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5 min read

Saving Our Island Homes

Profile of Nicole Richards
Written by Nicole RichardsPosted on 12/2/2024

“What we are doing is trying to protect not only our island against climate change, but to save our language, our tradition and our culture as well,” explains Yessie Mosby from Masig Island in the Torres Strait.

“We are training our young people to take up the responsibility of fighting against climate change and being the voice for tomorrow, especially down south and in mainstream Australia because a lot of people in Australia don’t even know we exist.

“A lot of Australians mistakenly think the Torres Strait Islands are part of Papua New Guinea.”

Zenadh Kes (Torres Strait Islands and surrounding seas) is home to Traditional Owners who have lived with a deep connection to land, sea, sky and culture for over 60,000 years.

As a spokesperson for the Our Islands Our Home campaign, Yessie is one of eight claimants, also known as the #TorresStrait8, who made international legal history in September 2022 when the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Australian Government is violating the rights of Torres Strait Islanders by failing to act on climate change.

The landmark decision sets a precedent for First Nations Peoples across the world.

The Our Islands Our Home campaign, is supported by, an Impact Partner of Australian Communities Foundation. The campaign is now building community support to urge the Australian Government to adopt the Torres Strait 8’s five demands:

  1. Fund adaptation programs that will allow Zenadh Kes communities to adapt to climate impacts
  2. Commit to going 100% renewables in Australia in the next 10 years
  3. Support Zenadh Kes communities to build community-owned renewable energy
  4. Transition away from fossil fuels as rapidly as possible through a just transition for workers
  5. Push the world to increase global ambition and keep warming to less than 1.5 degrees

”We’ve been waiting for over a decade for the government to build sea walls here,” Yessie explains. “We’ve had to use driftwood and whatever we can find lying around to try and save a home or to slow down the process of inundation.”

We are training our young people to take up the responsibility of fighting against climate change and being the voice for tomorrow.

The impacts of the climate crisis in the Torres Strait are seen not only in rising sea levels and erosion but also in the changes to local wildlife populations.

“There are many seabirds we don’t see anymore on the island,” Yessie says. “And we used to have hundreds of Hawksbill turtles too and a big nesting ground here. When I was young, we had hundreds of turtles that would crawl into the village, they would lay under people’s yard, or under houses and it’s not like that anymore.

“Fifteen years ago, we counted over 300 turtles. Last year, we counted 18.”

The natural world plays a pivotal role in the cultural traditions and passing down knowledge to younger generations on Masig Island. For instance, seeds that grew medicine plants used to treat stings by poisonous sea creatures, are no longer being activated by migratory birds because they no longer visit the island.

“These particular animals are not here to help in this continuous way of living and way of surviving, and it affects our culture, and our language and our tradition,” Yessie says.

“It makes it much harder to teach our kids about this ancient knowledge which been practised for thousands of years because in the way of our culture, these things are not written down, it is all oral speaking and it’s documented in the songs we sing to our kids.

“It’s confusing for them, because they don’t have anything to look at to say, ‘Ah, yes, this is a confirmation of what’s in the song. It’s here.’

“When we sing our weather songs about the star constellations, we talk about when monsoon will come when the star sits at a certain area in the atmosphere in the skies and signifies that the monsoon will come. But we don’t see monsoons now till the end of February or sometimes late March when we used to get our cyclones at the end of December. It’s very sad.”

Listening, seeing, learning

In late 2023, a small group of philanthropic funders were invited by the Masig community to spend a week on the island and see the impacts of the climate crisis firsthand.

“When you come to my country, you see what’s going on,” Yessie says. “You see it’s not a myth, it is actually happening.

“When you’re here on the Island, it’s island time and everyone is laid back and strong. And you know that you’re free, you’re free to laugh. You’re free to do things when you want to. But also you’re free to help save what you see needs to be saved.

“Everyone who came here, they were part of our family. They walked with us on the beach, they shared food with us. They shared stories. And they had the loving patience to sit and listen and learn.”

Laura Mannix, Philanthropy Lead at Australian Communities Foundation, was one of those guests and says the experience was transformative on both a personal and professional level.

We saw the beauty of the island itself, but also the realities of what the climate crisis is doing to that island. And that was devastating. You can’t unsee that.

“When you’re invited to become part of the Masig family, everyone there is brother, sister, auntie, uncle,” Laura explains.

“Being able to see firsthand the water, the soil, the trees, and what that means for the livelihoods of people there and the ancestors that came beforehand, was incredible, because it brought me such a sense of honour and also accountability and duty to make sure that I go out into the world and continue to fight for it, to make sure that the people, the people that I have grown to know and have love and affection for there, will be supported, and that their culture can thrive.

“We saw the beauty of the island itself, but also the realities of what the climate crisis is doing to that island. And that was devastating. You can’t unsee that.

“It was such a profound experience in so many ways.”

Take action

“Please support us to help us build sea walls or sign the petition,” Yessie says. “Your actions will help our people, this ancient race of people, to live and reside on our home for another 60,000 years.”

Join Our Islands Our Home for a powerful night of storytelling and protest through culture, music, dance, art and spoken word in Naarm/Melbourne on Thursday, 6 March. Event details here.