Livelihood futures in the Torres Strait Islands

The islands of the Torres Strait are facing rapid changes, such as sea level rise and the impacts of development in neighbouring Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. This project helps residents to plan for these changes in a way that fits their culture and will bring benefits under all possible scenarios.

The Challenge

A rapidly changing world

Many of the low-lying islands in the Torres Strait Protected Zone are highly vulnerable to sea level rise. This, combined with other rapid changes, including increased shipping traffic, a growing population in neighbouring Papua New Guinea (PNG), and potential pollution as a result of rapid mining and resources development in PNG and Indonesia, could threaten the future sustainability of these communities.

Building resilient communities for Torres Strait futures

Show transcript

Building resilient communities for Torres Strait futures

[Music plays, sponsors logos appear at the bottom of the screen with text: Building resilient communities for Torres Strait futures]

[Image changes to show landscape shot of hills and a body of water]

Narrator: The Torres Strait Islands of Australia form the northern border with Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

[Image changes to show an aerial shot of the Islands]

The Islands are very remote, but are home to 15 indigenous communities with a unique culture, which is heavily dependent on a healthy marine environment.

[Image changes to show a group of small children seated and looking up at a man standing in front of them playing a guitar]

This includes coral reef, sea grass and mangrove habitats.

[Images of each of these habitats play on screen]

[Image changes to show a turtle swimming underwater]

Iconic animals such as turtles and dugongs and valuable fisheries species, including lobsters and sea cucumbers.

[Image changes to show lobsters being transported in orange crates]

[Image changes to show a map with Torres Strait marked with a red boarder and sitting between Cape York (below it) and Papua New Guinea (above it)]

As it’s a bridge between Australia and the Asia Pacific region these communities are in the front line of the complex effects of rapid global development and climate change.

[Time lapse pictures of a marina and a body of water play on screen]

Masig, an island in the east of the Torres Strait is a good example.

[Image changes to show an aerial shot of Masig Island]

[Image changes to show Dr James Butler, CSIRO Land and Water Flagship]

Dr James Butler: Well here on Masig we see a lot of issues which are common to many of the Torres Strait Islands. Sea level rise is a major concern and is already causing some erosion of the coastline

[Image changes to show examples of where the rising sea levels have caused erosion of the coastline and then changes back to Dr Butler]

it’s, also here on Masig, a major threat to the graveyard and that’s causing a lot of emotional distress for the population here, because if the sea level rises any further it will wash the graveyard away.

[Image changes to show the camera panning over the tombstones of the graveyard and then changes back to Dr Butler]

There are also issues here about fisheries, because fisheries are an important part of the livelihoods on the Island.

[Image changes to show drawings of different fish species and then changes back to Dr Butler]

Although stocks of fish are quite healthy at the moment, climate change may have effect on that, particularly on reef fish because of impact on coral, but also with the growing Papua New Guinea population there may be increasing exploitation of fish, which will have an impact on the Island here.

[Image changes to show Islanders collected at what seems like a fish market]

[Image changes to show a merchant ship on the water]

Narrator: Resource extraction and trade means more shipping traffic and population growth in Papua New Guinea and Indonesia is high, resulting in growing people movements, threats of disease and biosecurity issues.

[Image changes to show people walking on a beach then changes to show an outside shot of a General Hospital]

[Image changes to show an aerial shot of a mine site]

Large scale mining and gas development in both neighbouring countries also creates pollution and other social knock on effects, consequently, the future for Torres Strait communities is more uncertain than ever before. It could pose many threats, but also opportunities.

[Time lapse pictures of people walking on a wharf play on screen]

[Image changes back to Dr Butler]

Dr James Butler: So this project is really trying to work with the communities to investigate what the future might hold and how they can build their resilience to that future and enable them to get towards and achieve the futures that they really, really want for their livelihoods.

[Image changes to show landscape picture of a village, streets with rows of houses can been seen and the ocean in the distance]

Narrator: The project is funded by the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program and is a collaboration with the Torres Strait Regional Authority. It aims to develop a participatory, research process, which explores the potential development pathways for Torres Strait communities, bringing together the local knowledge and wishes of Islanders, with the perspectives of Government and science.

[Image changes to show people gathered and seated around a table scenario planning the issue of rising sea levels]

[Image changes to show Dr Erin Bohensky, CSIRO Land and Water Flagship]

Dr Erin Bohensky: People have different perspectives on the future and we’re engaging different people with different views, that includes Government, so Federal Government, State Government, local Government and it also includes communities, and in this project we’ve engaged the Mabuiag, Erub and Masig communities in a process, a social learning process, to think about the future, called scenario planning.

