By Tom Overton-Skinner
The natte is a large mat woven from dried pandanus, ubiquitous through the New Caledonian archipelago. It holds both a resolutely practical purpose, as a surface to sit on, and a ceremonial purpose, as a location of exchange where people meet and social bonds are forged.
The natte is a metaphorical and literal platform where both formal and informal community exchanges, conversations and dialogues occur.
When Australians talk about the Pacific, we often talk about it in a way coloured by language, colonial histories and presents. In this vein, if asked about Pacific countries, Australians often think of English-speaking Fiji or Papua New Guinea, and rarely of the francophone territories: Kanaky New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis-et-Futuna, reflecting a strong divide between Anglophone and Francophone Pacifics.
This linguistic divide is important to consider, with Anglophone and Francophone Pacific politics, lives, research and cultures existing in parallel within the same space. We share an ocean and common, interconnected challenges including climate change, social inequality, and the different ways colonialism shapes our past and present, whether in Canberra, Suva, Nouméa or beyond.
Despite these shared experiences and challenges, communication among the peoples of the Pacific is stifled by colonial language divides and cooperation is limited. There is great capacity to share solutions and innovation in the face of these common challenges. Regardless of our language differences, we in the Pacific can learn from one another.
Perhaps, whether in Australia or elsewhere in the Pacific, we can weave a natte and share our experiences of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, adapting creatively to climate change, and advancing the shared interests of our Pacific community in global arenas.
Climate change and its impacts have almost become a trope in discussions around the Pacific, with the fixed image of a rising ocean engulfing Pacific Islands. This not only obscures the complexity of climate change in the Pacific, but paints a picture of a region of victims.
This trope obscures the efforts of communities in the Pacific to mitigate climate change’s effects and carry on long-standing histories of adaptation to changes in climate and the environment.
The New Caledonian case presents an example that is simultaneously unique and that echoes much of the Pacific’s experiences. As a multicultural archipelago with a colonial history and present, it is contending with a number of complex and interconnected social, environmental and economic challenges common to much of the Pacific.
New Caledonia was racked by civil conflict in the 1980s and 90s between loyalists, who wanted to remain a French territory, and separatists, who believed New Caledonia should attain independence from its colonial overseers.
While active conflict was defused by the Nouméa Accord in 1998, tensions between loyalists and separatists remain alive. An ongoing referendum process has twice seen the public vote ‘No’ to independence—first in 2018, again in 2020, with a third and final referendum set for December.
Similar to Australia, there is significant and growing inequality in New Caledonia that is stratified along colonial lines.
Overwhelmingly, the Kanak North and Loyalty Islands provinces experience poverty rates four to six times higher than that of the highly Europeanised South province. Kanaks throughout the archipelago also record lower rates of Western education and salary.
This gap echoes the Australian situation, with non-Indigenous Australians experiencing much higher economic, health and socio-emotional outcomes than Indigenous Australians.
An ideal articulated in the Nouméa Accord is that of a destin commun: a destiny shared by all New Caledonians, whether Indigenous Kanak or settler Caldoche; families newly arrived or present for centuries in the archipelago.
The Accord recognises: ‘the past was a time of colonisation. The present is the time of sharing and re-balancing. The future must be a time of shared identity anchored in shared destiny.’
Adapting to the impacts of climate change is not simply a question of installing better air conditioners, moving settlements away from encroaching seas, or storm-proofing houses.
Adaptation to climate change is about thinking through the ways we exist and move within the world and our communities. It’s about interrogating and deliberating on the past, present and future of our communities, on both granular and whole-of-region scales.
New Caledonia and Australia can both take the opportunity posed by the complex issue of climate change to rethink and reflect on our collective past, present and future. We can rethink the way we live and will live together – Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike.
Discussions of climate change are coloured by loss, with contemporary lifestyles and broad socio-economic systems culpable for immense and inequitable loss of human and non-human life.
However, as articulated by Fenton Lutunatabua and Natalie Osborne, while we are living through a period of loss, we will feel grief intensely but we can also care for one another, sit down and weave our natte together. As Lutunatabua puts it, we find ourselves in ‘a spiral kaleidoscope of broken coral and memory called to collect, curate and reconcile.’
Adaptation to climate change represents an opportunity for us to (re)build communities and reconcile ourselves with colonial pasts and presents. Inclusion of Indigenous peoples experience and cultural knowledge in the Pacific is integral to anchoring our communities together in a shared destiny.
This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.