From a Mother’s Heart: Reflections on Climate change and development in the Pacific

Eliala Fihaki recently moved with her family to Auckland. She works with Tearfund New Zealand as Senior Programme Specialist. Eliala is also doing a PhD through the University of the South Pacific. Silvia Purdie, interviewed Eliala as part of the book, 'Awhi Mai Awhi Atu: Women in Creation Care'.
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What was it like growing up in Tuvalu?

Tuvalu and its natural environment constitute a simple life. Much of what you do revolves around food production for your loved ones which includes extended families and community. It is a homogenous society – daily activities are predictable and uniform across families. There was no chemist or furniture shop or a cafeteria to go to when I was a child, only one hotel, a handful of shops, and a grass airfield with a narrow strip of concrete for the wheels of the plane. 

In my childhood days we interacted with nature a lot; all our games happened outside, in the day and nights too. Riding bikes was a new thing. A few families had a TV and we would sit outside and watch through the windows. Our favourites were the Grease movie – I watched it so many times I know all the songs and words – and WWE wrestling – Hulk Hogan in his yellow outfit and famous entrance act, calling up the crowd and flexing his muscles! These were glimpses of another world.

Raising children in that time was an extended family affair where all the aunties, grand aunts and uncles care for you. I spent very little time with my parents. My father was away studying in England to be an accountant (1983-1988) and my mum was busy with work and other siblings. I was the eldest of five and the favourite niece and grandchild for both my maternal and paternal families. I’m very fortunate to have had much love and affection. 

My childhood engrained in me the duty to serve others, particularly my family. It’s a satisfying feeling to be able to serve and touch people’s lives – this is a reason I do well working in the development sector. I grew up in a communal framework. However my exposure to the outside world and education curriculum opened my eyes to see the ugly side of life in other situations. I learnt about individualism. The idea of individual human rights conflicted with the values I learnt growing up and I didn’t see its validity. I was not in any disadvantaged situations to yearn for recognition or escape from hardship. 

I am now at a crossroad, having different worldviews on each side. I have to find ways to integrate the two, but I always view situations from my communal framework first. I believe it is biblical, abiding in the two great commandments in the New Testament: first and foremost we should love God with all our heart, then we should love our neighbour as we love ourselves. It’s very simple: we are made in God’s image, so loving and considering others is equally loving God. This is the foundation of the communal perspective.

What did you love about Tuvalu?

I love everything about Tuvalu: the people, the sun, the food and the scents of the flowers, the governing systems, the traditions and community activities. It’s amazing how you don’t fully appreciate these things when you are living in it. I left when I was 17 for further studies in NZ and then Fiji. Being away from Tuvalu created this deep appreciation. 

I love the simplicity – life is very basic. Needs and wants are a few compared to life here in NZ: food on table, a thatched roof over your head, you can walk anywhere. There are not many things to worry about.

I love the kinship values that keep people connected. There is a concept of ‘tama tuagane’ cross-cousins, “siblings or cousins who are different sexes”.[ii] The children of your cross-cousin are as important as your own children, or even more important. It is reciprocal relationship. This is shown very much during the festive Christmas holidays. Families are reunited with loved ones who travelled to other islands or overseas for work and school. A lot of alofa (love) is exchanged between families – food and parties to celebrate being alive and returning after a year’s hard work. Those who live overseas work and send money back, then when you get home you take a break from chores and you are treated as a prince or princess! It’s an example of reciprocity and investment of good faith. The families in the islands not only receive the money, they never miss a day praying for you.

How did you relate to the natural world?

Tuvalu’s physical environment is a very fragile place. There are nine islands, eight of which are inhabited, nowhere is more than a few metres high. The atolls are very narrow, on Funafuti the widest part of the island is 800m. The lagoon is your front yard and the ocean is your backyard. Tourists spend a lot money to visit a place like my home, I got it free every day! Having that environment as a backdrop to my life, intrigued me to know more about the relationships and interactions within natural systems. Despite the fragility of the environment I see complex networks that have sustained my people for a very long time.

