Yessie Mosby fears his home and culture is at risk of vanishing.
Yessie Mosby fears his home and culture is at risk of vanishing.
11 min read

Indigenous

In a critical year for climate justice, these Torres Strait Islanders are leading the fight

Almost three decades since the historic Mabo decision was handed down, a new generation of Torres Strait Islanders are charting unprecedented legal territory in a bid to preserve their right to culture and the land. The group are waging a first-of-its-kind legal battle to force the Australian government to act on climate change.

Published Sunday 4 July 2021
By Abbie O'Brien

Yessie Mosby says the pace at which his home is disappearing is terrifying. 

“It's moving very fast," the Kulkalgal man tells SBS News.

"Within four years we’ve seen eight metres get taken away. It is very scary, very scary to see.”

The father of six is standing on a vast sand flat on Masig Island. The marshy, barren area, he says, was once the heartbeat of village life.

Mr Mosby says food sources on Masig are depleting.
Source: Abbie O'Brien

“It was full of palm trees. People's houses were here before they moved inland. It used to have roads. People used to come, where we are standing, and all day long and sit [under] the big almond tree, making maps, telling stories.”

“There was no beach here. The beach was like 50 metres that way.” 

Here on Masig, and across the Torres Strait Islands, the issue of climate change is one of survival. 

Yessie Mosby describes a changing Masig Island

The region, off the northern tip of Queensland, is home to a chain of low-lying islands, 18 of which are inhabited by First Nations Australians whose culture is tethered to the land. 

Masig is approximately 2.7 kilometres long and only 0.8 kilometres wide. It is home to an estimated 250 people.

Data shows that sea levels in the strait are rising at a rate double the global average. According to the Climate Council, the shallowness of this stretch of ocean exacerbates storm surges, and when they coincide with high tides, extreme sea levels result.  

Communities in the Torres Strait Islands are already in peril. Coastal inundation (when seawater rises high enough that it floods infrastructure and buildings or endangers people's safety) is contaminating the water supply and destroying crops. It’s washing away roads, sacred cultural sites and the remains of loved ones.

“We don't know how strong or how big the next inundation or erosion is going to be," Mr Mosby says. 

"Every day is a fearful day for us. Every day, something has been taken away from this place.” 

Masig is home to an estimated 250 people.
Source: Abbie O'Brien

There is mounting concern that if the more extreme projections of sea-level rise come to fruition, islands like Masig will become uninhabitable.

"I feel that our people will get moved off this land, then our entire race will die. We will be a lost race of people," Mr Mosby says. 

It's also fear held by Herbert Warusam, the Dhoeybaw clan leader on Saibai Island, northwest of Masig.

"The winds, the songs, the traditional language, the traditional gardening, fishing. Land and sea is my connection," he says. 

"It's the heart and soul ... all of that is at stake."

"The decision of relocation will be on my children." 

I feel that our people will get moved off this land, then our entire race will die. 

- Yessie Mosby, Masig 

Saibai is the second-most northern of the Torres Strait Islands and lies just four kilometres off the coast of Papua New Guinea. The island is, on average, just one metre above sea level and home to roughly 500 people. 

Already, Mr Warusam says, the island is experiencing profound change. 

“We're witnessing the now impact of climate change. We're going through it in real-time.”  

Herbert Warusam is the Dhoeybaw clan leader on Masig Island.
Source: Abbie O'Brien

Like Masig, Saibai is “especially at risk" the Climate Council warns.

It cautions that even modest sea level rises will threaten the Torres Strait Island communities, with inundation affecting "houses, roads, power stations, sewage and stormwater systems, cultural sites, cemeteries, gardens, community facilities and ecosystems".  

Mr Warusam says saltwater has begun seeping into the freshwater supply. 

“Each year, the saltwater, during king tide, it pushes in. I think in 30 to 40 years time, we might see saltwater right up, and the indicators will be in the water wells.”  

Herbert Warusam shares concerns about Saibai Island

On Masig, Mr Mosby says food sources are also depleting. 

"There will be a particular time that we will eat a certain fish, or we will plant certain plants ... like a yam. You don't see those yams anymore."

"Our major diet is from the sea. Certain fish are not found on a particular reef when they used to be in the abundance. They are not there." 

For millennia, Masig and its inhabitants have held out against the sea. It's only the past few decades that the community has faced such unprecedented challenges. 

“This thing only happened here … within the last 20 to 30 years or so. As each year passes, it gets worse than the year before,” Mr Mosby says.  

Climate change experts warn relocation could be in the offing for Torres Strait Island communities but it's a fate Mr Mosby refuses to accept. To lose the land, he says, is to lose everything. 

"There's a lot of elders who say that if we ought to move from this island by force ... that they will remain here and they will go with this island. I feel the same." 

Taking their fight to the UN

Mr Mosby is currently among eight Torres Strait Islanders charting unprecedented legal territory in a bid to preserve their right to their culture and the land. 

In 2019, the group filed a complaint with the United Nations' Human Rights Committee accusing Australia's federal government of breaching its fundamental right to maintain culture by failing to adequately address the climate emergency unfolding in their island homes.   

“My fear for my six kids: I don't want them to be refugees in their own country," Mr Mosby says. 

"I want them to live a life of freedom. I want them to practice what I've practiced, what my father and mother [have] practiced and my grandparents, what we've been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.”

My fear for my six kids: I don't want them to be refugees in their own country.

