Batlow was told to evacuate. It was predicted that the fire would destroy the township, which was declared to be ‘undefendable’. The team of ni-Vanuatu workers had only been in Batlow since late November 2019, five or six weeks into their six to nine month stint working on orchards with apples and berries. For many, this was not their first SWP season, and knowing the area proved to be advantageous in their evacuation. As Walau informed ABC’s Pacific Beat, ‘We are lucky, we have so many friends that helped us. We know the area with the two seasons we already have, so easier for us to move.’
The group, all men, evacuated Batlow – their workplace and home – on 31 December. In preparation for the evacuation, workers had been informed to pack all essential documentation and their bags. They did not know what the fate of the farm would be, only to prepare for the worst. A packhouse for berries had already been destroyed by the fire.
Initially, the group took refuge at the Batlow RSL Club; however, it was clear this was not going to be a safe option. After discussion, Canberra was ruled out and the next plan was to travel the 25 minutes to the Adelong evacuation centre. Once they arrived in Adelong, they realised the centre could not accommodate everyone, so the decision was made to travel further again, another hour away to Wagga Wagga where they could all be accommodated together.
When they got to Wagga Wagga, they notified their labour hire company of their safe arrival and their employer transferred money into a bank account for the workers to purchase food and supplies. The group were welcomed into the township of Wagga Wagga and received excellent support from the community. In a video clip, that’s since gone viral, workers showed their appreciation to the host township too. The group also became involved in community fundraising activities through a local church to assist with donations for those affected by the bushfires.
Fundraisers are a normal part of life in many Pacific countries. In previous work I have documented how seasonal workers have contributed funds to assist with responses to natural disasters in their respective countries, but also those in their host countries. Workers in New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employer scheme (RSE) raised funds for Christchurch after the tragic 2011 earthquake. SWP workers not only fundraised, but also assisted in evacuations and the clean-up process in response to various floods in Queensland. Colin Foyster, an avocado farmer in northern New South Wales, also praised his workers from Papua New Guinea for helping to fight the fire on his farm. Support from Pacific workers for the communities in which they live and work during their time in Australia has always been valued.
We’ve seen generous support for Australia from Pacific nations for the bushfire disaster too. Papua New Guinea deployed 100 military personnel on 13 January. Vanuatu donated 20 million vatu (approximately A$240,000). And there are stories of grassroots fundraising for the fires from communities across the Pacific.
Back to business as usual?
Walau and the group returned to Batlow on 12 January and started work again the next day. The orchards where they are employed only suffered minor damage. Walau told ABC’s Pacific Beat,
‘We prayed for our farm to be protect [sic] so we could have jobs … now we can go back to our jobs … We are so lucky our orchard is safe and our camp is safe. When I let the guys know, they just praised God and [started] singing, because they feel they are going to have a job again.’
They were lucky in comparison to other farmers in the region. On 11 January, ABC Canberra spoke with Batlow apple farmer Malcolm Stein reporting that, ‘thousands of trees were lost at his orchard in Batlow after fires swept through the Snowy Mountains’.
The season for SWP workers is short. With the workers having only resided in Batlow for approximately five to six weeks when the fire swept through, there is a high chance that they would have only just paid off the debt associated with participation in SWP. Some may still owe money, as depending on the season’s work it can take up to two months before workers begin to start earning money over and above their participation costs. Time not working is time and money lost.
The Batlow example had a good outcome. But has it been the same for other SWP workers in similar positions?
Unable to obtain data on the number of SWP workers affected by bushfires, it is unclear what the impact has been. A recent Radio New Zealand article citing Vanuatu’s Labour Commissioner, Murielle Meltenoven, stated, ‘there are 480 workers who are not in danger or [are] unlikely to be brought back to Vanuatu’. What, then, is the total number of SWP workers affected? How many SWP Approved Employers have endured significant damage? Will this impact the jobs available for seasonal workers in future seasons?
For workers currently in Australia – what have been their experiences of the bushfires, what impact has it had on their earnings, will it affect future job prospects, and do they have any intention of returning for another season? There will be several lessons to be learned from this disaster. In order to figure out what lessons need to be addressed, more research is required. Conversations with labour contractors, employers, workers, local communities and participating government departments, will be necessary to piece together a full understanding of the impact.
This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog, devpolicy.org, from the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National University
Rochelle Bailey is a Research Fellow at the Department of Pacific Affairs, ANU.
By NETANI RIKA in Port Moresby
THE world has gathered in Madrid, Spain to discuss the existential threat which climate change presents to the environment through rising temperatures and melting ice.
