For a day the narrow channel of the world's largest coal port, the Port of Newcastle in Australia, became a nonviolent but intensely contested battlefield. On that day, October 17, 30 Pacific Climate Warriors from 12 different nations paddled out in hand carved traditional canoes, followed by hundreds of Australians in kayaks to confront the gigantic coal ships that pass through the channel. They were met head on not only by the ships, but also by an aggressive police force on the water who were determined to let the coal ships through.
The scenes that followed were intense, dramatic and moving -- this short video captures some of that drama, as does this Flickr photostream.
The canoe blockade of Newcastle was not the end of the Warrior's campaign in Australia. In the week that followed, the Pacific Climate Warriors joined with Australians around the country in five peaceful occupations of fossil fuel companies and those financing fossil fuels. This included an occupation by 80 people in Melbourne of the global headquarters of ANZ -- Australia's biggest funder of fossil fuels. This video captures what was quite a remarkable occupation.
But those images and videos only hint at the lasting impact of the Pacific Climate Warriors. The impact has been deep, and is already reshaping what happens next. Here's four ways the Pacific Climate Warriors changed the landscape of the future:
1. The story of the Pacific Islands and climate change is no longer just about drowning and loss. It's about the fight to keep the Islands above water, and fossil fuels in the ground.
For the Pacific Climate Warriors, this battle was a move to shift attention away from the sense of inevitable loss to be wreaked upon Pacific Islands by climate change, to directly challenging and halting the very activities that are causing climate change. That meant calling out the fossil fuel industry, the Australian Government and those opposing action on climate change. It also meant taking action that would directly impact the opposition as a means of fighting back against the damage they are causing. It was a truly David versus Goliath fight -- those small traditional canoes and dozens of kayaks up against the might of the gigantic coal ships.
The odds of success at keeping the Islands above water remains an outside chance. But prior to the Warrior blockade of Newcastle Port, there was no genuine fight for the Islands beyond what Pacific prime ministers and presidents could do through formal governmental channels. There is now a fight on for the Islands, and that story will deepen in the approaching months as the Warriors now plan for where, when and how they will strike next.
2. Rekindling old traditions to take bold action
In many Islands, the ancient tradition of building canoes has been gradually diminishing over decades. The reinvigorated those traditions, bringing together young people to learn from elders the skills of canoe building. For the community in Tokelau, it was the first time in 80 years that a canoe had been built in the old way -- from the tree to the months of carving and rope weaving.
The canoes carried the spirit of the people, and throughout the blockade that spirit showed. The canoe from Vanuatu named "Ta Reo Vanuatu", meaning "The Voice of Vanuatu" carried the blessing of their Government, as well as of local villages. On the day, when Ta Reo Vanuatu had its outrigger smashed off by a police boat repeatedly ramming it, the capsized canoe was brought back to shore, tears were shared, prayers said and the team got to work to reattach the outrigger. Within 30 minutes it was out paddling again.
The spirit of the canoes and the warriors kept things calm, right when things were on the cusp of turning, with the police looking to escalate the situation. By the afternoon, riot police trucks had been parked up around the corner. But rather than get angry, the Warriors used their strength of spirit and faith to steer the day away from police escalation to continued peaceful action. Everyone else followed their lead.
Never before has the Pacific engaged in such a bold and unified act of nonviolent direct action, but they showed they are natural leaders at it.
3. A movement that has only just seen the beginning of its power
The Pacific Climate Warriors didn't just rise out of nowhere. Their rise is rooted in a grassroots network, 350 Pacific, with organizers in 16 Pacific Islands; and beyond that their rise is rooted in their strength of faith, humility and deep connection to the land, ocean and ancestors.
As the 350 Pacific network has developed in the last five years, the priority has been to take the lead from young indigenous peoples at the grassroots, using the strength of culture and faith to stand up for the Pacific. That's lead to the formation of local country groups like 350 Tonga, 350 Solomon Islands, and 350 Vanuatu. These are not groups dictated by the constraints of a global parent organization, but are owned and shaped locally.
By mobilizing the 350 Pacific network to Australia in bold action, we saw the incredible strength and diversity of the warrior tradition in the Pacific. That warrior tradition is one that will continue to rise as the fight to keep the islands above water heats up.
4. A new strategy to keep the Islands above water
Until this blockade, the strategy to keep the islands above water was confined to the limits of what Pacific governments and big non-government organizations could do. Most Pacific Island leaders have shown tremendous leadership on climate change, but their effort needs to be coupled with that of a grassroots movement that can do what they can't -- like blockade coal ships in other countries.
Understanding what it will take to keep the Islands above water is confronting -- it requires keeping 70-80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. To have any chance of facing up to that challenge, the response has to be necessarily confronting. Thus as the Pacific Climate Warriors have returned home, we are already planning for the redeployment of the Pacific Climate Warriors, and the next peaceful battle in the fight to keep the Islands above water.