What Is Climate Change?
Climate change is the permanent change of climatic conditions in the atmosphere due to the emissions of greenhouse gases by human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels. These emissions are trapped in the atmosphere, making the world warmer.
Climate change has fuelled the rise of sea levels, increases in sea temperature, and an increased likelihood of coastal flooding and severe weather events, including heatwave, prolonged drought and hurricanes. Other forms of ecological and environmental degradation have exacerbated the situation. For instance, forest and peatland could absorb some level of carbon emissions, but rapid and unsustainable changes in land use have made peat, forest and bush fires more likely. Thus, instead of functioning as guardians of the ecosystem and atmosphere, peatland and forest turn into disaster zones, releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
We could go on at length about how a combination of imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy has driven over-exploitation of natural resources and accelerated climate change.[1a] But instead, we will share the illustrative experiences of daily life on a small island in Sangihe District, a frontier district in Indonesia. Through this, we can demonstrate how local communities are responding to the effects of climate change, and how its impact varies with factors like age, gender and socioeconomic class.
Climate Change Impacts and Group Capacities
Different groups have different capacities to adapt (in the long term) or cope (in the short term) with the impacts of climate change. People in marginalised groups are affected disproportionately, through changes affecting their livelihoods, access to services or social relationships. They are also constrained in their responses by limits on their education, health, access to and control over resources, mobility, and power to influence public discourse and policy. This can drive the poor into deeper poverty, and potentially drag people who are “near poverty” into it, risking decades’ worth of development efforts in poverty alleviation.
In extreme cases, climate change leads to human migration or displacement, again with differential impacts based on socio-economic class, gender, and age. When Palu, Central Sulawesi Province of Indonesia, was hit by a tsunami in 2019, everyone suffered, but women, children, and the elderly tended to suffer more. In temporary shelters, women and girls faced higher risks of sexual abuse: widowers and single mothers were at particular risk of sexual exploitation to meet their families’ needs, such as for food and water. Moreover, 43,000 pregnant women faced potentially inadequate health services.
Women from lower socio-economic classes, particularly those who are older or disabled, tend to suffer more from environmental change than men. This was evident in agrarian societies in Eastern India who experienced massive floods and sand erosion, destroying agricultural land, due to the construction of large dams. This affected primarily women, who constituted 95 per cent of farmers. Furthermore, gender roles affect how communities cope with change. For instance, poor women faced increased difficulty in fulfilling their duties to feed their family and provide clean water, as well as to clean up the sands brought by flooding.
Indonesia: Islands and the Ocean
Indonesia, a Southeast Asian archipelagic country with a population of 264 million, is very vulnerable to climate change. In the past 100 years, it has seen a sea temperature rise of 0.76 degrees, with an accompanying rise in sea levels and changes in storm patterns.
On a macro level, the ocean-based economy has contributed to poverty reduction through job creation, food production, and ecotourism. According to the World Bank, in 2018, fishery contributed US$26.9 billion or 2.6 per cent of Indonesia’s GDP, while absorbing seven million workers. Approximately 10,000 coastal villages remain under-developed and depend economically on resources collected from the ocean. Fisher folks there are typically traditional fishers or smallholders, fishing for household consumption while occasionally selling within the community in the village or a nearby market (‘ocean-to-table’).
In addition, the Archipelagos in itself has been part of the Indonesian national identity, long before independence in 1945. Indonesians attach our identity to negara kepulauan (‘archipelagic country’) and introduce it as ‘tanah air’ (literally meaning ‘land water’, understood in English as ‘homeland’). Fisher folks have long been socially understood as brave and strong men who beat the ocean using traditional boats, for instance in the popular song ‘nenek moyangku seorang pelaut’ (‘my ancestors were sailors’), as well as other folklore and folktales. In one ancestral folktale, Toar Lumimuut, from the Minahasa tribe in North Sulawesi, recounting the origin of the Tondano Lake, ancestors are said to be closely related with the water and land.
Islands are also understood as the building blocks of our nation-archipelagic identity. At the same time, being located on the border of the state carries additional implications: when some fish become rare in certain areas, fisher folks have to sail further – risking illegal fishing in another nation’s territory.