Halfway across the globe, the guardians of Pacific fisheries are seated in an indoor stadium to discuss the impact climate change has had on the region’s most important resource – tuna.
The Pacific accounts for roughly half of the global tuna market which is worth around $USD42 million each year. Fishing companies were paid $USD10 billion for 4.99 million tons of tuna landed on docks around the world in 2014.
That product was worth $USD42 billion after processing. It has been suggested that the total value of landed tuna to the Pacific is $USD5 billion and $USD22billion after processing.
Much of the Pacific’s tuna stocks of Skipjack, Yellowfin and Big Eye are caught between Papua New Guinea in the West and Kiribati in the East.
But as the Pacific Ocean grows warmer, it is expected that the tuna will begin to move further East.
PNG Fisheries Minister, Dr Lino Tom, told local journalists that Skipjack and Yellowfin stocks in the country’s EEZ could drop by as much as 37 per cent by 2050.
That would mean a market worth $USD128.8 million in 2016 could bring in only $USD81.1 million by the middle of this century.
Studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation show that Skipjack and yellowfin which make up the vast majority of the Pacific catch tend to shift from PNG and the Federated States of Micronesia towards Kiribati and Tuvalu.
But if global temperatures continue their steady rise and an estimate two to three-degree Celsius increase over current levels, even Kiribati and Tuvalu can see the impact on their stocks.
Tuvalu Fisheries Minister, Alapati Taupo, was forthright in his views on rising temperatures.
“As the climate warms, oceanic conditions change to provide more frequent and eventually permanent El Nino conditions,” Taupo said at the 16th Regular Session of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
“In the short term this is good for Tuvalu. There is more tuna in our waters in El Nino years. In the longer term … the main fishing areas are expected to move out of our EEZ and into the Eastern High Seas pocket and eventually into the Eastern Pacific.’’
That would mean a huge loss of income to a small country heavily reliant on tuna for its foreign revenue through licences to fishing vessels which raked in $USD24 million.
Tuvalu’s tuna sales have been estimated at a further US$198 million.
With the looming threat of tuna migration due to warmer oceans, Taupo was clear about the effects of such a move.
“Climate change is not a problem that Tuvalu has caused but we are going to suffer the effects,” he said.
But for Tuvalu the tuna migration is only part of the problem faced by its fishery due to climate change. Rising temperatures means rising sea levels.
“If the islands and reefs go completely under water, we may lose our EEZs,” Taupo said.
“Our EEZ is defined by the edge of the reef at low tide. As sea levels rise these baselines move back, reducing the size of our EEZ.
“Warmer water and higher acidity of seawater will result in the destruction of our coral reefs which are the habitat for most of our important inshore food fish.
“It may also affect the success of fish breeding and the growth of shellfish.’’
Tuvalu estimates that on the current trend, production of inshore fishery will fall by 65 per cent by 2100 because of climate change.
Taupo suggested that current global arrangements be changed to prevent what he described as an injustice.
“In fisheries terms this would mean the boundaries of our EEZ are locked in and not changed as a result of climate change-induced sea level rise,” he said.
This would mean Tuvalu’s right to harvest tuna could be retained on the high seas when the fish moved.
Tuvalu has started discussions on changes to EEZ boundary definitions under United Nations conventions, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Driven by rising sea levels and global warming, Tuvalu will press for its boundaries to be defined by degrees of latitude and longitude rather than geographical features which may be lost under water.
The need for clearly defined national borders to exist well after the possible disappearance of the Pacific’s smaller nations is a matter of concern for many.
And some small island developing states believe that there is a need for greater attention to this issue by international organisations and countries outside the Pacific.
Kiribati’s Fisheries Minister, Tetabo Nakara, recognised the threat faced by his island neighbour.
“Climate change is an existential threat to our region, and directly threatens our livelihoods, security and wellbeing. We need action on climate change to be a primary concern in all fields (aspects),” Nakara said.
While Nakara’s call for action was directed at the WCPFC and the Forum Fisheries Agency, he deftly linked the fisheries climate change problems to COP25 in Madrid.
“It is fitting that on the other side of the world in Madrid, the 25th Conference of the Parties to the UNFCCC is convening this week. How wonderful it would be if this commission could adopt the climate change resolution as a contribution of the WCPFC to addressing this matter,” he said.
On two sides of the world, leaders meet this week, their discussions linked by climate change.
If the COP 25 meeting in Madrid does not take credible steps to reduce global warming, efforts by the WCPFC delegates to control and maintain tuna stocks may be in vain.
