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‘Apostles’ monitor life at sea level

by
22 October 2021

The Anglican Church of Melanesia is in the forefront of monitoring the effects of climate change in the Solomon Islands. Pat Ashworth reports

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Aerial view of a a small group in the Solomon Islands

Aerial view of a a small group in the Solomon Islands

THERE is something of The Boy’s Own about the stories of redoubtable missionaries crossing the wild seas and setting foot on the shoreline of remote islands.

John Selwyn, the first Bishop of New Zealand, sailed to the Solomon Islands in 1848, followed by John Patteson. Their legacy is that almost half the 500,000 inhabitants of these Pacific islands are Anglican. There are reported to be 600 active clergy, 16,000 Mothers’ Union members, and several religious communities — notably the Melanesian Brotherhood — as well as catechists and lay workers leading daily worship in every village.

The Bishop gave his name to Selwyn College, Cambridge, and it was to Selwyn that the Archbishop of Melanesia, the Most Revd George Takeli, came in 2017 to talk about climate change and to seek the expertise, solidarity, and support of Anglican church networks in setting about mitigating its effects.

Climate change was one of the most significant environmental and social issues facing the community, he told the gathering. It was a pastoral matter, because what was happening was putting people at risk; and his Province — which embraces Vanuatu (made up of about 80 islands), New Caledonia (a French territory comprising dozens of islands), and the Solomon Islands (a nation of hundreds of islands in the South Pacific) — wanted to play a crucial part in future challenges.

 

THE evidence is plain to see. Storms are becoming more severe and intense. Islands are being washed away by king tides, or inundated by encroaching shorelines. One such, Fanalei, was inundated in 2009 after three nights of waves and powerful winds overcame the buildings which housed its 150-strong community.

The Melanesian Mission UK (MMUK) has reported extensively on Walande, a rock platform made from lumps of coral gathered from the reef over several hundred years. In 1966, it had 200 inhabitants, and the houses were built flat on the rock surface. By 2002, the houses were built on tall stilts and there were 1200 inhabitants. Climate change, in recent years, has caused the sea level to rise, and turbulence has all but destroyed the island. In 2016, there were only four inhabitants.

Green Apostles at Walande village, in Malaita Province, install the new rain gauge for the ACoM Environmental Observatory, October 2019  

Sea water has been inundating agriculture and intruding into freshwater crops of taro and yams, ancient staples of local diets. Villagers have had to move their homes further inland. Floods in the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, in 2014, displaced 10,000 people and killed 22. Droughts and reef habitat loss are further factors which threaten to destabilise local communities.

Ethnic conflicts, land disputes, and more internally displaced people are predicted to be among the social consequences if adequate steps to mitigate climate change are not undertaken.

 

DR ADAM BOBETTE, completing his geography Ph.D. at Selwyn, was among the audience who heard the Archbishop’s appeal. Supported by the college and the Anglican Church of Melanesia (ACoM), he undertook a month’s fieldwork in the Solomon Islands, curious to understand how climate change was becoming meaningful for Anglicans in a region of the world often considered one of the most vulnerable to its effects.

This was to be more than a conventional survey of the physical effects of climate change. He wanted to “demonstrate how climate change is made compatible with a Christian cosmos”, and, in his resulting paper, Priests on the Shore: Climate change and the Anglican Church of Melanesia, he argues that the discourse of climate change in the Solomon Islands has been significantly shaped by legacies of Anglican conversion.

He sailed from New Zealand on the Southern Cross, a vessel owned by the Church of Melanesia and the namesake of the 1891 schooner paid for by British Anglicans to transport missionaries to the archipelago..

The older story in the Solomon Islands, Dr Bobette says, is “one about encounters and negotiations with Christianisation”. Taking part in worship on the Southern Cross, he observed how “rising sea levels and shifting shorelines were folded into [the Anglican] narrative tradition”.

The common assumption “that climate change is a secular scientific fact does not hold on these shores, nor that religious communities are living in denial of it”, he says. “The imagined divide between climate change scientists and Christian reactionaries is being undone by Christian communities’ actively engaging in making sense of climate change through an Anglican cosmic framework.”

 

THE idea has emerged that “global geopolitics and climate change need to be, in part, understood from Pacific islands such as the Solomon Islands,” Dr Bobette says.

“Part of the power of Anglicanism in the Solomon Islands is to remind those of us who are not there that climate change is not so easily teased apart from the religious templates that structure the stories we tell about nature, and the human place in it.”

Dr Bobette concluded that, without monitoring ongoing environmental change, evidence-based mitigation plans could not develop. The solution has been to install monitoring equipment operated by clergy and lay people.

Islands have very little infrastructure between them: many barely have roads, telecoms infrastructure is very poor, and people have few means of communication. But every island has a church. Churches runs schools and hospitals, and people are inclined to trust them rather than the government. So, the idea was born to use the Church as a scientific observatory where those who actually did the fishing, and farmed the land, would carry out and record observations.

At four centres, including one in Honiara, and another at Selwyn College, a boarding school for secondary pupils 50 km north of Honiara, they daily measure temperature, rainfall, and the water level at high tide, and walk the shoreline to examine the vegetation. Every three months, they use GPS co-ordinates to see the extent of any erosion.

Students at Selwyn College, in March last year, learn how to conduct rainfall measurements

The task is shared among community members, led by a designated “green apostle”, often a member of the clergy, who takes responsibility for keeping hold of the booklet in which the measurements are recorded. MMUK has developed a “Green Apostles Award” for the monitors.

“The Church was involved in observing the processes of nature in the past. It has historically been a scientific institution, and this is a new dimension,” Dr Bobette says. “The people of the Church are the experts. Many are subsistence farmers who live off what they grow. They know what’s changing in their environment, because they need to.”

 

IN THE same year as Archbishop Takeli made his Cambridge appeal, the University of Southampton undertook new research initiatives to study the impact of climate change in the Solomon Islands.

Marie Schlenker, a Ph.D. student at Southampton researching climate change on the islands, works closely with Dr Bobette, now a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. After her fieldwork on the islands, she remains in close touch with Freda Fataka, an islander who manages the project locally.

“The realisation in those communities [is] that something has to be done, but that it’s not ‘the government that has to come in and do something for us: it is us’,” she says. “People are in high spirits about it in the local communities, because they feel they are caring for creation.”

The daily readings are sent, at regular intervals, to ACoM headquarters at Honiara, where they will form the basis for scientific analysis that will be available to government, international organisations, and anyone who wants to use the data.

“Climate change is measured on timescales of 30 years or longer. The data is constantly being corrected, and it is difficult, yet, to see long-term trends,” Ms Schlenker acknowledges. “There has been interest from other charities based in Australia and New Zealand, and we are encouraging the Anglican Church out there to get involved with the project.”

Anglican and other Christian communities in Australia, Vanuatu, Samoa, and the UK are developing partnerships to extend the Observatory network. New educational initiatives are designed to cross conventional boundaries between science and religion.

At Bishop Patteson Theological College on the islands, international coastal scientists, theologians, and social scientists are developing curricula that integrate the study of climate-change science with theological training. A climate-change curriculum is also being developed at the Solomon Islands National University.

The Observatory is also being studied as a case study of the integration of science and religion at the Faculty for Divinity, University of Cambridge.

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