By Marion Atieno

Marion Atieno is an award-winning strategist and storyteller working to restore humanity’s relationship with nature. She is currently the Global Strategist at WWF, leading the organisation’s transformation to inclusive conservation. In 2021, Marion will launch Black Earth podcast to celebrate nature and the inspirational Black women addressing the environmental crisis. Marion has received numerous awards, including a WWF Legend Award for Integrity and ‘Future Leader of International Co-operation and Development’ by the European Commission. She’s a University of Oxford alumna graduating in Global Governance and Diplomacy. Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Marion lives and loves in South London, UK.

What is our responsibility to the current and future generations of people and ecosystems experiencing ecosystem collapse? Members of Dunia Island and UNHCR’s Unit for Intergenerational Responsibility reflect on their 14-year journey together.

Upon their appointments as UNHCR Joint High Commissioners in 2030, Nyumba Mwendo and Fèpati Lakay, set up a unit on Intergenerational Responsibility. The Intergenerational Responsibility Unit works with communities at risk of extinction to steward this loss and make decisions about their futures.

“For some communities, extinction is inevitable,” says Lakay, “but it doesn’t have to be the end. We support communities to process the final effects of slow-onset environmental change that would lead to uninhabitable places such as Dunia island. Rather than wait until the island was 75 percent underwater to respond, we support them as they live with and through extinction.”

In 2003, members of the blind community in Dunia island noted that the Longota bird arrived later in the year from their seasonal migration to a neighbouring country, Ngiboleng, 5,000 kilometres away. “Longota were important members of our community,” Mwendo explains. “They brought microbes to prepare the soil, the seed of life for our island. The birds taught us how to revere the sacred nature and cycles of our living scapes.”

Mwendo, who was born in Dunia Island in 2000, witnessed these intense changes in her childhood and teenage years.  The sea was gradually rising, creeping inwards inch by inch. The monsoon seasons became erratic, arriving suddenly and unexpectedly throughout the year. Perpros Choonara, who served as the Island’s Earth Steward from 2009-2021, reflects, “So many things were happening at once. So much tension and anger between us…we couldn’t really articulate what was happening to us and nothing we did made a real difference in stopping these changes.”

By 2027, Dunia Island had been identified as a location at high risk of extinction. Increasing sea level rise and acidic rainfall would mean that by 2050, the islanders could no longer live on the island. They were living in a future where life was no longer possible.

Mwendo believed humanitarians had a unique offering to support communities responding to the effects of environmental change with dignity.  She reflects, “We {humanitarians} use multiple lenses to define ‘place’ in our work, for example, place as natural geography, place as political territory, and place as an evolving experience shaped by individual and collective relationships to a location. These lenses are important tools we can share with communities as they make decisions about how to live with and through extinction.”

UNHCR’s Intergenerational Responsibility (IR) Unit first approached the islanders in 2032. Remcy Gonzalez from the IR unit explains, “To some, it was unusually early for humanitarians to intervene but it was super late for us already considering that environmental change in Dunia Island had been going on for nearly 30 years. Displacement, as in the physical separation from place, can happen suddenly but in the context of environmental change, displacement happens over a longer period of time. Through protracted changes in a place, communities are forced to give up ways of being, living and relating with their environment and with each other. They are forced to leave a place over and over again long before they leave a place for the last time.”

“The other reason we went in early was to make time for building trust with the communities,” Gonzalez recalls, “Without trust, we could risk distracting from the work they wanted and needed.”

In 2033, following a community-led voting process, the citizens of Dunia Island agreed to begin a 14-year renewal process with the Unit to develop long-term responses to the extinction of the island.

At the early stages of the renewal process, there had been discussions about the relocation of the islanders and what that would look like. To many citizens, however, relocation was the last option. In the meantime, they wanted to continue to adjust to the changes happening on the island, by leveraging the science and spiritualities cultivated over two thousand years, incorporating emerging knowledge from multiple disciplines, creating new structures of community decision-making to make choices about how to allocate resources, and investing in psychosocial support to address the eco-grief arising from the losses in the island.

Resilience as justice

An important discovery in the renewal process was defining what resilience in the Anthropocene really meant.

