Introducing Climates of Listening

By Anja Kanngieser 

This is the first blog post in a series dedicated to documenting fieldwork I am undertaking across Fiji and Micronesia in 2018. The blog posts will deal with a range of themes, outlining the project, the importance of anti-racist climate justice work and the ethics of undertaking such work as a white settler academic, using oral testimony, field-recordings and data sonifications for climate witnessing, listening to non-human environments as political geographical practice, how climate justice groups elevate and centre Indigenous experience and knowledge, and how to bring together arts and sciences to more broadly communicate experiences of climate change.

Global Climate March Suva, 2015. Image credit tomvierus.com

Across the Pacific, climate justice organisations have been campaigning for increased awareness and intervention into global environmental change, which sees catastrophic events, such as high intensity cyclones, drought, flooding and ocean inundation already occurring to impact the lives of small-island developing nations. While an international audience might be familiar with the high profile public platforms for this campaigning, such as the yearly United Nations Climate Change conferences, most of the work being done by organisations is on the ground, often invisible, working to build community relations and regional networks, to forge connections and to collaborate on strategies for negotiation between government decrees and community desires.

I have recently moved to Suva, Fiji to amplify the work of community–led environmental groups at the frontlines of climate change. Over the next year I will be travelling across Fiji and Micronesia on invitation to spend time with those engaged in climate justice, particularly women and LGBTQIA people who are most affected by environmental inequality, framing the challenges that they see increasingly intensifying in their region as directly correspondent to larger political and ethical positions, which value capital, resource extraction and infrastructure over human and non-human lives.

The communities that are the most affected by these positions have rarely contributed to the degradation of their ecosystems, nor had input into how decisions about their lands and oceans get made. This is a region with a complex and ongoing legacy of colonization, which, like most areas living with histories of the British Empire, including black-birding and indentured servitude, as well as significant resource extraction are faced with myriad regimes of economic underdevelopment. The work of climate justice groups is crucial to attending to this devastating unevenness. The amplification of the work undertaken by such groups, especially those that focus on the elevation and transmission of Indigenous knowledge for understanding how communities are experiencing rapid ecosystemic variations; how communities are defending environmental commons; and how such responses might inform local, national and international decision making, lies at the heart of my project. Alongside attention to Indigenous knowledge is a centering of Indigenous self-determination, which prioritises the needs, processes and practices of Indigenous communities, as they are articulated themselves.

To centre the voices and experiences of Indigenous communities, especially those of women and LGBTQIA communities, across Fiji and Micronesia as these climate justice groups do is to weave together counter narratives, which while often instrumentalised during international climate summits and meetings, are drowned out when deals are being negotiated. Because of the already robust campaigning of groups in the region, there is a vocal presence in juxtaposition to governance bodies that largely lay claim to media space. Listening to and further transmitting these voices, promoting them across different communications platforms and audiences, is the purpose of my project, which will see me working in collaboration with people engaged in climate justice to document stories of communities, in their own words, to cater to their own needs over several different coastal island sites. These stories will be held both by communities to serve as a document for the communities themselves, and on an online sound map, combining interviews with field recordings and sonifications of climate data.

This attenuation to voices through the use of field recordings and sonifications extends into the ecosystems that support and enable human livelihood. From mangrove forests to coastal reefs, urban cities to agricultural crops and natural water sources, I will be using a range of field recording techniques and sonifications to link the stories being told to their surroundings. By concatenating these different sonicities, I hope to illustrate the symbiotic dependencies that make it impossible to isolate human life from the life around it. More so, I want to stress the fundamental role that such ecosystems play in mediating the relationships between water and land. The protection against coastal erosion and ocean inundation of low lying crops and infrastructure for instance, is heavily contingent on mangrove forests which create a network of living defense walls to harbor a bio-diverse marine habitat. Similarly, reef environments increasingly hit by bleaching events and vulnerable to decimation by cyclones and storms, form both a significant barrier to the extreme tidal fluctuations of sea level rise, tropical storms and tsunamis, and offer a vital source of marine life essential to community subsistence.

By bringing into relation the voices and sounds of watery landscapes, of coastlines and mangroves, island boundaries and city ports, the task of this project is to compose social ecological narratives that amplify the ways in which Indigenous Pacific communities take care of their lands and seas in the face of environmental change and the inequalities rendered through ongoing systems of colonialism. It uses sounds to trace stories between archipelagos, islands lying low in the sea born in kinship from tectonic thrusts, whose vulnerability to storms and winds grows exponentially each rainy season. In listening to the experiences of those living in coastal regions, set into dialogue with the sounds of those regions themselves, it is my hope that this project will contribute to the centring of Indigenous practices and knowledges, forging commons in the face of anthropogenic environmental change.

 Anja Kanngieser is a UOW Vice Chancellors Postdoctoral Research Fellow with AUSCCER. You can find out more about her research here and follow her on twitter @geotransversals. Read Anja’s last Conversations with AUSCCER post ‘And then the sea came back’ – using sound art to tell stories of climate change.

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