[Image changes to show Dr Bohensky and a colleague in discussion with Islanders]

[Image has changed back to Dr Bohensky]

So scenario planning is a structured process of thinking about the future in a group of stakeholders. It involves thinking about drivers of change that might unfold in the Torres Strait region,

[Time lapse pictures of scenario planning plays out on screen. Picture is entitled Shipwreck Oil Spill and shows a ship with dot points all around it]

it involves identifying the future that you want to see and then we go through a process of figuring out how to get to the future that you want and avoiding the futures that you don’t actually want and then we identify strategies to actually get there.

[Image changes to show Dr Butler standing talking while referring to notes on a board beside him]

[Image changes to show the tables of participants attending the workshop]

Narrator: The project has had some impacts already A common theme raised in the workshops is that through modernisation local language, mutual respect and other traditional values are being lost. Participants have realised that a loss of culture is having profound impacts on the capacity of communities to cope with potential future change.

[Image changes to show another paper from the scenario planning workshop, entitled Drifting Away]

[Image changes to show Joseph Elu, Chair, Torres Strait Regional Authority]

Joseph Elu: Culture that guarded these waters and these Islands for the last eight, nine thousand years is very important, and that’s what I think the people are saying, to protect the place we want to bring culture back.

[Image changes to show another paper from the scenario planning workshop, entitled Healthy Lifestyle]

Narrator: One crucial element of culture is food.

[Image changes back to Dr Butler and then changes to show the stock inside the supermarket]

Dr James Butler: People here depend, very heavily, on the supermarket, which is all imported food and not necessarily very healthy food, and so there’s a growing recognition that people would like to become more self-sufficient,

[Image changes to show an Islander preparing soil and planting something]

grow their own garden produce and perhaps also rely a bit more on the marine resources for their own dietary needs.

[Image changes to show Timothy Skewes, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Flagship]

Timothy Skewes: The status of the natural resources, particularly the marine resources in Torres Strait are actually quite good. In fact, there’s some of the best tropical invertebrate fisheries in the whole region.

[Image changes to show caught lobsters and then changes to show people packing and moving the lobsters]

So, I mean, first of all that’s a credit to the way that they’ve looked after their natural resources in Torres Strait.

[Image has changed back to Timothy Skewes]

It also gives them some natural capital that they can utilise in the future.

[Image changes to show a streetscape and then moves to show poorly disposed items of rubbish]]

Narrator: There’s a real opportunity to combine the old with the new, to help people become more resilient and to build more sustainable livelihoods.

[Image changes to show Kenny Bedford, TSRA Board Member for Erub and Fisheries Portfolio]

Kenny Bedford: I’m not surprised by the level of importance that’s been placed on returning to our cultural values and traditions, and I like to think it’s called readaptation rather than adaptation because it’s going back to what really held us together as strong communities before white settlement in Australia.

[Image changes back to show the participants of the workshops]

Narrator: The workshops have also allowed the discussion of new innovations. Examples include aquaculture, for high value species such as sea cucumbers and sponges.

[Image changes to show sea cucumbers in shallow water]

[Image changes to show wind turbines]

Plus options for generating renewable energy.

[Image has changed back to show the packing and moving of lobsters in crates]

These ideas could help communities take advantage of the growing Asian market and become more self-sufficient.

[Image has changed back to Dr Butler standing and talking to the workshop participants]

A key principle of this project is it is not only science that matters, local understanding of problems and solutions is equally important.

[Image changes to show a local presenting her paper from the scenario planning workshop]

So the project aims to combine science with other stakeholder’s knowledge and their perspectives of the future.

[Image changes to show a man holding up a paper from the scenario planning workshop, he grins as he waves it in front of the camera]

Altogether this provides a much stronger approach to dealing with complex issues such as Torres Strait futures and finding innovative solutions that can build healthy, adaptive and resilient island communities.

[Image changes back to show the group of small children seated and looking up at a man standing in front of them playing a guitar]

[Children singing can be heard]

[Children applauding can be heard]

[Image changes to show an empty basketball court, text appears: What’s been learned?]

[Image changes to show Fraser Nai, Councillor for Masig]

Fraser Nai: I first got involved in this project, I was down in Cairns for council business, and I was invited to come along and have a look, you know, that’s what really got me interested, was the things that were going to drive change in Torres Strait, and how do we build a resilient community. You can say, a lot of people are just business as usual, and we don’t see what’s coming and that really opened my eyes to see all the stuff that is happening from a regional perspective, and even a global perspective, that, as a significant effect on us, and on our day to day lives.

[Image changes to show Hilda Mosby, TSRA Board Member for Masig]

Hilda Mosby: The biggest thing that I’ve learnt is about climate change, the adaptation and building resilient communities. I first came across it when I was at Yorke, when I’m on Masig, when we had the first workshop, that helped me a lot to understand climate change and how what happened globally can affect community.