From one perspective, Tuvalu is a very poor country. It does not have unique flora and fauna. It is very vulnerable to disasters. To me it’s unique in that my ancestors tolerated its environment limitations with little food and water resources. My people are resilient and very positive thinking by nature. As good navigators they could have migrated to bigger islands with better biodiversity but they chose to make their homes on those tiny atolls. So from another perspective, Tuvalu is a rich country, looking at its sea area; the Tuvalu Exclusive Economic Zone area is around 900,000 square km,[iii] and its people are spread around the globe!

Moving to NZ does not make me forget my first home. I carry it with me and I hope to transfer that to my children. That natural world of Tuvalu will continue to shape and influence my worldview and how I relate to others and the environment. It’s my baseline.

How do you see God in relation to creation? 

John 1:1 is very clear for us who believe in the existence of the Almighty. He spoke nature into existence. He created the earth and all the living things including human through spoken words and breathing life. Science has a different view, but doing a degree in Environment did not challenge my belief in God the creator of all things. I’m sure God had in his plans for humankind to explore science to study his marvellous works. There will be a time when he will unveil the mystery when we see him face to face.

In my work I rely very much on God. I used to rely on my intellectual capacity to solve things, but for me today and moving forward, God will lead the way. He will show me how to carry out my work. I know that what I learned in science will be instrumental – God wouldn’t let me waste my time acquiring those qualifications for nothing. We are his children: “for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by name: thou art mine” (Isaiah 43:1).

How did you first become concerned about climate change?

Growing up in Tuvalu, its unique geography and climate vulnerabilities convicted me to pursue a degree in environmental studies and eventually a Masters in Governance. I needed to understand the vulnerabilities of my home and figure out ways to mitigate them. Climate change has surfaced as a major issue for the international community.[iv] It exacerbates the current vulnerabilities of Tuvalu. For my PhD thesis I explore the concept of adaptation, both in the islands and for Tuvalu people living in other countries. How do we adapt to the tides and storms and cultural changes? I look at how adaptation is managed within the context of Tuvalu, both the land and the diaspora people.   

How did God call you into aid and development work?

With God nothing is a coincidence. My life journey is immersed in and around aspects of development. I hail from a family where my grandfather and father served two-three terms as members of Parliament. My grandfather was Minister for Transport and Communication, my dad was Minister for Finance and Economic Development. So development is in my DNA! At our dining table my father would talk about his day and I learned how systems in governments are connected internally and externally. 

My husband for twenty-three years and counting has also contributed a lot to my career. I treasure having an educated and receptive partner. My husband is my sounding board. I wouldn’t be so confident to speak my mind if it wasn’t for him. 

I did a degree in Environmental Management at the University of the South Pacific, and worked in fisheries and integrated water sectors, which provided a good background. I went on to do a Masters and I taught sociology, history, politics and geography.

Doing a Masters in Governance helped solidify my understanding of development and the dynamics of public financial management and ethics with different institutional arrangements and civilizations at play (geopolitics). I then was a project coordinator in the United Nations Development Programme, based in Fiji. Working for UNDP was a privilege that taught me a lot – at times stressful as you have to be 150% efficient! Bits from different parts of my life enabled me to slowly piece together the development puzzle, and I’m still collecting pieces. I like to make things connected. In all of these, God’s hand was there, and still is. The experiences, values and learnings I’ve gained over the years is amazing.

Last year I moved to Auckland to join the team at Tearfund NZ. Working for Tearfund is truly a blessing, not only for my family as new immigrants but for my professional walk too. Tearfund is my first permanent position after 20 years of short-term contracts and consultancies. It is my first experience working for a Non-Government Organisation, and a faith-based one, and my first job in NZ. Initially there was some culture shock but it’s my new norm now and I am very grateful. It is marvellous to integrate development and faith.

How does Tearfund see environmental issues as part of poverty and development?

There is a growing focus in Tearfund on environmental protection. We are realizing the impacts of climate change on our projects, and our partners on the ground are witnessing the extreme changes like flooding and droughts. The positive side is helping communities to adapt and figure things out, integrating science and traditional knowledge and practices.[v]

What are you hearing from around the world about the effects of climate change?