CLIMATE change threatens Tuvalu’s national survival through direct impact on tuna stocks.
The small atoll state told members of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission that tuna was its most important natural resource.
Tuvalu’s Fisheries Minister, Alapati Taupo, told the WCPFC’s 16th Regular Session that they must address equitable solutions to climate change impacts on tuna.
“The climate change emergency is an issue that threatens the very survival of Tuvalu as a country; and the evidence now shows that it will have severe impacts on our most important natural resource – the tuna resources of our Exclusive Economic Zone,’’ Taupo said.
“Tuvalu urges WCPFC to take a strong stand on the issue of climate change.’’
Forum Fisheries Agency Director General, Dr Manu Tupou-Roosen, recognised calls from Tuvalu and other member states for stronger action on climate change.
“Members are calling for stronger action by the (Western and Central Pacific Fisheries) commission, specifically looking at full recognition of impacts of climate change on fisheries, food security and livelihoods,” Tupou-Roosen said.
“(We must ensure) that the commission actively considers those impacts and they deliberate on the development of conservation management issues, again looking at the carbon footprint estimate.’’
Tupou-Roosen said member-states had called for a strong course of action.
“We must meet this challenge head on - it's clear from our leaders,’’ she said.
“So, we will need to look at what it is in (our) activities and provide options for how to offset or reduce the carbon footprint.’’
Tuvalu indicated that it would be open to further discussion in an effort to reach consensus on issues including climate change.
“It is in all our interests to reach agreement and strengthen the management of our oceanic fisheries resources,” Fisheries Minister Tupou said.
Forum Fisheries Commission Chair, Eugene Pangelinan, said it was important to have a starting point on discussions.
“I think we need to understand and climate change is happening to us and as the minister highlighted, we need to start the process here,” Pangelinan said.
By Nic Maclellan in Funafuti, Tuvalu
In a marathon leaders’ retreat that continued well into the night, with often heated debate, the Pacific Islands Forum has issued a joint communique and a new declaration on climate change.
Throughout this week in Tuvalu, the Australian delegation has defended a series of negotiating red lines against strong pressure from island leaders, seeling more urgent responses to the climate crisis from the largest Forum member.
During the final development of the Forum’s annual agenda, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Alex Hawke and Australian officials insisted on the removal of references to coal, establishing a target below 1.5 degrees Celsius for global warming, and being required to announce next year a strategy for zero emissions by 2050.
Islands Business asked Prime Minister Morrison if the pleas of island leaders had persuaded him to change his government’s policy, refusing to make further financial contributions to the Green Climate Fund. He replied: “No, it hasn’t, because I just want to invest directly in helping the Pacific family here. I don’t need to send a cheque via Geneva or New York or wherever it has to go.” The GCF Secretariat is actually in Incheon, South Korea, which he should know, given Australia was previously co-chair of the global climate fund.
Tense arguments in the retreat
In the end, however, all Forum members agreed to the “Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Change Action Now - Securing the Future of our Blue Pacific.”
Forum host Enele Sopoaga, Prime Minister of Tuvalu, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu and Prime Minister Morrison presented a united front at the post-conference press conference (delayed until Friday morning after leaders debated long into the night). But this diplomatic façade could not belie the damage done to Australia’s reputation and Morrison’s relationship with some leaders.
Sopoaga acknowledged that there were heated moments during the leaders retreat: "We expressed very strongly during our exchange, between me and Scott. I said: ‘You are concerned about saving your economies, your situation in Australia, I’m concerned about saving my people in Tuvalu and likewise other leaders of small island countries.’”
“That was the tone of the discussion. Please don’t expect that he comes and we bow down or that.
“We were exchanging flaring language, not swearing, but of course you know, expressing the concerns of leaders and I was very happy with the exchange of ideas, it was frank. Prime Minister Morrison, of course, stated his position and I stated my position and other leaders: we need to save these people.”
There were two occasions where the meeting almost broke down without agreement, but after a 12-hour marathon, a final compromise on wording was achieved. Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama has used his Twitter account to express concern about the final compromises by some fellow Forum Island Countries, tweeting: “Watered-down climate language has real consequences – like water-logged homes, schools, communities, and ancestral burial grounds.”
After the meeting, Vanuatu Foreign Minister Ralph Regenvanu said: “Everyone had to shift their positions. It was very fierce and very frank, and some people just didn’t want to move. But in the end, everyone had to move a bit.”
