Drawing the future of the Torres Strait Islands

By Sarah Cole July 7th, 2015

The Torres Strait region faces potential pressures such as climate change, population growth, biosecurity and pollution risks, and the loss of traditional culture. Community members, leaders, government and scientists came together to find out how they could adapt to these pressures in a way that’s sustainable and equitable, and to identify what makes a community resilient.
Four elderly people sit around a table

Masig elders discuss the future. Image: John Rainbird.

Shaped like a water droplet, Masig Island barely interrupts the surface of the coral cay-studded waters of the central Torres Strait. Eight hundred metres wide and not quite three kilometres long, the island is home to over 200 people.

One of 15 inhabited Torres Strait Islands, Masig is a microcosm of the long-term but growing challenges confronting many Pacific Island nations.

Though life on the island rolls on, people are worried about sea level rise and encroaching erosion, busier shipping lanes and potential accidents, the rising cost of living, increasing numbers of people from Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Indonesia putting pressure on marine food stocks, risk of pollution from mining and development, biosecurity risks from pests and diseases, mixed together with a gradual loss of their traditional culture and languages.

View of a narrow island from the sky with a small town and the ocean visible on both sides of the island

Masig Island, with the waters of the Torres Strait on both sides. Image: Tom Greenwood.

Like the spectre of climate change, those challenges are happening faster than ever before, and the way they interact will test the Islanders’ capacity to adapt.

Systems thinking is complex

The grocery store on Masig is resupplied weekly by barge, and people are growing less of their own food on the island than before. If a severe tropical cyclone destroys home-grown crops and prevents barge deliveries, where will people get their food?

Answering these sorts of questions requires the kind of ‘systems thinking’ that is critical for planning for adaptation in the Torres Strait region.

Island communities already have a lot of knowledge about specific issues – sea level rise, for example, or fewer people growing their own food – and are keen to make changes that address those risks. But there’s been little work that looks at how the issues interact and how that might change the resulting impacts.

A difficulty in planning for the future is the time scale required for decision-making. “We’re not just talking five or 10 years – we’re talking 100 years!” says CSIRO researcher Erin Bohensky.

Very few people are naturally good at long-term systems thinking, she says. “We all focus on what’s happening now, this week and this month. Beyond that it starts to get a bit hazy.”

Sketching out a future adaptable to the challenges

To tackle these problems, the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TRSA) introduced a new approach with their climate change adaptation and resilience planning, engaging a much broader set of people in future planning processes.

With funding from the NERP Tropical Ecosystems Hub, they partnered with a CSIRO team to run a series of workshops where participants created models of changes and impacts, timelines, resilience ‘scorecards’ and adaptation strategies.

People from the islands of Masig, Erub and Mabuiag took part in the workshops.

Named ‘participatory adaptation planning’, the process emphasises the ‘participation’ part – connecting people who may not usually collborate to design adaptation strategies.

The workshops brought together community members, local leaders, government officials from different levels and scientists. One of the ground rules is that everyone’s ideas are equally relevant and important.

Fraser Nai, Torres Strait Island Regional Councillor for Masig, noted that the participatory process had increased people’s understanding of many different aspects of island life: “That really opened my eyes to see all the stuff that’s happening from a regional perspective—and even a global perspective—that has a significant effect on us, on our day-to-day lives.”

In small groups, participants sketched their vision for the future of the region or their island communities. They were considering changes that are beginning to unfold for the region, how those pressures might interact, and strategies about how to get to an ideal future.

The region has unique influences: it’s remote from Australia’s capital cities, and its ecosystems and communities have strong similarities to those on the other side of the international borders with PNG and Indonesia. Torres Strait Islanders generally have a good standard of living, but their traditional livelihoods and wellbeing have been changed by dependence on welfare systems, unlike communities in PNG and Indonesia.

The workshops drew out what communities value most: coral reefs, seagrass and fisheries; the island’s graveyard – already threatened by sea level rise and erosion; how growing food can help with passing on traditional knowledge and combat food security issues; how traditional values and local language can increase resilience. The workshops also helped communities understand threats, such as how people moving around more can increase biosecurity risks.

The vision: it’s about culture

The planning process revealed that people considered their culture to be at the heart of resilience in their communities.

Both Islanders and non-Islanders recognise that traditional culture is what has helped Torres Strait peoples adapt to change over hundreds of years.

Their vision for the future was of self-reliant communities with opportunities for sustainable economies and livelihoods, “always with the strength of culture”, and recognising connections to ecosystems and spirituality, researcher Dr James Butler says.

On Masig, for instance, loss of traditional culture was considered a greater threat than climate change and cultural renewal was the top strategy that the Masig people came up with help them adapt to change. People talked about how community members, young and old, could create more cultural awareness and practice through champions of cultural renewal, school programs, traditional governance structures, and events such as ceremonies.

Other innovative and creative solutions proposed for mapping out strategies towards a preferred future included improving garden food production to increase food security and buffer against sea level rise effects, or creating aquaculture farms to produce high-value bêche-de-mer [sea cucumbers].

Robert Zigterman, a town planning manager from the Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs says the cooperative nature of the workshops was important. “If bureaucrats don’t understand or value the knowledge that’s in the communities, strategies for the future won’t be supported.”

Masig councillor Fraser Nai sees exciting and real opportunities for families, culture and livelihoods – and the people are ready.

People who took part in the project expressed a strong willingness to move forward and take action. TSRA Board member for Erub Kenny Bedford muses that perhaps the process could be called ‘re-adaptation’, “because it’s going back to what really held us together as strong communities”.

Learn more about Torres Strait Island futures planning

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