Our partners in Ethiopia are going through long droughts. In Nepal there is a lot of flooding, which makes it difficult to cross the river to reach to communities. The Philippines are having both droughts and floods! The Pacific islands face worsening tropical cyclones and typhoons. The climate is changing and this exacerbates current climate conditions. During the dry season it becomes drier for longer. In the wet season the intensity of rainwater is extreme. That’s what I am learning about climate change: it increases the intensity and the frequency of harsh events.

Originally, Tearfund’s main focus was on disaster response. But after they responded to disasters they realised that to strengthen the communities they needed to foster an enabling environment to improve livelihoods. Economic and social resilience is built into the journey. So we still to respond to disaster and build local capacity to survive future disasters, and we also focus on modern slavery, farming enterprise and children’s development. 

For example, I am currently reviewing a project in the Philippines, the Western Samar area. They used to be dependent on the ocean. After a big typhoon in 2009 Tearfund responded, and we heard the need to shift their livelihood inland. They still fish but no longer rely totally on that; now they have ventured into farming vegetables with contracts to supply to big markets. In our project we look at irrigation, increasing skills, sourcing seeds, as part of climate change resilience.

Over the years our partners have learned how to incorporate science and traditional knowledge. A good example is mulching to keep the moisture in the ground so that during drought the land does not dry out so much. In Vanuatu we are developing coffee and vanilla. They have droughts and then hurricanes, so as they set up farms they look at those issues before they construct their greenhouses, to build resilience. In the Philippines our goal is to make them ready for any disaster. They have a disaster management plan for each community, so that they know how to respond to different disasters – not just hurricane or typhoon, but also pandemic. I think that is the ideal thinking for Tearfund. Going forward we want to engage in the climate change sector in order to climate-proof all our programmes.

Why is governance training important?

Governance is an integral aspect of life and community development. For a group (whether a community organisation or business) to access development aid it has to have good sound governance to ensure accountability and transparency. Sadly, corruption is very common in the world. One of our partners faces corruption everyday as officials ask to be paid for many things. Our partner rejects all of that and maintains a stand against it, even if it means delays. So we focus not only on developing a farming enterprise but we look at the whole picture of governance in the community. Tearfund’s initiatives build resilience in governance in a holistic perspective to strengthen and improve organisations. This is a good approach and a learning curve. 

What issues do you see in climate change and development?

My role in Tearfund is monitoring and evaluation, so I’ve been looking at all our projects. I am recommending ways to make all of our projects disaster-proof and adapt to climate change. We need a climate change lens for every approach we implement. In my opinion a lot of development projects are too short term. There should be more focus on long term. To save Tuvalu from sea level rise you would have to build up the land – that’s a long term adaptation. 

Food security is an important part of climate change adaptation. We need to report to donors that we have done food security, and most donors want to see immediate results,  so we plant things like tomatoes and cucumbers because they are a short term success. Within the time of the project you can see them come to fruition. But that is not enough. The food that the people ask for is breadfruit – that sustains them forever – but a breadfruit tree takes longer to grow than a 2-year project.[vi] So we need to educate our donors that some measures need be longer term to see real fruit. 

Another focus is water security, by having more water tanks. But the more water you have, the more water you use. Consumption leads to asking for more resources. It is our human weakness as consumers. When I was young, we only had one water tank; we had droughts and we managed with that one 10,000 litre water tank. Now there are six 10,000 litre water tanks, some families have two or three, and there is still not enough water! I worry that adaptation projects can make people more dependent and complacent so they consume more than they need to. We are mindful of these complexities at Tearfund.

Something I value about Tearfund is the partnership approach; our relationship with partners extends beyond project cycles. And it is not all about the money, we support people in need morally and spiritually also.

Do churches have a role in a disaster? 

In New Zealand, Tearfund works with the National Disaster Management Agency and the CID Humanitarian Network.[vii] I believe it is very important for churches to work together and in partnership with agencies, including Civil Defence. When there is a disaster, churches need to know how to mobilise. For our international partners, we are introducing a process to develop a profile of their local communities;[viii] a baseline survey covers things like building structure and roof type, water sources, health facilities, resource maping, rivers, plantations, and churches. It is a powerful tool for communities, partners and Tearfund to be aware of the assets and risks present in every context.[ix] The hope is that during a hurricane, for instance, the community has already identified which churches or buildings are safe places. It would be a good thing for churches in Aotearoa too to build up a profile of the community and have good networks. Churches are a vital community unit and they should be ready to mobilise in case of emergency.