Regenvanu told Islands Business that overall Vanuatu was happy with the final Kainaki II climate declaration, which will be presented to the UN Secretary General’s Climate Action Summit in September. Leaders will call on Secretary General Antonio Guterres to urgently appoint a Special Adviser on climate change and security.
“I think the wording is strong,” Regenvanu said. “There’s reference to 1.5 degrees throughout, there’s reference to the IPCC report throughout, there’s references to achieving net zero emissions, eliminating inefficient fossil fuel subsidies and a just transition away from fossil fuels. Most of the key language we want to be included that has not been included in the past is there.”
Leaders noted (but did not endorse) the proposal for a United Nations General Assembly Resolution seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the obligations of States under international law to protect the rights of present and future generations against the adverse effects of climate change.
Despite the deletion of most references to coal and wordsmithing to give flexibility to all parties, the language of the declaration may cause some grief at home for Scott Morrison. His conservative Liberal/National Coalition government contains many people who are resistant to the Pacific’s ongoing call for urgent action on climate, including the closure of coal mines and reduction of fossil fuel exports.
In the face of ongoing climate denial in Australia amongst conservative members of the government, the Kainaki II declaration states: “The science is non-negotiable. Urgent action by the international community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critical to keep us on the 1.5°C pathway.
“Right now, climate change and disasters are impacting all our countries. Our seas are rising, oceans are warming, and extreme events such as cyclones and typhoons, flooding, drought and king tides are frequently more intense, inflicting damage and destruction to our communities and ecosystems and putting the health of our peoples at risk. All around the world, people affected by disaster and climate change-induced displacement are losing their homes and livelihoods, particularly the most vulnerable atoll nations.”
Forum leaders welcomed the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), stating that it “remains the authoritative scientific body on climate change and is regarded as providing governments the best available science on climate change. The IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C indicates that in model pathways with no or limited overshoots of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, global net anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050.”
Important provisions of the declaration call on “all parties to the Paris Agreement to
meet or exceed their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) in order to pursue global efforts to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, recognising that this is critical to the security of our Blue Pacific.”
They called on G20 countries to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020; rapidly implement their commitment to phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies; and accelerate support for the work of the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.
New vision for Forum
Key decisions from the final communiqué include plans for the development of a vision statement on Pacific regionalism for coming decades, and a range of initiatives on Forum governance.
Leaders endorsed the development of the “2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent, which must ensure social, cultural, environmental and economic integrity, sovereignty and security in order to protect people, place and prospects of the Blue Pacific”.
The Forum Secretariat is tasked to prepare a draft strategy for leaders’ consideration at next year’s Forum in Vanuatu. However, at their July meeting, Foreign Ministers stressed that there needed to be a mid-term target of 2030, with clear objectives set out over the next decade in line with the period of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Leaders endorsed the concept for the establishment of the regionally owned and led Pacific Resilience Facility, although there were some reservations from Fiji. Samoa has offered to host the new funding facility for resilience initiatives by island government and communities.
There were a range of decisions on oceans and fisheries policy, including moves towards a regular Regional Fisheries Ministers Meeting. Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to conclude negotiations on all outstanding maritime boundaries claims and zones, although there are many ongoing disputes between member states over conflicting claims.
Tuvalu Prime Minister Sopoaga confirmed: “We spoke very strongly against the leakage of nuclear waste into the Pacific and about the need to address them as urgently as possible.”
Leaders expressed concern “for the significance of the potential threat of nuclear contamination, World War II wrecks and unexploded ordnances to the health and security of the Blue Pacific her people and prospects, acknowledged the importance of addressing the long-standing issues of nuclear testing legacy in the Pacific and called for the operationalisation of the provisions of the Rarotonga Treaty, as necessary.”
To support Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, who has pushed the issue of nuclear and toxic contaminants throughout her term, the Forum agreed to commission “a comprehensive, independent and objective scientific assessment of the contamination issue in the Pacific, including in the nuclear test site at Runit Island in the Marshall Islands”.
Leaders agreed to request a meeting with US President Donald Trump to discuss the current and emerging issues of the nuclear testing legacy in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati and in the Blue Pacific.
The Forum endorsed an Action Plan to implement the Boe Declaration adopted at the 2018 Forum meeting in Nauru, and agreed to set up a Sub-Committee of the Forum Officials’ Committee on Regional Security.
Reflecting the multiple, conflicting positions on climate change during the week, and the demands of Smaller Island States (SIS), leaders “endorsed with qualification, the Summary of Decisions of the 28th Smaller Island States Leaders Meeting and directed the Secretariat to institute a process for tabling the SIS Leaders’ decisions at Leaders Meetings.”
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