10 questions with ... Jenny Bryant-Tokalau

Following our interview with Lyn Carter, in this episode of '10 questions with ...' we chat with Associate Professor Jenny Bryant-Tokalau about Indigenous Pacific Approaches to Climate Change: Pacific Island Countries (2018). Jenny's book accompanies Lyn's in being released as part of the Palgrave Studies in Disaster Anthropology series.

1. How would you describe your book to a non-anthropological audience?

This book seeks to turn on its head the notion that Pacific Islanders are ‘victims’ of climate change and other environmental disasters. Pacific peoples have been adapting to and dealing with environmental change for many generations, using knowledge that is so old and so much a part of their daily lives, that sometimes it goes unrecognised by modern, urban societies, both inside the Pacific and beyond. The book has been written to show the wider world beyond the Pacific and Aotearoa New Zealand that indigenous peoples have their own forms of ecological knowledge that are part of ‘coping’ with disasters and climate change.

To examine what climate change means in the context of the many, diverse islands of the Pacific, I start by looking at traditional environmental management, then move into an examination of the wide range of academic and institutional responses such as through regional and international organisations and global conferences. What is shown here is that not all of these responses demonstrate an understanding of people’s own traditional knowledge and often the role of spirituality, formal religion and even community responses can be overlooked by planners and donors, sometimes being viewed as outdated in the era of growing cities and economic growth and decline. To show how people deal with climate change I give detailed examples of ancient artificial islands in Solomon Islands and Micronesia, as well as migrations, land purchases and the significance of these in contemporary times. Using examples of cyclones and flooding in Fiji I examine how people respond to such disasters which are becoming more prevalent and intense. The growing Pacific cities are of particular interest to me as they are becoming a focus for extreme environmental change, often human induced, compounded by the impacts of climate change. I remind readers here that just because a growing number live in towns and cities, this does not mean that traditional knowledge is lost. The book finishes with ‘thinking outside the square’ – turning the debates around to consider that there is a great deal of knowledge and practice held by Pacific societies and this could be used to teach other parts of the world. Learning should never be simply one way. 

2. Why now?

The book has been in gestation for a while. I have worked in most countries of the Pacific both as a teacher and researcher, as well as with an environmental NGO and for UNDP. What I learned in those 40 plus years was that often the intent of aid and knowledge is to tell recipients how they should think. Dr Lyn Carter and I have had many discussions about this over the last few years and with the clear and obvious impacts of climate change and the growing concerns of most countries about how to deal with it, we felt that there is much that can be learned from Pacific and other indigenous communities, including from Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand. We started writing a single joint book but quickly realised that there is much to say, some of which is very different with New Zealand also being in the position of being a donor. Lyn’s book Indigenous Pacific Approaches to Climate Change: Aotearoa/New Zealand (2018) has now also appeared and so we have a pair of companion books. 

3. What kind of assumptions do you unsettle in this book?

It is too easy for larger nations to dismiss the Pacific as irrelevant in the global scheme of things. For too long the public, governments and dare I say, the developers of key industries, have viewed the Pacific Islands as recipients of aid in all its forms, and neglect the fact that there is a great deal of knowledge in these countries. I want readers in ‘developed’ countries to listen to people and take note of, for example, how they manage environmental change at the very local level, how they travelled thousands of kilometres and created new societies, and how traditional architecture (for example) withstood extreme winds and rising sea levels. All of these examples provide lessons for the ‘developed’ countries which still harbour many climate change deniers. 

4. What drew you to your topic?

Years of teaching in PNG, Fiji, NZ and Australia as well as being on the donor side of aid. Some of the teaching curriculum in the early days was based on long held ‘truths’ from western nations, but rarely examined ideas from people’s own knowledge. On the plus side though, dozens of our Geography graduates from UPNG and USP are now working in environmental agencies and making a difference by getting local knowledge onto the global stage. I am hugely impressed by their work and want more of the world to know of it. I spend a lot of time in Fiji and am in regular contact with friends in Solomon Islands and PNG and remain in awe of people’s traditional knowledge and practical responses to climate change – knowledge and practice that need to be widely shared.

5. How was your publisher?

Palgrave McMillian and Springer were really excellent to work with, especially Mary Al-Sayeed and the production team who were all responsive, quick and efficient. I should also thank Professors Pamela Stewart and Andrew Strathern for publishing us in the Palgrave Studies in Disaster Anthropology. The external reviewers were also very helpful and supportive.

6. What’s your favourite part of the book?

Well I enjoy all of it but I am especially fond of the short part on urbanisation as I refuse to believe that people lose all their traditional knowledge once they move to towns.

7. What have you learnt about yourself as a writer as a result of this?

I enjoy writing in a clear and straightforward way. My goal is to make my writing accessible to all audiences and I think I have done that with this book. Like Lyn, I have also learned that it is important to ‘own’ my writing.

8. Would you write another book?

Probably, it’s hard to stop. I have ideas around more on urban environmental knowledge

9. What’s next?

Well. I have just retired from teaching and have been writing some reflections on the Pacific for ANU’s Development Bulletin. I am also continuing with writing on urban Suva. When I get all my papers sorted out I intend to pull together in an edited collection of years of writings by former students on environmental issues in the Pacific. There is a great deal of wonderful work out there that deserves to be published. I am trying to find some of those authors now. But first I shall have a holiday and go back to painting and writing poetry.

10. What are you reading at the moment?

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and for lighter relief Isabel Allende’s My Invented Country, as well as Sam Hunt’s most recent poetry collection.

Associate Professor Jenny Bryant-Tokalau has recently retired from teaching in Te Tumu (School of Māori, Pacific and Indigenous Studies) at Te Whare Wānanga o Otāgo (the University of Otago). She is an Adjunct Professor at the University of the South Pacific, and has previously worked for the University of Papua New Guinea, Monash University, and the United Nations Development Programme.