OPINION: New Zealand actress Keisha Castle-Hughes overcame seasickness to join the Greenpeace ship Esperanza in the Cook Islands to raise awareness of climate change. This is her account of the visit.
I said yes to travelling around the Pacific with the Greenpeace ship Esperanza to help document the impacts of climate change for two reasons. The first was that I have always been passionate about the Pacific. Growing up, lots of my friends and school friends were Pacific Islanders and my mother always encouraged me to learn about the region, our closest neighbour. The second was that I have a daughter who's just over two. Since having her, I have had to reassess my part in the world, how I might be contributing to its deterioration, how I can take responsibility for that, and how I might help change things.
I also believe that if I'm going to put my name to a campaign as I've done with the Greenpeace Sign On campaign I want to do more than read brochures and fact sheets. I want to see first-hand what I'm fighting for. I particularly wished to know more about climate change in the Pacific because of the moral unjustness of what's happening there.
Here is a region contributing so little to the problem, yet bearing the brunt of it. Climate impacts include rising sea levels, increasing temperatures, changing weather patterns, and threats to food security due to ocean acidification and salination of soil. Of perhaps even greater concern for a country so reliant on tourism, warmer temperatures are also bleaching coral reefs, which are a prime tourist attraction.
For New Zealanders, it's easy to forget that climate change is real and, in many cases, devastating. But the Pacific is well and truly in the firing line.
That said, choosing a ship tour was an interesting decision. I don't like the water much, had never tested my sea legs and don't swim!
The plan? To join Esperanza in port in Rarotonga, then transit 18 hours to the small island of Aitutaki, where I would spend two days speaking to the locals about their climate change experiences.
Staying on the ship meant I was treated the same as any other crew member. We were woken at 7.30am and cleaning started at 8am (yes, I cleaned the toilets!). During my days in port, we hosted open boats, a great chance to meet locals face to face and discuss climate change. Lots of the visitors were Kiwis, and they in particular seemed surprised and concerned by the fact that New Zealand's inaction on the issue could have repercussions for our Pacific neighbours.
On my first morning I had a typical two degrees of separation "island-experience" down at The Mana Court Cafe. I got chatting with the owner, Dot, and what do you know she's my great-aunt! She'd moved to Rarotonga two months earlier, opened the cafe and is soaking up the laidback lifestyle. She took me on a whirlwind tour around the island. Going all the way round (32km) takes about 45 minutes and if you ever get confused about which direction you're headed, just look out for the buses. There are two destinations: clockwise and anti-clockwise.
Our first stop was the iconic Trader Jacks, a restaurant and bar on the Avarua coastline. Cyclones have damaged Trader Jacks time and again, yet the owner keeps rebuilding because tourists love it so much. It's just one example of countless properties which got hammered by five cyclones which tore through Rarotonga in 2005 over just five weeks. Extreme weather events such as cyclones are expected to increase in frequency because of climate change. The locals seem resigned to the fact, but are equally upset and afraid by the changes they are seeing in weather patterns.
On day two, I had the honour of meeting Cook Islands Prime Minister Jim Marurai. He is obviously acutely aware of the impact climate change is having on his land and his people. But as he points out, they are such a small country that there's not much they can do except make attempts to adapt. It's up to developed countries like New Zealand and Australia to do the right thing.
The Alliance of Small Island States is calling on countries like New Zealand to reduce their emissions by at least 40% by 2020. This is also what the science says is necessary if small island states are to stay above sea level.
The point of the Greenpeace work is to act as a megaphone so the voices of those under threat can be heard. En route to Aitutaki, my acupressure wrist bands could do only so much; I was very grateful when land appeared on the horizon!
We were welcomed on to land with a ceremonial welcome. Tribal leaders, church ministers, adults, kids, dancers and animals all came down to the wharf with open arms. I thought the people were friendly in Raro until I got to Aitutaki! The smiles seemed bigger and the hugs felt tighter.
We had an amazing feast, a great spread of traditional foods taro, puke, sweet potatoes, wild pork and fish.
That afternoon I embarked on some groundwork, visiting locals in their homes and chatting about how climate change had impacted their everyday lives. For some it meant having to adapt to more frequent droughts; others had noticed less fish in the lagoon. One elderly local told me that just days before, his daughter had given him a mango off the tree; mangos are summer fruit, but here was a fresh one, grown and harvested in the middle of winter. A classic sign of the changes in weather patterns, he said.
I wanted to learn to be as self-sufficient on Aitutaki as possible, so I asked an 11-year-old boy to teach me how to climb a coconut tree. I think I'll stick to acting. I barely made it half a metre up. This young boy put me to shame; quickly scaling the tree, kicking down the coconuts and then labouring for half an hour back on the ground to husk one. It was then cracked open and presented to me. I've heard rumours that this is also a marriage proposal so I'm keeping my fingers crossed I didn't somehow betroth myself to an 11-year-old in Aitutaki.
Bleached coral is a huge impact of climate change, so we set out on a boat around the lagoon to inspect the damage. The coral heads in the lagoon act as a food source and shelter for fish; when the coral heads die due to bleaching because of rising sea temperatures, algae grows, which then causes what's known as ciguatera poisoning. The fish still feed off the dead coral heads and get poisoned. When they're caught, they pass the poison on to those who eat them. Richard Story, the local marine officer who was with us on the boat, had a colleague's wife pass away from the poisoning and has been poisoned himself more than two dozen times. It affects the nervous system permanently.
I farewelled the Esperanza on June 25, but will continue to push for urgent climate action in New Zealand, starting with the government's public consultation on its 2020 emissions reduction target. I'll be at the meeting in Auckland on Tuesday flying the flag for 40% reductions by 2020. I will also be appealing to Prime Minister John Key to keep countries like the Cooks in mind when deciding a way forward with climate policy.
These people are not victims. They're aware of what's going on, yet cope amazingly well.
Seeing their beautiful land under threat, I felt ashamed for coming from a country that has failed to act on climate change and is still dragging its feet despite the growing urgency.
I asked one young girl that if she could pass one message on to John Key, what would it be? "Please help our country" was her reply.
Go to www.signon.org.nz and help protect places like The Cook Islands from catastrophic climate change.
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