[Image changes to show John Rainbird, TSRA Climate Change and Coastal Coordinator]

John Rainbird: Certainly feedback from community members is they really find the conversation that comes out of these meetings enormously valuable, because it’s talking about the issues that are really important to them, so obviously there are a range of things that are important to them around health and, you know, jobs and all that, which is where governments typically focus, but they were really keen to have that deeper conversation about where they’re going as a community, having a collective think about, you know, where they really want to go ? – what does it look like? – how do they get there? And what’s important to them – how do they keep their culture alive and strong? – their sense of community alive and strong?

[Image has changed back to Kenny Bedford]

Kenny Bedford: One of the most important things I found participating in this workshop this week, has been the good spread of leadership we’ve got here from across the Torres Strait, working together to identify what are the challenges we have in terms of building resilience in our communities, and to share that amongst ourselves and identify what the key themes are, I think, has been important to me as a leader.

[Image changes to show Robert Zigterman, Program Manager Town Planning Queensland Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs]

Robert Zigterman: There’s a lot of knowledge within the community about their existing environment, the future projections for their environment and a willingness to discuss a future for themselves and, I think, that’s really, really vital if the community’s going to work its way towards the future.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that for a lot of people in the south, that includes Cairns, is that people don’t have, and particularly bureaucrats, don’t have a great understanding of the knowledge that exists up here. In future, we need to take that into consideration, and I think what the project has demonstrated that if you don’t consult and sit down and talk with people and work together, you’re going to come up with an answer or an outcome that’s not going to be supported by the locals.

[Image changes to show Allan Dale, Chair, Regional Development Australia Far North Queensland & Torres Strait]

Allan Dale: Look, I’ve learnt that people in Torres Strait in the Islands, particularly the six islands that are most affected by sea level rise, is that there’s a very, very strong understanding, a very, very strong awareness of what’s been happening, where things are going, the impact of climate change as a result and, I think, what’s really shining through is a strong determination to actually do something clear about it, to take control of the future destiny and to actually move forward as, not just individual Islands, but as a collective of Islands across the central part of the Torres Strait.

[Image changes back to show Joseph Elu]

Joseph Elu: Well, I think, the time I’ve been here at this workshop I’ve learnt that there’s community spirit in this, community spirit behind it, that people want to be, you know, partakers of this project and, I think, that’s a good start in any project you want to do, you’ve got to get the people actively getting involved, and, I think, the people who are here will very much want to get involved and, of course, they learn different things from different people at these workshops.

Yeah, there’s three or four messages, I think, but like you say there’s culture, people believe that culture is utmost important in bringing community together, and then, of course, what they do with gardening and the use of land, strategic use of land, I think, is important in people’s minds right now.

I think it’s good for planning processes. That it tells us, the bureaucrats, or even the chairman of TSRA what people are thinking out in those communities, so that we put our emphasis on what they’re wanting done in their own communities, and, of course, with limited funding, which is going to be the case from now on for the next three years, we want to really strategically place our money where we can do the most good and where the people see us doing the most good.

[Text appears: The project team wishes to thank Councillor Fraser Nai, the TSRA board, the TSRA Land and Sea Management Unit, the Yorke Island Campus of Tagai State College and the communities of Masig, Erub and Mabuiag for their support and enthusiasm.]

[Sponsors logos appear below the text]

[Credits: Music: ‘Nzuzu Gelam’ by Dennis Newie. Video shot, edited and narrated by Tom Greenwood]

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Our Response

New participatory planning approach

To deal with these challenges, communities need to plan for the potential combined impacts of environmental and economic changes on Torres Strait islands. There are no planning processes in place in the region to anticipate these impacts and design appropriate adaptation strategies. CSIRO partnered with the Torres Strait Regional Authority (TSRA), funded by the National Environmental Research Program Tropical Ecosystems Hub, in a participatory planning project. This brought together Torres Strait communities, national, state and local government, NGOs and businesses, to design strategies that would enable communities to withstand and adapt to both long term change and sudden shocks.

The project aimed to test a multi-stakeholder planning approach that could be applied by the TSRA's Community Adaptation Program, and also in vulnerable coastal villages of neighbouring PNG.The team developed a novel multi-stakeholder participatory planning method and tools, a range of strategies flexible enough to deliver benefits under any future conditions, and a model of the Torres Strait region highlighting the variables that contribute to resilience.

The Results

Building resilience

Results showed that multi-stakeholder participatory planning built leadership and trust amongst the research team and participants. New social networks and innovative ideas were also generated by the process.

The TSRA is applying the project's tools and processes in its Community Adaptation Program, and the Queensland Government's Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and Multicultural Affairs has recommended a modified community consultation process for the state's Torres Strait Planning Scheme to include adaptation strategies. The Joint Advisory Council of the Torres Strait Treaty also endorsed the planning approach.

The view from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. © Tom Greenwood


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