"Not 1 More" artwork by Bo Thai, featuring musician and spoken-word artist Soultree
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 for decades since.
Image credit: SciDevNet
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 on humans.
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 Peinem," a poem to her daughter, at the 2014 UN Climate Summit:
Stephanie Camba: Soultree
Stephanie Camba, or Soultree, is an undocumented artist, musician, and poet in the United States. They were born in Manila, Philippines, and grew up in Majuro, Marshall Islands. Their family relocated to Arkansas shortly after 9/11. While Soultree does not label themself a “climate refugee” per se, their art, music, and activism acknowledges the interconnections between a changing environment, histories of US colonialism and militarism in the South Pacific, and the displacements their 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."
"Coqui Lullaby" Soultree official music video
An Interview with Soultree
Climate Refugee Stories art director and project collaborator Bo Daraphant sat down with Soultree in 2017 to discuss their art, activism, and climate migration:
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 colonized.”
“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, and pencil.”
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 Marshall Islands.”
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.”