I’d like to tell you about my home, Masig Island. Masig is a coral cay in the Torres Strait Islands, about halfway between the tip of Cape York and the mainland of Papua New Guinea. I wake and sleep to the sound of the ocean breathing its waves on to the beach.
My genealogy, my ancestors, my family tree lies here. This island is my library, my school and my storyteller. It’s love, it’s life, and it’s ancient. There is a mythical, spiritual aura around this place. We are not migrants to this sacred land, we have lived here for generations.
Masig is my playground and my kids’ playground, and will be their kids’ playground after them.
I want my kids to live life to the fullest, and live life how we have enjoyed it. When I watch my kids running on the beach, I think about how I ran on that beach and my grandfathers, great grandfathers and their forefathers did before us. And I want to gift my grandchildren and great grandchildren a place they can call home.
I want to see my kids swim in the ocean, respecting the abundance of food that the ocean gives us and enjoying the freedom of being on your own traditional land, as we have been doing for thousands of years.
But climate change is putting our island home at risk. The Torres Strait has not contributed to climate change, but we are on the frontline of its impacts. I’ve seen the impacts myself very clearly as the years pass. Inundation and the erosion of the shorelines have washed away our roads, salinity is destroying our coconut trees and garden crops, and our drinking water wells have been contaminated.
I’ve seen human remains washed into the sea, and I’ve had to collect the bones of my ancestors from their sacred resting place on the shoreline, and move them further inland. These impacts are something we weren’t prepared for.
Unless something is done urgently, the climate science tells us that the impacts will get worse, and could even threaten our ability to stay on Masig Island. The threat of being displaced – all due to the Australian government’s failure to act on climate change – is one felt across the diverse Torres Strait Islands.
This would be a catastrophe for Torres Strait Islanders. Our land is the string connecting us to our culture. It ties us to who we are. If we were to move, we would be like helium balloons disconnected from our culture. Our culture would become extinct. We would be a dying race of people.
That’s why I have joined with seven other Torres Strait Islanders from across the region to take the Australian government to the UN over its inaction on climate change, as a violation of our human rights.
We are demanding the government protect the island from the effects of climate change, and make sure that all steps are based on a full, proper study across the island of what is happening. And we need the government to sit down and consult with Masig people and listen to our local knowledge of the environment.
And the government must look in its backyard at how it is contributing to the problem, and move away from coal, oil and gas.
We filed our case with the UN in 2019, and in December they announced $25m for sea wall funding in the Torres Strait. This is a start, but it is only crumbs when you consider the scale of the problem and the fact that this will need to be split over 18 islands already experiencing major impacts. And it doesn’t address Australia’s ongoing contribution to climate change through our fossil fuel exports and domestic emissions.
We have just seen the government’s response to the UN case, which will not be released publicly. The government is saying that the UN should dismiss the case as the threat to our human rights is in the future – but how can they say that when we have told them about the impacts we are seeing right now?
The government also said that the case should be dismissed because Australia is not the only contributor to the problem. We know that the rest of the world is contributing, but Australia is one of the world’s biggest users of fossil fuels and we must start somewhere. We are Australian citizens and international law says that Australia must protect our human rights.
We are warriors, and we are bringing our warrior spirit to this fight. We are joining with our Indigenous brothers and sisters across the many nations that make up Australia, and beyond our shores across the Pacific. Our Pacific family also faces similar threats but we will not drown in this fight. This is our time to rise as a quiver of arrows, stronger together, because our mothers gave birth to warriors.
We’re all one black people and share the same pain. To lose an island of people is like an amputation because our histories and cultures are so interconnected that we feel the slightest loss. Right now, we are calling for solidarity from the Australian public as we fight to protect our island homes, our people, and our culture, kids and future generations.
o Yessie Mosby is a Zenadh Kes Masig man, living in the Kulkalgal tribe area in the Central Torres Strait Islands. He is an artist and craftsman, a claimant in the human rights complaint to the United Nations over climate change, and the Torres Strait organiser with 350.org Australia