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The ‘human’ face of climate change

By Cynthia Lee
Orginally posted in UCLA Today

For Mikaele Maisava, climate change is more than an inconvenient truth.

On Nukunonu, the remote coral atoll where he was raised in the South Pacific island nation of Tokelau, the tallest object is a coconut tree, not a building, and the island is a mere spit of land in the middle of a vast ocean lapping higher and higher on its shores.

mmGovernment officials from Tokelau and two other island nations experiencing rising sea levels have worried about the consequences of global warming for several years. However, many of the islanders, who predominantly subsist on fishing and the sale of fishing rights, are only now coming to the realization that they may become the first culture on this planet to be displaced by a global disaster that’s not of their making.
 
"Tokelau is now directly affected by climate change," said Maisava, who understands better than most of his countrymen the real threat posed by climate change. In 2009, he represented Tokelau in Alaska at a climate change forum for indigenous people and attended a meeting of the Climate Action Network in Roratonga.
 
Maisava and 35 other natives of Tokelau and two other tiny South Pacific island nations, Kiribati and Tuvalu, are coming to UCLA to plead directly to Americans for the survival of their cultures in the most effective way they know how — through native songs, dances and music that showcase their simple way of life and voice their concern about what’s at risk.
 
Bringing art and environmental science together

To accomplish this, Judy Mitoma, UCLA’s emerita professor of world arts and cultures, has put together a production, "Water is Rising: Music and Dance amid Climate Change," to debut at Royce Hall in a gala concert on Oct. 15, to bring the islanders’ message to the public, scholars and scientists nationwide. Mitoma has been successfully building bridges among cultures in the east and west for decades as director of the Center for Intercultural Performance.

judy mitomaFrom Westwood, she will be taking the islanders on a 42-day cross-country tour to 11 other universities, the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Science in Boston and other venues where they will not only perform for audiences in concert halls, but for university and K-12 students as part of their study of the issue. Just as vital to their mission, they will perform and talk to scientists and policymakers at panel discussions and symposia on climate change.

glen macdonald"We, as scientists who work on these issues, have a responsibility to communicate with these wonderful people, hear their perspectives and share both what we know and what we’re uncertain about," said Glen MacDonald, director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and a scientist who studies climate change and its impact on ecosystems and societies. The institute is cosponsoring a major panel discussion Oct. 13 at UCLA with the islanders, climate change experts and political leaders.
 
"We are delighted to be able to do this," MacDonald said of the first major collaboration of this scope between art and environmental science. "People can look at numbers and lines on a graph when they think about climate change, but here is a chance for scientists and the public in Los Angeles and across the United States to meet people whose lives could be dramatically altered by a changing climate and a rising sea level. It’s the human face of what we’re confronting here."
 
Remote island nation speaks out

The groundbreaking idea to link the power of performance to the spirited scientific and political debate surrounding climate change emerged two years ago when Mitoma saw that Tuvalu, one of the smallest nations in the world, was suddenly in the news as a result of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

A delegation from Tuvalu was insisting that all first-world countries sign the treaty to prevent their islands from being swallowed up by the ocean.

"Of course, nobody knew anything about Tuvalu," Mitoma said. "These islands are so remote. You can go for miles and miles on the ocean and not see anything until these little green tufts start to appear on the horizon. That’s Tuvalu."
 
And while few knew anything about the citizens of these island nations, "they were my heroes," said Mitoma. She had been observing dancers, singers and musicians from these indigenous cultures at Pacific Island festivals for more than three decades.
 
"The dances of these particular island groups — Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tokelau — were unlike any other culture," Mitoma said. "Not like the Tahitians, not like the Hawaiians, not like the Samoans. There was something about them that was so unique; they captured everyone’s attention. I think this is due to their isolation and positive outlook on life. They can’t travel very easily. A boat comes by once a month, and the nearest island is 36 hours away." So people are self-sufficient. "They do not look to the outside world for information or validation."
 
Islanders show the world what rising oceans could destroy

While these peaceful people "had finally found their voice" at the Copenhagen conference, she said, "I wanted to give them a way to use the arts as a means of conveying what’s at stake should the sea levels rise to dangerous levels." Climate change is not just about "the inconvenience of beachfront property owners, although I don’t want to diminish the importance of that," she said. "But there’s a whole civilization that may be displaced, a civilization that has endured hundreds of years in relative isolation."
 
Contending with nutrient-poor soil and scant fresh water, islanders live off of coconut, breadfruit, taro and Pandanus that grow on the island and what they can catch in the ocean. Few have jobs that pay a salary, and education is severely limited. The entire nation of Tuvalu has only one high school.
 
"They may seem like the poorest people in the world, but they are not," Mitoma insisted. "They are resourceful. They work all the time. And there’s joyfulness about them. Music brings joy to their hearts, and dancing together brings collective pleasure. Being the best dancer is not considered as cool as being the best village of dancers or the best youth group of dancers. It’s not about me; it’s about my community." 

To reach these islanders, Mitoma spent a year getting permission from government officials to carry out the project and convincing them that the islanders would not be exploited. Slowly networking her way across the Pacific, she found island groups that had shown a long-time commitment to art-making and finally she selected the participating artists. 

"Luckily, because I had gone to these festivals and had recorded and filmed them, I had a few names in my Rolodex," said Mitoma, who visited the three countries twice for a total of three months.
 
The performers, ranging in age from 18 to 65, run the gamut of island society, from fishermen to a pig farmer and a school teacher. They have prepared a program that conveys their love of the land, the difficult sacrifices of their ancestors, their inability to change the pattern of global warming, "and their hope that the rest of the world will heed their call to action," she said.
 
As for climate change, "There is no finger-pointing or accusations that ‘Americans are messing up our lives.’ There’s no evidence of panic or fear," Mitoma said. "They are just saying, ‘This is happening to us. Please pay attention.’"
 
Campus events

During their stay at UCLA from Oct. 12-15, they will give presentations to classes on the environment as well as a performance to K-12 students through UCLA Live’s Design for Sharing. On Oct. 13, a free screening of "Time and Tide" will be presented as part of the Melnitz Movies Series at the James Bridges Theater. A Q and A with directors and artists will follow.
 
On Oct. 13, the islanders will participate in "Water is Rising — Science and Art in a Climate of Change: a Dialogue of Nations," a performance demonstration and discussion with an interdisciplinary panel of UCLA experts led by Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board. The event will take place from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Glorya Kaufman Hall Theatre on the second floor. To RSVP, go here.
 
Finally, on Oct. 15, as the closing event for the World Festival of Sacred Music, the full performance of "Water is Rising: Music and Dance amid Climate Change" will make its world premiere at 7 p.m. in Royce Hall.