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Hungry for justice, thirsty for change: Caritas State of the Environment Report for Oceania 2016

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The Jubilee Year of Mercy called for by Pope Francis (8 December 2015-20 November 2016) reminds us of the imperative to give practical assistance to the poor – to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and shelter the homeless. It is a time to ensure all people can access the basics of living. It also calls for addressing all issues of justice and forgiveness, of restoring right relationship with each other and with the earth. As the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference have explained in their letter for the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy: “A Jubilee Year is a practical experience of the restoration of fairness and goodness…of grounded holiness where we experience the awe and joy of doing what is right in the eyes of God.”

This past year, 2015/2016, has highlighted the Pacific’s vulnerability to extreme weather events that affect food and water supplies. One of the strongest El Niño cycles brought hunger and thirst to millions across the region. It forced people to walk for days seeking sustenance, to rely on food with poor nutritional value, and, in some cases, to become severely weakened or die from malnutrition. This is not something we normally associate with the Pacific, with its general abundance of wild foods and prolific growth of plants and animals on land and in the sea.

Unprecedented weather events and temperatures regionally and around the globe in 2015/2016 serve as another warning of the environmental dangers the human family faces. Record-breaking temperatures across the globe for 2015 and the first half of 2016 were reflected in the Pacific region, while the strongest recorded cyclone to ever hit land in the southern hemisphere devastated large parts of Fiji. People suffered major setbacks to livelihoods, income and education.

More Pacific communities are losing ground to coastal erosion and coastal flooding, disrupting food gardens, cemeteries and homes. As the sea continues to rise, bringing future unknown changes, Caritas continues to hear more stories of whole communities moving because of these rising seas and stronger king tides.

The Paris Agreement gave much hope in December 2015, when a global climate treaty was finally agreed that could “change the world” if implemented fully. It spurred greater global commitment to financing adaptation and mitigation measures, but much more is needed. New Zealand and Australia are still doing less than their fair share to minimise emissions, support the most vulnerable in Oceania, and take practical steps towards inclusive, global development that cares for both the earth and the poor.

Deep sea mining continues to tempt governments and business with mineral wealth from the sea floor, despite the warning signs that we don’t know enough about its potential impacts – and the detrimental impact that ‘experimental’ seabed mining has already had on indigenous and local communities. However, there is a growing movement of community and Church opposition to these offshore ventures.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, “feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty” requires us to respond with ever greater urgency to the environmental damage that is depriving vulnerable communities of what they need to survive. This report brings voices from the Pacific which amplify the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. We need to listen to them.