Can poetry turn the tide on climate change?

Poetry seems an unlikely avenue for forcing action on climate change, but Marshallese poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner has become a figure of hope for a nation under threat of rising sea levels.

It was her address at the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit that brought wider attention to Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner as a poet and activist, as well as the peril faced by the Marshall Islands and other pacific nations. Speaking as a Civil Society Representative, Jetnil-Kijiner described the dangers faced by oceanic nations in eloquent terms and implored world leaders to act quickly on climate change.

She subsequently performed her poem Dear Matafele Peinem, written as a promise to her daughter that the world would take action on climate change. The stirring call to arms and promise to future generations received a standing ovation on the UN floor.

Jetnil-Kijiner will appear at WOMADelaide this year in a Planet Talk titled Climate Justice and the Human Face of Climate Change with Ursula Rakova, Julian Burnside, Tim Costello and Ben Doherty.

Speaking to The Adelaide Review, Jetnil Kijiner describes the effects of climate change already underway on the Marshall Islands. The devastating consequences of rising sea levels already in train include crops and homes being damaged by king tides, but even more distressingly, cemeteries being washed out.

“The thing that people need to understand is that the Marshall Islands is only two metres above sea level,” says Jetnil-Kijiner of her island home. “Because of the rising sea level, we’re getting floods that are destroying homes and destroying crops. It’s happening more frequently but also threatening the very existence of our islands. It’s been happening in the past five years more frequently than we’ve ever seen before. It’s happening right now. With the loss of the land comes the loss of cultural identity and our home and basically who we are as a people.”

Rising sea levels don’t just threaten vulnerable land masses, but the cultures so intimately tied to them, Jetnil-Kijiner says. This is especially true in the case of Pacific nations like the Marshall Islands, who have continually inhabited the atoll for thousands of years.

“Our culture is thousands of years old and something we love about it is that we can point to a piece of land, say a reef, and it has a story and a chant behind it,” Jetnil-Kijiner says. “So much of who we are as a people is rooted in the land. If that land is gone, who we are as a people disappears as well.”

There is hope, though, in the younger generations and their capacity to make and advocate for change. Helping to run Jo-Jikum, a Marshallese not-for-profit organisation, Jetnil-Kijiner helps to educate the youth on the causes and consequences of environmental problems, and empower them to make change.

“What I’ve noticed is that there is a growing number of young people that are really concerned about climate change,” she says. “They all know about it, and it’s their generation that’s growing up with that as a reality. They’re seeing it and want to be a part of the fight. Jo-Jikum is really about giving young people that platform and treating them with respect and helping them be a part of the solution.”

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On top of that, Jetnil-Kijiner continues to share her own stories and poems to awaken the international community to this rising plight. The power of poetry, according to Jetnil-Kijiner, is that it humanises an enormously complex issue, and makes it easier to understand and relate to.

“I see spoken word as a medium for sharing these stories and tackling the issue of climate change from different perspectives,” she says. “I’ve always felt that poetry allows me to put a human face to it. When I perform poetry, it’s not just about climate change but about my own personal experiences, people who I know, stories.

“It’s not just things like science and facts, which can distance people from the issue. I’m trying to get people to understand that we are real and it is happening, and it’s scary.”

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner will speak as part of WOMADelaide’s Planet Talks on Sunday, March 11

WOMADelaide
Friday, March 9 to Monday, March 12
Botanic Park
womadelaide.com.au

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