"Coqui Lullaby" Soultree official music video
Image Credit: SciDevNet
most importantly tell them
we don’t want to leave
we’ve never wanted to leave
and that we
are nothing without our islands.
The nonprofit Jo-Jikum supports creative and youth-led solutions to climate change
My motherland, she cries for help
And the only way they will hear her is if I stay here
Can we never go home?
To illusive visions of what it must be like to belong home
To have home
To know home
To be home
Our breath is testament that someday
Our motherlands will not have to call us home
That we will all walk to her steps and say, “I am here”
And you were worth the fight
Hindi ko akalain na makaka uwi ako
Sa wakas Sa i‘yo
I never thought that I would finally come home to you
-from “Home: Act 1 Scene 23”
"Not 1 More" artwork by Bo Thai
"Art stops the damage. It changes the world"
Small, low-lying island nations in the South Pacific are some of the most vulnerable locations in the world to the impacts of climate change. The Maldives, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu have been key sites where debates over the concept of “climate refugees” have taken place. Affected community members and activists have resisted media narratives that depict them as victims and have taken a range of political and artistic responses. These nations’ leaders and ambassadors have been some of the first to bring these questions to the international stage.
Tokelauns protest against climate change during the Pacific Warrior Day of Action in 2014.
Photo Credit: 360 Pacific
As early as 1987, former President of the Republic of the Maldives Maumoon Abdul Gayoom spoke to the United Nations about the impacts of climate change the small nation was already experiencing. At the 1989 Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise, Gayoom asked larger nations not to make decisions on behalf of small island states. He said:
“There must be a way out. Neither the Maldives nor any small island nation wants to drown. That’s for sure. Neither do we want our lands eroded, or our economies destroyed. Nor do we want to become environmental refugees either. We want to stand up and fight. All we ask is that the more affluent nations and the international community in general, help us in this fight.”
Histories of Colonialism
During World War II, the United States occupied
the Marshall Islands as a trust territory and built a
strategic military weapons base on Kwajalein Atoll.
The islands were then developed as a nuclear
testing site, where the United States detonated 67
nuclear bomb tests between 1946-1958. Residents
were relocated, but Bikini and Rongelap Atolls
became uninhabitable and radioactive fallout has
poisoned Marshallese residents across the islands
Declassified documents reveal that contamination
spread farther than the US government publicly
recognized, and that US researchers took the
opportunity to test nuclear contamination’s effects
In 2004, the US National Cancer Institute determined that the entire island nation was still affected by this history of atomic testing. As the Marshallese Educational Initiative says, “Today, the people of the Marshall Islands still suffer from the biological and ecological effects of radiation exposure, forced relocations, and loss of lands.”
Mark Stege, who grew up in Majuro, Marshall Islands, and is the director of the Marshall Islands Conservation Society, says:
“Climate change is my nuclear experience. I can see a lot of connections at the emotional level, and the community level, at the individual family level. The same questions are relevant in both situations. There’s this really deep sense of loss.”
Activism and artistic responses to climate change in the Marshall Islands recognize connections between the ecological and cultural damage inflicted by histories of colonialism, and the disproportionate impacts of climate change that small island nations like the Marshall Islands face.
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is a Marshallese poet and spoken-word artist. She was chosen to perform her poetry at the UN Climate Summit in New York City in 2014 as the "voice of civil society." She is a co-founder of the nonprofit Jo Jikum, which empowers Marshallese youth to seek solutions to climate change.
In "History Project," Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner confronts the legacies of
US occupation and atomic testing in the Marshall Islands:
Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner performed "Dear Matafele," a poem to her
daughter, at the 2014 UN Climate Summit:
Stephanie Camba: Soultree
Stephanie Camba, or Soultree, is an artist, musician,
poet, and undocumented immigrant in the United
States. She was born in Manila, Philippines, and
grew up in Majuro, Marshall Islands. Her family
relocated to Arkansas shortly after 9/11. While
Soultree does not label herself a “climate refugee”
per se, her art, music, and activism acknowledge
the interconnections between a changing
environment, histories of U.S. colonialism and
militarism in the South Pacific, and the displacements
her family and other Marshallese have experienced.
“When I create music, I tap into my ancestors and things I learned from the Island. When you’re there, every day you hear the wash of the ocean. Every day, you are in tune with the rhythm of the earth. That rhythm is gone in the U.S. When I do art, I tap into that rhythm. I want to get the rhythm back and save it. Even though we can’t go back, art stops the damage. It changes the world.
An Interview with Soultree
Do you consider yourself to be a climate refugee?
Why or why not? And what do you think of that term or idea?
“There are many different types of climate refugees in the world,
and every story deserves to be heard.”
How does the environment or climate change factor into your
experience, story, and art?
“The environment is something that I go to for support and inspiration.”
How does colonialism factor into your experience and your art?
“I have never known a life without my culture and my country being
“Sampaguita is one of my first attempts
at visual art that mixed ancient Pilipino
text, Baybayin, passport imagery, blurred
relationships with nation-states and
individuals, wrapping paper, charcoal,
Can you explain the lines of your new song “By Chance (Ours Back)” to us:
“Do you know what’s happened to our land,
our resources stolen and placed in your hand.”
“We’re hearing from indigenous people that have been traveling all over the world to seek support.”
What does being undocumented mean to you?
“I’ve had to, really learn how to live with it, but also how to talk about it,
in my art and with my community, because people are afraid to talk
about this issue.”
Can you discuss your experience(s) migrating from the Marshall Islands to Arkansas? Did you experience culture shock, moving from an ocean-based place to a land-locked place?
“The way the day passes in this country is very different than in the
Can you speak a little more about your identity as an artist and as a musician? What do your words and music do for you?
“I started with poetry and singing in school and church.”
How do you define resilience? What does that look like to you, and what does that look like to your community?
“Resilience is, to me, doing your best… Allowing yourself to envision
or create. Even though your means might be humble, you can dream.”
What advice do you have for the people making this climate stories project and the people who are watching it?
“Are we including all the voices? From indigenous, to black, to trans,
to women, to single mothers, to children… we have to listen to these
voices because they’ve been doing the work.”
"Stolen Lands" by Soultree on Soundcloud