I am a youth of a small island. Although unheard today, despite being disregarded, I have faith in my tomorrow and I know that my land will be delivered. Delivered from all that’s held my people captive. I am a youth of a small island, I am a youth from Papua New Guinea, and I know the change that will follow me into tomorrow is far more promising than the ruins I sit amongst today. - Vinzealhar Nen, Youth Climate Activist
“I believe that if we don’t start doing things now, my country will be destroyed,” says Vinzealhar Nen. This is what motivates her to speak out about climate change.
Despite the dire consequences her country faces from the growing climate crisis, Nen, a poet and youth climate activist from Papua New Guinea, remains inspired by other young people who are willing to make an impact.
“The energy we have… excites me. When a group of people comes together and says, it doesn’t matter if they help us or not, we can move forward.”
As an island state, Papua New Guinea is especially vulnerable to climate change. “Clean water becomes unclean for consumption,” said Nen, who spoke specifically about the dangers of sea level rise, in a presentation at a UNDP Stakeholder Meeting in 2020.
She pointed out rising temperatures and ocean acidity lead to “mass migration, not just for plants and animals, but also human beings.”
While her interest in environmental issues was first piqued when she was only nine years old, it was in 2015 with a youth-led organization, 350 Pacific, that Nen realized the effect of climate change on island countries such as Papua New Guinea.
In September 2019, as a result of her climate change advocacy and poetry, Nen attended a United Nation’s High-Level Meeting to address the Priorities of Small Island Developing States (SIDS).
“Before, I saw myself as a team player, not a team leader,” she said of her experience. “It was an eye opener and encouraged me to start the tree planting campaign.”
By any measure, the tree planting campaign was a success. Held in 12 provinces, the campaign took on a life of its own, driven by an estimated 1000 young people at the grassroots level.
In Simbu Province, where the most trees were planted, young people living in the city worked with their family networks in villages, prompting a community reforestation effort. A young teacher in Bougainville organized her students to plant trees. In West New Britain, where annual tree planting drives take place, a young girl worked with organizers for an additional 500 trees to be planted.
The experience of most Papua New Guineans remains a driving force in her advocacy efforts. “We see what is happening,” she says of the slow response to climate change by the country’s elites.
“They don’t have to live inside those village houses where a wave crashes through it… they cannot really feel or see it.”
While Nen discusses the mismanagement of natural resources and calls for more education about sustainable livelihood practices, she also points to the lack of choice many Papua New Guineans have. “In regions without access to electricity, for example, families rely on wood or charcoal to cook and warm their homes. It is also difficult for young people to fully engage in climate work and address environmental challenges when they struggle for education, jobs and healthcare,” Nen explains.
For Nen, support for youth-led initiatives, especially information access and a youth platform, is vital to combat climate change in this South Pacific island nation. “We need more opportunities like those that the United Nations has given us to have our voices heard.”
Cooperation between the generations is also necessary.
“The older generation comes with knowledge, wisdom and direction, while young people bring our energy. The energy that young people have to create change, they are going to be the change that we want to see.”
Working to achieve the SDGs
Ms Akus at her workstation, UNDP Papua New Guinea Country Office, Port Moresby. Photo: Clive Hawigen
“When a project is under implementation, communities are collaborating to drive initiatives that make a difference in relieving pressures from the environment" - Ms Tamalis Akus, National Coordinator, GEF SGP
Her role as National Coordinator for the Small Grants Programme of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) established on the eve of the Rio Earth Summit has required Ms Tamalis Akus to leave the comforts of Port Moresby and step into rural Papua New Guinea.
Many civil society organisations accessing these small grants are in rural communities and their work to conserve and raise awareness of the unique flora and fauna of Papua New Guinea is important.
The Small Grants Programme (SGP) partners with over 70 community-based organizations in Papua New Guinea that share grants ranging from US$3,000 - $47,000 (K10,000-165,000) to make a difference in the lives of one hundred to 1,000 people per community.
Ms Akus had always wanted to be involved in development work with a keen interest in natural resource law and policy.
“Working with the program has enabled the opportunity for me to contribute toward small interventions that will raise awareness and inform our people on the impacts of climate change, the importance of protecting our unique biodiversity and sustainable use of our natural resources,” she said.
Over the years working at the GEF Small Grants Programme, Ms Akus has met colleagues from various nationalities and professions.
“These interactions have taught me that we are now living in a world where you have to be multi-skilled and have the ability to adapt into different working environments and deliver on different responsibilities as needed."
"Being part of a global family that works toward improving lives and building resilience amongst our people has been a very rewarding experience,” she said.
Ms Akus would like to continue to do development work to impart her experience and knowledge where needed in the work toward a sustainable future.
“We are all working toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and through the GEF SGP I feel that I have made my contribution."
"I know that when a project is under implementation, communities are collaborating to drive initiatives that make a difference in relieving pressures from the environment and working toward the sustainable use of our natural resources. That’s what drives me to continue my work,” she said.
Ms Akus has a Bachelor of Law Degree from the University of Papua New Guinea, and a Postgraduate qualification in International Environment Law from the University of Auckland, New Zealand.
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