Pua, Joe and Pai in the National Park of American Samoa.

photo by: Eli Keene

August 29, 2016

“They Should Know to Keep Them”

The Importance of Climate Change Education in American Samoa

To get to the National Park of American Samoa—to get anywhere on Tutuila, really—you first have to make your way down the coast on Route 1, past the bustling market and through the loading zone of the tuna cannery. The highway snakes along atop the island’s hulking concrete sea wall before it turns inland and disappears into densely forested mountains.

At any given point on the ride from Pago Pago (the territory’s capital) to the park, the sea wall is the most defining visual of the island’s changing relationship with the ocean. But while the interlocking one-ton concrete blocs that line the coast may be the most visible adaptation, few on the island consider it the most important step in adapting to a changing climate.

The edge of Tutuila’s concrete sea wall.

photo by: Eli Keene

The edge of Tutuila’s concrete sea wall.

The most common need that our interviewees identify is education. From fishermen to local officials, residents of Tutuila concerned about climate change repeated that the number one priority for preparing the island was not more hard infrastructure, like the sea wall, but more education and outreach about what climate change is. While residents easily point to evidence of a changing climate across Tutuila—bleached corals, beaches swept away by accelerated erosion, and the increasing prevalence of scorching hot days—“climate change” is not yet a household phrase in American Samoa.

The National Park Service in American Samoa is one of the key educators on the topic of climate change and climate science in the territory. And on a short drive down to one of the Park’s more relaxed trails, several members of the park’s staff walked us through why climate education is so important to residents.

(From left to right) National Park staff Kersten Schnurle, Pai Aukuso-Reopoamo, Kelsey Johnson, Pua Tuaua, and Kristin Beem with the authors.

photo by: Eli Keene

National Park staff Kersten Schnurle, Pai Aukuso-Reopoamo, Kelsey Johnson, Pua Tuaua, and Kristin Beem with the authors.

“Our culture is based on our natural resources that we rely on,” says Joe Leleua, a seven-year veteran of the Park’s cultural resources division. “So if climate change messes up our resources, then we won’t have any culture, because that’s our way of life.”

For Joe, who has done his own work with the Park Service in documenting historic sites in Manua threatened by rising seas, that is what makes education and outreach so important.

“I think the importance of the traditional outreach programs,” he tells us, “is educating our people and the younger generation on the importance of natural resources. They should know to keep them so that other generations can enjoy them as we are.”

Much of that education is being done by Pua Tuaua and Pai Aukuso-Reopoamo from the Park’s interpretation and education division. Part of this process is direct education on climate change.

“Climate change is actually integrated as part of our junior ranger program that we give the school,” Pua tells us. And it’s a subject that raises a reaction. According to Pua, “The kids are concerned. One of the most popular questions I get when I do these programs, especially with climate change is ‘is our island going to sink? When is it going to sink?’ Because kids have now heard of one of the islands—Kiribati—that’s actually sinking and the … tide is actually moving in.”

But most of the park’s environmental outreach does not directly address climate science. Instead, it aligns with Joe’s concerns, aiming to reconnect residents to their traditional cultural practices and the natural environment in which that culture is rooted.

Pai runs down a laundry list of topics the junior ranger program engages with, from fruit bats and coral reefs to making siapo, a traditional artistic cloth made from woven bark.

“Kids are so focused with getting their time occupied by technology, they don’t have the time to go actually out to these resources,” says Pai. “When we show these pictures, they go, ‘Oh where’s that at?! That’s beautiful.’ They’re all amazed that it’s something that’s in back of their yard. But they don’t notice it.”

The National Park of American Samoa plays its part to promote greater awareness of climate change and the environment and culture that it threatens, but most of the outreach work on the specifics of climate science is done by the territory’s Department of Marine and Wildlife Resources (DMWR).

From her cramped office, Maria Mauga-Vaofanua, head of DMWR’s information and education division, spends 10 uninterrupted minutes listing off the Department’s extensive climate education efforts, ending with a modest “those are some of the little things we’ve been doing so far.”

It’s a lot. And much of the work deals not only with education, but also with changing local emissions and pollution behaviors.

“We’ve gotten some of the pastors involved,” says Maria. “There’s a PALS program in [American Samoa]—it’s called People Air Land and Sea—so a climate change component has been implemented in that.It’s a sermon given by the pastor that has to do with the environment, and it’s all based on the Bible and how the Bible says we are responsible for protecting what’s given [to] us by God.” (The importance of attaching a religious message to climate change outreach is quite clear in American Samoa; churches dot seemingly every corner and are packed on Sundays and most evenings.)

Maria also notes that it’s not just education DMWR is working on, but advocacy. “We’ve partnered up with some partners from Kiribati, so we’ve been doing a social media campaign with them to promotes the Pacific as a whole to stand up for climate change,” she tells us.

This type of regional advocacy on climate change is jarringly absent from American Samoa at large. We are talking to Maria just a month after the conclusion of the COP21 climate talks in Paris, where American Samoa went unrepresented within the massive United States delegation.

Back in the National Park, Kelsey Johnson, acting chief of interpretation and education at the Park, raised her own concerns about moving from on-island education to off-island advocacy.

“How do you transfer what people see here to people on the mainland that are making decisions?” Kelsey asks. “Maybe it starts with promoting a sense of empathy—that these are real human beings that are being affected by [climate change].”

Things are slowly starting to move in that direction. Some of the young people that DMWR has worked with, Maria tells us, are now in college off island and working to promote awareness about climate change in the Pacific.

“We are seeing the same kids that have been part of our programs or that have been part of our presentations take that next step,” she says. “Even though they’re not on island, at least you know that the kids from the Pacific are actually spreading the word.”

By: Eli Keene and Victoria Herrmann

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