How do Pacific Island churches in Aotearoa support those in the islands? 

One very practical way is that we fill shipping containers that go back to the islands. Anyone who wants to send stuff for their family can put things in. Churches always organise containers during disasters, and throughout the year there is a lot of alofa – gifts, food, clothing, shoes – sent to our families back home. That’s one way the church here shows ongoing connection and care. 

Where do you see God in climate change and mission? 

As I started work in the environment sector, I thought about Genesis 1:28-29: “Go ye therefore …” to multiply. As I look at those words, it does not say for us to exploit the earth. It says for us to nurture it and replenish it, not subdue and dominate. We have dominion but with care. Just like how you care over your kids, as a mother. You have dominion over your kids but you don’t exploit it. You nurture them properly. In the islands, because we are very Christian and strong in our faith, that is the approach I take as an environment person working with government, to link with the Bible. We can’t be seen be pushing a Christian agenda so we don’t say it often but we say it in our prayer. Everything in the islands starts with a prayer. We bring in stewardship from the Bible. That guides my work and how I do things in the environment sector. It is stewardship from a mother’s heart. 

How are women part of climate change adaptation?

Gender is an important ingredient. Tearfund is expanding a cross-sector focus on climate change and gender. In the Pacific we encourage women to be involved in conservation projects, because of their mothering nature. It is becoming obvious that women are leading in water harvesting, cooking, gathering firewood, so they are good agents for both adaptation and mitigation for climate change. A colleague and I did a report for Oxfam on climate finance and women, and these are the findings we came up with. Women are important in implementing things. They are engaged with all these activities that can adapt to climate change. But women are missing from the equation of decision making.

We ask the women: “Why don’t you go to the meetings?” They say: “We are invited, but when we get there our male cousins are in the meeting hall and we can’t face them.” It’s a taboo relationship so they don’t speak. They keep themselves quiet. And also they get very tired from their day’s work. They are too busy with housework to sit in a meeting hall for five hours, and fatigue lowers their participation in discussions. You have to talk to the women to hear their reasons for not being in the meetings. We need to take those into account so that women’s voices can be heard. 

For people in the Pacific, for my people, I believe that we have the solution within ourselves. We don’t have to copy or do what others are telling us to do; don’t jump on new initiatives imported from the other side of the world. We should focus on what we can do within our own context, based on what we value. We have always looked after the enviroment because Tuvalu is very limited in many ways. My ancestors on the island knew how to make a piece of soap last for many months. Nowdays my kids just throw soap away. 

Climate change survival has to do with behavior and attitude and value – things deeper than we can measure. In development we can’t do projects to change people’s attitudes because you can’t measure that; outcomes have to be tangible. I think the church has a role here, to strengthen faith in action, to address the consumer attitude, so that we learn to respect and replenish the earth. It means going back to Genesis.

What are the faith convictions that ring true for Pacific women?

Many Tuvaluan people, especially the elderly people, think that God’s promise to Noah will hold forever. There is not going to be another flood. They cannot accept that there is sea level rise. 

So talk about climate change is a lack of faith?

Yes, that’s how they see it. They tell us that if we do right in how we live, God will not punish us. That’s a strong belief. They do know that the droughts are impacting their livelihoods and making it harder to grow food. They know the increasing storm surges during hurricanes. We hear the scientists saying that Tuvalu will go underwater in a few years time, maybe 50 years and we will be submerged. But the old people do not believe that; they will not think about climate change. For them, God cannot flood the earth because of his promise to Noah. 

For me, God has given us the earth to replenish, but we have over-dominated and over-subdued it, and climate change is the cost of not looking after the world. People in Tuvalu think ‘it’s not our doing’, and that God will save them because we didn’t cause it. For them it is a test of faith. Perhaps my faith is not strong enough. I believe in God, I believe that he won’t harm us, I believe that I am a child of God. But I also think that we have to be wise.