The eight claimants - all Traditional Owners from four different Torres Strait Islands - want the government to take stronger action in reducing emissions and support communities through sustained investment in long-term adaptation measures. 

The ruling, set to be handed down within months, comes in a year characterised as “make or break” in the fight against climate change. A UN report describes 2021 as “truly a pivotal year” in steering the planet away from a looming catastrophe.  

Saibai is home to an estimated 500 people.
Source: Abbie O'Brien

The Mabo legacy looms large in the Torres Strait Islands, almost 30 years since history was made.

Torres Strait Islander Eddie Koiki Mabo's 1992 fight in the High Court saw the overturning of terra nullius - the declaration that Australia was once land belonging to no one. It allowed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to have rights to their land.   

Iama Island Traditional Owner Ned David is the chair of the Gur A Baradharaw Kod (GBK) Torres Strait Sea and Land Council, the peak native title body for the region. 

“I think you have to resort to going to court, you know, as Eddie Mabo did. This is, I guess the same sort of course of action that we have to take,” he says.  

Mr David played a key role in getting the UN human rights claim off the ground, describing it as “the next chapter in our story, ensuring our traditional culture survives climate change”.   

“We're extremely optimistic,” he says. “[The case] certainly puts a spotlight on what's happening in [this] part of the world.” 

Sophie Marjanac, an Australian climate lawyer with environmental legal charity ClientEarth, is representing the eight claimants. 

“We are hoping that this decision will confirm that climate change is a serious human rights issue, not only for the Torres Strait, but for people around the world,” she says.  

“They're living with the effects of climate change every day," she says of those on the islands.

"And they are seeing the impacts on their cultural rights, their family life, and their homes.” 

The UN case is part of a global wave of climate litigation, with vulnerable populations increasingly seeking legal avenues to pressure governments and organisations to take more urgent action to limit global warming. 

But this case is like no other, Ms Marjanac says, and could set a global precedent. 

“It's the first time a case like this has gone before a United Nations treaty body. It’s the first time that people from low-lying islands have taken a human rights claim against their own government, and it's the first time a human rights complaint was filed against the Australian government on the basis of a violation of the right to culture of minority peoples.” 

“The Human Rights Committee is the ultimate arbiter of international human rights law and its decisions apply to other states around the world. So other states will certainly be watching this decision."

In terms of enforcement, Ms Marjanac says the UN could lay out a series of recommendations in which the Australian government could be compelled to fulfil. 

“The committee has follow-up procedures it can use to ensure that Australia has complied with its recommendations.” 

Completed in 2017, this $25 million seawall is designed to protect Saibai from inundation.
Source: Abbie O'Brien

In a statement provided to SBS News, the federal government said it is "confident its climate change policies are consistent with international human rights obligations". 

Acknowledging the challenges in the region, it said it is "aware of the risks and is helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities build their resilience and prepare for the impacts of climate change, including severe weather events". 

Construction of a long-awaited $25 million seawall in Saibai was complete in 2017. The infrastructure, which is more than two kilometres long, was funded by both the federal and Queensland governments and is designed to protect the island from inundation.  

“It's really helping the island. It’s a good thing. It’s proved to be a very valuable thing to be done by [the governments]” Mr Warusam says. 

The federal government has since invested an additional $25 million for sea walls. 

On Masig, they're still waiting for construction to begin.

"That's something we [asked] for years ago. We were told it's going to get built probably next year some time," Mr Mosby says.

But time is running out. 

Desperate to stop more of the island from being swallowed by the sea, the community has taken matters into their own hands, building their own sea wall out of pallets, sticks and shrub. 

"If you go over and you walk on the road, you'll see how the water still comes in, but it's definitely slowed down the process," Mr Mosby says. 

Still, the community and environmental experts agree, sea walls are only delaying the inevitable. 

“Building seawalls and raising houses can buy time," the Climate Council has stated, but in the long-term, “some communities may face relocation".   

A makeshift sea wall built by the community on Masig Island.
Source: Abbie O'Brien

The so-called 'Torres Strait 8' are urging the Australian government to set more ambitious targets in reducing emissions. 

“Very clearly from the scientific evidence, [the] impacts will worsen dramatically in the coming decades and we say legally that means the Australian government has a duty in law, now, to help these Islanders adapt,"  Ms Marjanac says. 

"And also, Australia needs to mitigate its emissions to get to net-zero as soon as possible in order to reduce the root cause of climate change.” 

In 2019, the same year the UN case was filed, the group urged Prime Minister Scott Morrison to visit their islands and see the impacts with his own eyes.

"I want him to see my pain ... listen to our cry," Mr Mosby says. 

Mr Morrison is yet to take them up on the offer. 

"It's sad. It's very sad. You can go to other countries, but you can't come in [here] and check his backyard. I feel that we are being neglected, that our cries are not being attended to." 

Mr Mosby is hopeful the UN case will shine a global spotlight on this little known part of the world. 

"We need people to know what we're facing, why we're doing this," he says. 

"If we win this fight, the whole of the Pacific, all saltwater people, everybody who is suffering from climate change, whether inland or [on the] coast or out on the islands, their voice will be heard and changes will be happening for them as well."

“We are not only fighting for our children here; we are fighting for all children of this Earth.” 

NAIDOC Week (4-11 July) celebrates the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year's theme - Heal Country! – calls for all of us to continue to seek greater protections for our lands, our waters, our sacred sites and our cultural heritage from exploitation, desecration, and destruction.

See more Naidoc Week stories here

SBS Learn also provides resources for teachers to share with their students.