Perpros Choonara from Dunia Island reflects, “Resilience is not something you do when faced with adversity. Resilience is who you are when you know how to live with nature. As a community that belongs to nature, resilience was part of us. We knew how to prepare, respond and adapt to the changing nature of nature, and had done so for thousands of years. We had strong networks on the island and abroad, we constantly deepened our knowledge of the Earth, and built intricate and interdependent ways to sustain us and Earth. The changes we were seeing…what was happening to nature…it was not nature; it was injustice.”

The changes the islanders were experiencing were effects of decisions taking place far away from Dunia Island. The islanders’ efforts to respond to these effects were helpful in the short-term but not effective in addressing the root causes of the changes.

Resilience in the Anthropocene meant addressing the drivers of climate change and ecological loss as well as helping those impacted by the injustice of climate change and ecological loss.

So the IR unit started to work in coalitions to reduce the incentives for high carbon-emitting and polluting activities, especially focusing on industrialised forms of production, such as monoculture plantations. They advocated for a shift in subsidies and concessions in the global financial and trade systems that incentivised these types of activities. 

The IR unit also acknowledged that formal recognition of climate forced displacement in international humanitarian law would be effective insofar as it helped increase accountability for the countries and actors contributing most to environmental loss.

This discovery and novel framing about resilience also led the IR unit to work with the islanders in challenging labels such as ‘climate refugees’ and ‘trapped populations.’ These terms masked the locus of responsibility for the drivers of environment-related displacement. People were not displaced by climate, they were displaced by policies and decisions that caused climate change, often as the people who least contributed to it.

In the words of Choonara, the Island’s former Earth Commissioner, who said at the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference, “People come in with development projects, conservation programmes, disaster risk reduction projects, with the aim of trying to ‘save us from ourselves.’ We do not want to be rescued. We want the waters and the soil and the Longota birds back. We want ourselves back.”

Shedding light on the real dangerous work of environmental action has been another important aspect of changing narratives of environmental action. For many communities around the world, preserving the environment is dangerous work because they are challenging people and actors with a strong interest in extracting natural resources for economic and political profit. In response, the IR unit has leveraged its diplomatic influence to advocate for greater legal protection of the environmental human rights defenders who work to protect and sustain the integrity of ecosystems and their communities. 

From divergence of knowledge to diversity in knowledge

The violence of colonialism and the industrial revolution inherently shaped ideas of humanity’s relationship with the environment: that nature was an infinite resource, that it could be extracted and used to fuel the perpetual growth of capital and that nature was void of any intelligence. It was a composition of dead things, resources, that were useful in their ability to help generate more capital.

For Dunia islanders, they knew that biological life had deep intelligence and that their community was not separate from nature but part of the larger web of connection. If one bird species disappeared, all of life changed forever. They also knew that it was not about selecting the most ‘productive’ plants and leaving the rest. Ecosystems were not a composition of individual things; they were the greater whole. 

Choonara says, “When we first started the renewal process with the IR unit, we realised that we saw the world in a unique way. When members of the IR unit initially spoke of our land, they meant ‘our’ in the possessive sense, as if we owned the land. When we spoke of our land, we meant ‘our’ in the inclusive sense, identifying ourselves (humans and nature) as belonging together, to each other, to the living scape. Through the renewal process, we were able to unpack these diverging ways of seeing and being with the natural world.”

This experience influenced UNHCR’s approach to environmental-related displacement by embedding genuine dialogue and intellectual humility as essential practices in the way they worked. The divergence in worldviews became an opportunity for UNHCR to challenge and unlearn attitudes of cultural superiority within the environmental movement that devalued ‘non-scientific’ knowledge of Earth.

Currently, 60 percent of the living scape in Dunia island is underwater, and nearly 70 percent of the human citizens of Dunia island have relocated to other countries. The time scale of this renewal process, 14 years, proved to be enough time needed to support communities to create opportunities for life during and after extinction while simultaneously enabling international action that facilitated dignity and justice-centred responses to the effects of environmental change.

Through the renewal process in Dunia island, humanitarian practice has evolved from harm mitigation to fostering dignity in extremely challenging contexts. “Our journey with the Dunia islanders,” says Gonzalez, has given our work a forward-moving direction. This is no longer humanitarian work, it’s renewal work.

This page is part of UNHCR’s Project Unsung collection and portfolio. Project Unsung is a speculative storytelling project that brings together creative collaborators from around the world to help reimagine the humanitarian sector. To discover move about the initiative and other contributions in the collection, you can go to the project website here.