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Florence Gutchen

Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait), Poruma (Coconut) Island

“When I was young and living on Poruma I had never heard of global warming or climate change. Now, I think about climate change all the time.”

For Florence Gutchen as a Porumalaig (traditional owner of Poruma), climate change has become an existential threat, lapping at her door.

Florence Gutchen

According to tide gauge data from the region, seas are rising in Zenadth Kes (the Torres Strait) at twice the global average, up 10.8cm between 1993 and 2010.

Florence’s homeland of Poruma, a low-lying island of the Kulkalgal Nation, is being ‘kai kai’ (eaten away) before her eyes. 

“When I see it, it makes me feel so sorry. I love my home and it is the way I express myself. I feel pain for my island as it is being taken away.”

“Although I live on Erub, Poruma is still my home. I cannot call myself a person from Erub because I am from Poruma.”

Florence grew up on Poruma, just as her ancestors had before her for thousands of years. Her history, culture and identity lies within these sands.

To the west of the island is where most Porumalaigs live today. Warukwikulaig, to the north of the island, is a cultural place for nesting turtles and an ancestral ceremonial ground. To the east of the island, is Wongai Zoco, a sacred place where Florence’s great-great-grandfather did magic long ago to call all the Wongai Plum trees from all the islands to that spot. Sauadgi, on the south of the island is where Florence’s father planted a coconut plantation, which he said was for her as the eldest of the family. 

“The whole island is special to us. When part of my island is taken away by the sea, part of me is taken away too. This is because the land represents me.”

Scientific modelling suggests islands like Poruma could be uninhabitable by the end of the century if greenhouse gas emissions remain at high rates. [2019 IPCC report projects 0.6 to 1.1m of global sea level rise by 2100 if GHG emissions remain high.]

Without urgent action, Torres Strait Islander people may become Australia’s first climate refugees. 

For Florence and her family, a life without Poruma is unimaginable. 

“When we talk together as a family about climate change, we talk about the families in the Pacific Islands who have already had to move away, like in Tuvalu. My husband said to me that our family needs to think about this now. When he says things like that, I do not want to listen. I start crying and I block my ears and say, ‘please don’t talk like that’. I do not want to think about whether people will have to leave the island in the future because of sea level rise.”

Florence works as an artist, creating artworks from resources she collects from the sea.

“My art tells the story of my Country and a story of the environment. It says to look after the reef and clean up the sea.”

“When I make my art, I think about how a long time ago, our ancestors ruled the sea.”

“When we respect the sea, the sea look after us. It is a two-way thing, we look after it and him look after us. All our cultural needs depend on the sea. My art is a tribute to those ancestors and a reminder that we are keepers of the sea.”

“Because I am a keeper of the sea, like my ancestors, and the sea is all around us, I believe that I have to know the sea. To know the sea, we need to find a solution to this problem of climate change.”

Florence Gutchen is an artist who creates pieces out of recycled fishing nets

Day to day Climate impacts 

Climate change is also having day-to-day impacts. "I feel changes to myself as well. I now have lots of sores on my lips that I never used to have because of the heat and the sun. It is much hotter now for me to travel in the dinghy to Poruma to visit my family.

"Every time I go back home to Poruma, I notice that our places are being eaten away because of the seas rising. I feel sorry to live on Erub, which is an island with a hill, when my island where my family lives is going away more quickly.

“The sea level rise is noticeable all around Poruma. To me, it seems worse on the west side of the island. I remember that our community tried to fix this part of the island by building a sand bar in 2020 however the work stopped because they needed more funding, now they get funding and they are building it again. But it’s a bandaid treatment. You can never stop the rising sea.”

Climate impacts on Traditional Gardening and Culture

"I have kept up my gardening culture even since I moved away from Poruma.

Me and my grandkids plant banana, but most of the time I plant sweet potato, pumpkin and cassava.

Gardening helps me to relax and exercise. I like to be amongst my garden and speak to it. I feel like I can be myself because I am in nature. It is also about making my culture stronger.

“I teach my grandchildren how to plant and to harvest. To pass on knowledge from way back is a part of my culture. Every family member has a part to play in the teaching process, in the passing on of the knowledge.

“My plants were struggling because there was no rain for the two years before the most recent rains came before Christmas in 2020. We used the desalination water for the garden in that time, but we don’t see the same growth as the rainwater. The plants struggle when watered with the desalination water.

We’re not getting the same rainfall as before. I believe the climate change is affecting the rain. Climate change is already starting to affect the amount of food we are able to get and the size of the fruits.”

The Gutchens are one of the last families on Poruma who practice traditional gardening. But climate change, fuelled by new coal mines like Clive’s Waratah Coal, is making it increasingly difficult to keep this part of culture alive. 

Florence Gutchen with her daughter, Lala and grandaughter, and extended family.

You can support Aka Florence Gutchen in the fight against Waratah Coal & Clive Palmer by donating here

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