11 Nov Whose canoe is it? Are we Pacific people even in it?

The Drua, symbol of Fiji’s COP23 presidency is a reminder to the world that we are all in the same canoe when it comes to climate change, and must “fill the sail with a collective determination” to move the work forward. It is work that must be collaborative in its efforts and global in its outreach.

It’s a concept which even the media appear to be struggling with.

We are at COP23 on a media fellowship, being hosted by a leading German media company that has sections covering every region in the world (but not the Pacific. They said with a laugh that we are their “blindspot”. I’m not laughing.)

So far it has been an engaging and informative experience. But then yesterday’s program kicked off with “Joining the Morning Conference COP23 of the Environment Team” – and any illusions I may have had about where Pacific people actually fit in the proverbial drua? Were hefted overboard.

It sounded like an amazing opportunity to share ideas and contacts, to strategize, and to learn from each other. What better way to ensure coverage of COP23 issues is truly representative of that collective drua canoe work, than by bringing together media professionals from opposite sides of the globe?

But that’s not what happened.

The meeting was held in a conference room with only enough chairs around the table for the Environment Team. (with a couple to spare. There are 10 people in our group.) One of the group sat in a chair. When one of us asked if we could get some more chairs, she was told, “Oh, there’s no more chairs.”

Because yes, in a building where 1000+ people work everyday, there’s no more chairs for the Pacific journalists who travelled for 35 hours over thousands of miles to get here. Bringing with us many accumulated years of journalism experience.

No, sorry. No chairs for you.

Instead, we were told to stand around the table, behind the Environment team, and observe while they had their morning conference.

Sure we all got to introduce ourselves and the Director said nice words about how wonderful it was to have us there. She even said they were looking forward to the ‘exchange’ of ideas. Lovely words. (They should write them on a plaque to display next to the drua when it goes to a museum after COP.)

There was no exchange.

We stood against the wall, and listened while they ran through the key stories of the day – COP23 and Germany, the USA, Syria. Nobody mentioned a single Small Island state. Not even Fiji. Nobody said anything about pursuing any potential stories about any number of the Pacific activists, or Civil Societies that have travelled far to bring their stories to Bonn.  Nobody asked for our input. We were not in the Drua canoe.

Then it got even better.

The brief conference ended and all the Environment Team journalists left. (As in, all the REAL journalists.) To go do their Very Important COP23 Journalism work.

We moved to another room in the teaching academy side of the building. It had chairs we could sit on.

On the walk there, the Director was overheard telling her intern, “This will be good for you to observe because I’ll be going through the basics for them.”

them’ being us of course.

She proceeded to give us a lecture about environmental journalism and reporting on climate change. The basics about climate change.

(Because Pacific journalists living on the front-lines of climate change, need to be instructed on what it is, by those living in an industrialised fossil fuel-producing and burning country.)

She told us about challenges with trying to reach people with the issues.

Did we know how hard it is to get people to read about climate change she asked? Without actually wanting us to answer. Because this was her canoe. And we got chairs so be grateful.

Because it’s just so dreary and depressing, you know? It’s all islands sinking underwater, all negative. And people don’t want to read about that.  She said, with a flippant wave of her hand. To people living on islands that are sinking.

So what we have to do, is find that human connection. Those stories readers can connect with. Preferably positive. But it’s difficult to find those. She said, looking around and not seeing all the humans in the room with connections to a literal ocean of positive climate change stories.

We asked about their sparse coverage of climate issues to do with the Pacific, why there was no focus on getting Small Island States stories from COP23.

But we have to cater to our audience which is the English speaking one, in America and Europe etc. We have to report on issues they can relate to. She said, to all the English speaking, bilingual and multilingual people in the room.

But isn’t that what COP is about, we asked? Bringing everyone together to share their climate issues and make sense of it all together? See how they’re all connected?

No. Apparently it isn’t.

The session ended. The Director left. Later when she ran into some of us at lunch, she said, Wow I’ve never been grilled like that before. I wasn’t expecting that!

In this – we are in the same Drua. Because I have never been condescended to quite like that and spoken to so patronisingly by a media professional before either. I sure wasn’t expecting that.

(And to any other mainstream western media company people who may be aghast and holier-than-thou when you read this? Please check yourselves. Because I will wager my seat on the Drua that you would have treated us with the same condescension. Or worse. And that you take the same approach to reporting on climate change.)

We need a systematic overhaul in the way we conceptualise climate change and report on it. And by ‘we’, I include us Pacific journalists as well.

Legendary climate warrior and former President of Kiribati, Anote Tong said earlier at COP23, that to tackle climate change, “we need to put away our national agendas. We need to become global leaders and not national leaders.”

The same must apply to media and how we view the world, and how we report on it.

We must stop using the lazy excuse of “our audience readers don’t care about that because it’s not relevant to them.”

Because Australia opening a new coal mine IS relevant to us in Samoa. And Tokelau’s success at being the first country in the world to become 100% powered by renewable energy IS relevant to you in Germany.

The challenge for us as journalists is to make those connections when we report on people and places outside our usual audience.

Western journalists must also stop imposing their worldview on our climate change challenges.

Yes it’s important for us to understand the science of climate change and convey that to our readers. This COP23 fellowship and our training here with the German academy has shown me how lacking we are in this area. Many of us Pacific journalists have much to learn about the science and the current technology for addressing climate change. So yes, we need the science when we report on climate change. And I am grateful for what we have learned thus far.

But for many indigenous people, our relationship with the land is not a scientific one, but a deeply spiritual one. Our traditional belief systems speak of the land and ocean as living entities, and of the importance of living in harmony with our environment.

In Samoa, it was our traditional belief that all things are connected as the ‘va fealoai’ of relationships, extended beyond human interaction – to nature also.

There is power in those beliefs and also there are climate change solutions.

Media must understand that sometimes, drawing on those spiritual relationships with the earth when working on this climate change issue, can be far more effective than trying to bash people over the head with the science.

Good environment protection projects often draw on both science and indigenous relationships with the land, to be a success. Our reporting must be open to that, ready and willing to recognise it.

And please, big-player international journalists – if you DO write about us in the Pacific, can you rid yourself of the fallacy that we are abject hopeless victims, passively sitting here waiting to drown and only expending enough energy to beg for money at climate conferences?

Because we are so much more than that. We are fighters, like the 350 Pacific Climate Warriors who protest coal mining, educate Pacific youth on the issues and rally them worldwide to action. We are conservationists like the Faleaseela Environment Project in Samoa who save rivers, plant trees and start eco-tourist ventures to generate village income. We are voyagers like the Uto Ni Yalo Trust in Fiji working on the Okeanos mission to implement fossil fuel-free sea transportation and help local business. Just to name a few.

(We are also doing lots of the wrong things too. Since being here in Germany all your bike riding and walking everywhere has put me and my car-driving-self to shame.)

We are actively engaged in the same fight you are and we need you to respect us enough to report our stories in a collaborative and meaningful way.


In Samoa we have a proverb – Ua fetaui lelei fola o le alia. (The deck planks of the voyaging canoe fit well together.)

This refers to the importance of nurturing strong relationships. Because great accomplishments, social harmony, and averting climate change disaster – are only possible when everyone ‘fits’ and works together like the watertight planks of the canoe.

Until we can do that, then there is no hope for this global Drua. No matter who is the boss of the chairs.

This column is my opinion only and does not reflect the views or experience of the other journalists in our COP23 fellowship group. 

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