Masig Island is a tiny outpost of Australia located in the Torres Strait between Queensland and Papua New Guinea. It is populated by indigenous Australians like Yessie Mosby, whose ancestors going back six generations are buried in the sands that abut the ocean. Recently, rising seas and more powerful storms have dislodged bones from many of those graves.
“Other parents around the world go to the beach with their kids and pick up shells. We pick up remains,” he tells the New York Times. Masig Island is one of 16 tiny outcroppings in the Torres Strait that are home to indigenous Australian people. About 4,500 people live on those islands.
Wells on Masig Island have turned brackish. The encroachment of the sea has undermined the roots of coconut trees, sending them tumbling into the water. Other trees have stopped bearing fruit. “This is our mother,” Mosby says of the sickened trees. “It’s scary.” Sacred sites for birthing and initiation ceremonies are vanishing beneath the water. “The erosion is hurting us,” says Ned Mosby, a 61-year-old priest and police officer on Masig Island, who is not involved in the claim. “The land is us, and we are the island.”
An Appeal To The United Nations
Unable to get the Australian government — which has balked at implementing the commitments it made to the world community in Paris in 2015 — to protect the island from being taken by the sea, Mosby and seven of his neighbors have appealed to the United Nations for help. They fear that with the effects of climate change, their culture will soon vanish. They argue that by failing to protect them, their government has violated their basic human rights, including the right to survive as culture distinct from that of mainland Australians.
“They are losing everything. They can’t just pick it up and go somewhere else. Their culture is unique to that region,” says Sophie Marjanac, a lawyer with ClientEarth, the environmental law organization which presented the claim to the United Nations on May 13. “That’s the crux of the argument. If Indigenous people are disposed of their homelands, then they can’t continue to practice their culture.”
Australia, like most colonial powers, has a dismal record when it comes to protecting the rights of indigenous people who stood in the way of “progress.” In an area of Sydney known as The Rocks, where the first English settlers came ashore, there is a three sided monument to those who founded modern Australian society. One side commemorates the soldiers. Another celebrates the settlers. And the third pays tribute to the convicts sent to the Antipodes by the British government.
There is no monument to the indigenous people who lived there when the first British ships landed nearby. In Sydney today, what few of them are left are little more than circus performers, playing their didgeridoos for tourists along Circular Quay in exchange for a few coins.
Is There A Fundamental Right To Exist?
The legal issues presented by the petition filed by Yessie Mosby and his neighbors are being raised by various people around the world. In the United States, 21 young plaintiffs, including a granddaughter of noted climate scientist James Hansen, are suing the federal government, claiming the right to a healthy environment is one of the high-minded principles enshrined in the Constitution.
When some of the greatest minds of the 18th century referred to “inalienable rights” that are “self-evident,” the right to live in an environment free of pollutants put there by human activity must have been part of their thinking. In Germany, three farmers and Greenpeace have filed a similar lawsuit against the German government.
Petitioning the UN for help is a novel strategy, one that could bring pressure to bear on Australia and other governments, but in the final analysis, nothing will change until captains of industry are forced to pay for the damage they do to the environment. If Australia suddenly found that it couldn’t export its bountiful supplies of coal because of a global carbon emissions tax — somewhere around $100 a ton should do the trick — its government would make needed changes and in short order, too.
We don’t need a world government to address climate change but we do need a realistic price placed on carbon emissions. Everything else is just shouting into a rain barrel at this point.
Photos by the author.