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Meet the women at the forefront of battling climate change in Vanuatu.

Shirley and Mala

By SHIRLEY LABAN AND MALA SILAS

Vanuatu. An idyllic paradise in the South Pacific, where thousands of Australians go each year to bask under the sun in balmy breezes, snorkel through vibrant coral reefs and enjoy gourmet food.

But for us Vanuatu is home, and behind the covers of the glossy holiday brochures lies an island nation that is paying a heavy price for the failure of rich nations to confront the reality of climate change.

While Australia continues to take backwards steps, most recently repealing its functioning carbon price, communities in Vanuatu cannot afford to waste time in confronting the climate challenge.

Changing weather patterns, warmer temperatures, rising sea levels and damage to our coral reefs are just some of the impacts already making it harder for families in Vanuatu to grow, buy and catch enough food.

Soil erosion is destroying our coconut plantations, heavy rainfall leads to landslides that wash away our crops, and ocean acidification and rising sea temperatures are damaging Vanuatu’s precious coral reefs and reducing the number of fish.

The women of Vanuatu, who have the primary responsibility for growing and preparing food, are most affected by these changes. But while traditionally women in Vanuatu had little say in important decisions that impact their lives, encouraging progress has been made and today women are at the forefront of the country’s response to climate change.

Last year we headed to the UN Climate Change Conference in Warsaw as members of Vanuatu’s national delegation, ensuring the voices of Vanuatu’s women and youth were directly represented in this latest round of crucial international climate negotiations.

Despite the damage that has already been caused, there is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. We are a resilient people, spread across 83 islands on the Pacific Ring of Fire. We are no strangers to natural hazards including volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis, but we cannot confront the effects of climate change alone.

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Oxfam and CARE are among six local and international organisations working together across nine islands to support Vanuatu communities to build resilience to climate change and ensure a food secure future. This spirit of collaboration has allowed us to accomplish a great deal with limited resources.

On the island of Futuna in the south-east of Vanuatu, communities are learning to build home gardens and trial new crops such as tomatoes, cabbage, cucumber and carrots. They are learning new agricultural techniques such as composting, mulching and pest management, which are helping them adapt to changing weather patterns and ensure they have a secure supply of food. The community also receives nutrition training so that people know how to prepare and cook these new vegetables. Islanders have set up community disaster and climate change committees to help coordinate these initiatives and ensure the community is ready to respond to disasters when they strike. Importantly, the women of Futuna are central to these efforts, from looking after the new ‘climate resilient’ food gardens to holding key roles on committees.

Shirley and Mala at the UN climate change summit in Warsaw

The average person in Vanuatu is responsible for only one tenth of the emissions of the average Australian. Climate change affects us all, but is hitting poor countries like Vanuatu hardest – the same countries that did the least to cause the problem.

Australia has been a good friend to us in the past, and provided vital support to Pacific countries between 2010 and 2012 to deal with climate change. These small investments have helped us prepare and adapt to the challenges of climate change, but those advances are at risk without any guarantee of ongoing assistance and support from Australia.

The only real solution is for developed countries like Australia to seriously start cutting their own greenhouse gas emissions and play a constructive role in international climate negotiations, while at the same time fulfilling their responsibility to support developing nations like Vanuatu through the Green Climate Fund and the Australian aid program.

The people of Vanuatu are already making substantial efforts. It’s time Australia did its fair share.

Shirley Laban is manager of Oxfam’s climate change program in Vanuatu and Mila Silas is a field officer with CARE International in Vanuatu. They are taking part in Oxfam’s GROW speakers tour which gets underway in Melbourne on Tuesday (August 5) before moving to Hobart, Sydney and Brisbane. See www.oxfam.org.au/vanuatu-climate for details

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