Those with education see things differently. I could have stayed in the islands, not knowing about these issues and never thinking of leaving. But on my journey God has put me in university, gave me knowledge and so I come to use it. I exercise what wisdom I can find. Coming to New Zealand is for my children and for their future. I don’t want to put them through the ordeal of living in the islands and facing all the impacts of climate change. I have brought my family away from the islands, but I hope we do not cut off our connection to our home.

How can Pacific people sustain that connection through climate change?

My PhD thesis is on climate change adaptation and cultural identity. I use Roy Rappaport’s book, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity.[x] He defines adaptation as how a human being, a living organism or living system will adapt but core features of the person or the system will remain. I am investigating what makes us Tuvaluan, comparing people living in Tuvalu with people who live away from Tuvalu. I found that even though you are away from your country, your values and cultural systems are still with you. It is ingrained in you from birth. 

In light of climate change and sea level rising I say that atoll islands like Tuvalu and Kiribati should channel resources into maintaining their identity, learning and recording our cultural traits, as a central way of adapting. Science and natural phenomena are pointing towards these islands becoming submerged. Building seawalls and improving food and water security will be futile when the island is underwater. The people can be saved by relocating them, but Tuvalu as a people will drown with the island if we don’t treasure our identity. It will be a worthwhile investment to record and strengthen identity traits such as the language, the art of dancing, the making of food, the relationships, the values of families, and so much more that is distinctive to Tuvaluan people. They remain with you wherever you are. If our identity is strengthened then there is hope for Tuvalu culture, faith and identity, as a diaspora when the inevitable happens. 

I hope countries around the world will allow space and recognize us as a people even when we are relocated and living in other countries. New Zealand is heading that direction by celebrating languages and recognising the uniqueness of different Pacific cultures and identity.

I try to do this with my kids, the engrained traits of myself as a Tuvaluan: eating raw fish, respecting and serving elders, valuing extended families, visiting them to share a meal with families, especially those coming to NZ – or Fiji in our previous home. One thing is having devotions in the evening. Having devotions is a traditional practice in Tuvalu and makes us feel like Tuvaluans. We don’t do it every day but whenever we do I feel very much at home. It is an identity as well as a faith thing; I link to God and at the same time I link to my identity.

What is a Biblical view of a people forced from their land? 

If I think about the Israelites; they were dispersed all over the world. If that happened to the people of God, whom God proclaimed as his people, it can happened to anybody. But their faith in God remained. Their faith is their identity.

I still hope that Tuvalu can survive as a nation. There is hope that the world can limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. I look for God’s hand in all of this. But if Tuvalu does go underwater, I believe that our country is the people not the land.[xi]

And I know that one day we will go to a better home where we are all at home. 

How do you find time for everything?

Yes, that’s an issue! I love my work with Tearfund. I will take some leave to finish my PhD. I’ve been nominated as a Board member for the Council for International Development – the umbrella body for all the NGOs in New Zealand doing international work. Last year was challenging, getting used to all the change. A lot is going on for me and my family, but I believe that God has plans for me. He will be there for me. So I’m not worried.

[i] Tearfund NZ:

[ii] L.K. Corlew, ‘The Cultural Impacts of Climate Change: Sense of Place and Sense of Community in Tuvalu, A Country Threatened by Sea Level Rise’ PhD Thesis. University of Hawaii Manoa, 2021.

[iii] ‘About Tuvalu’, UNDP:

[iv] United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change:

[v] Thanks to NZ Government MFAT Aid.

[vi] Breadfruit, bananas and swampy taro are important sources of food in Tuvalu. Aid projects tend to focus on short term tangible results by planting tomatoes, cabbage and some foreign vegetables not common to Tuvalu daily diet. This is not long term food security.

[vii] National Disaster Management Agency (Civil Defence):
Council for International Development (CID):

[viii] Profiling project through the Negotiated Partnership Program SAFE.

[ix] Initially the project focused on modern slavery and sustaining livelihoods, but we are collecting all other data to better prepare our partners for any disruptions and disasters that may come.

[x] Roy Rappaport, Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[xi] This is also a quote from the Thor Ragnarok movie directed by a Taika Waititi in 2017, when King Odin reminded his son that their nation “Asgar is not a place, it’s a people”.

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