Sangihe and the Archipelago District: How Frontier-Island Communities Deal With Environmental Change
The Indonesian Technology Development and Implementation agency found that Indonesia’s sea surface temperature has increased between 1982 and 2014, with the highest rise observed in the West Pacific Ocean. This area includes several archipelagic districts within three provinces, including West Papua, North Maluku, and North Sulawesi.
Kabupaten Kepulauan Sangihe is an archipelagic district in North Sulawesi Province, Indonesia, which lays close to the West Pacific Ocean. As a frontier district, it shares a sea border with the Philippines. Of its hundreds of small islands, covering 1,029 square kilometres, only approximately 24 are inhabited, by 130,833 people. Most live on the main island, Sangir Besar. The majority religion is Christianity, followed by Islam on small islands, religions are usuallycombined with ancestral and traditional beliefs and practices. The district motto, “Somahe Kai Kehage”, means ‘big obstacles shall pass, if we work hard and pray to God.’ (Kabupaten Kepulauan Sangihe Website 2019)
Sangihe has a relatively high poverty rate (11.80 per cent, compared to the national average of 9.84 per cent). In 2019 the poverty line was IDR 263.268 per month (approximately US$1.8). Fuel is more expensive than in other districts.
To understand how local communities deal with climate change, we interviewed people of varying ages and gender on Beeng Darat Island, in the Tabukan Selatan Tengah sub-district of Sangihe. Beeng Darat is a village of five hamlets and approximately 220 households with a population of 487 population. Over half of the island is deemed to live in poverty.
Livelihoods and Environmental Change
Most people in Beeng Darat are fisher folks or grow crops. Some teach, run micro groceries, or do repairs.
Makagansa has been fishing with his father since he was an adolescent, when it was the main option for male adults. He has his own wooden boat, called pambut, which uses one PK machine and weighs under five gross tonnes. In this community, the ownership of boats (or lack thereof) reflects one’s social-economic status The katinting (paddle-boat with machine) is smaller than the pambut, which is in turn smaller than the pamo. There are five pamo on the island: two were bought using the Village Fund and remain community-owned, one belongs to an association of fisher folks, while the final two are owned by private households. Most fisher folks own pambut or katinting, both traditionally considered good productive assets, and some own both.
Makagansa, like other smallholders, uses simple tools, such as fish-catcher strings, knife, bucket and paddles to fish or to bajubi (catching fish in coastal areas by means of a long knife-like tools). Some also use cool boxes to store fish.
Makagansa usually wakes up at 3am to fish. He returns home at around 7am or 8am, or else he goes directly to Salurang market. As a smallholder, he fishes by himself most of the time, but sometimes, he joins others on a bigger boat, to go further into the deep sea (‘laut lepas’). Fisher folks in Beeng Darat fish almost every day, except during illness, or biannually traditional religious-cultural celebration called Tulude/Mandullu’u Tonna, where everyone participates in the feast. They catch just enough fish for family members, which usually comprise four to six people, if the grandparents still live with the nuclear family. They can also sell their catches in Pasar Salurang, a traditional market in the main island, around 35 minutes away by boat.
The communities of Beeng Darat identified two reasons why it’s become harder to fish near the coastal areas. First, they believe there are more people fishing nowadays compared to three to four decades ago. Second, fish are less available. “Fishes seem have moved out to laut lepas, so we have to go a bit further to the sea… catching fish started to be not as easy as it was in the past,” Makagansa explained. As such, the use of an engine rather than paddles has become a must. Yet despite this, catching enough fish for daily consumption still takes longer than before.
This has had implications for those who cannot afford engines (about 35% of the population) and thus use the paddled-boat (perahu dayung), or even poorer members of the community without any boat at all. Paddling consumes three to four more hours a day. With more unpredictable weather, especially when the latest information from outside the island isn’t always accessible (an unstable internet connection only became available two years ago), it becomes harder to fish. The few men who do not own pambut usually help other fishers or work in someone else’s field. The situation raises concerns about the risk of food insecurity and an insufficiency of protein, with a possible impact on children’s development.
Women living in Beeng Darat have different stories from their male counterparts. Ostorpin Papuas, in her early 40s, said that women tend to work on the land, for instance through vegetables farming (bakebung) or copra farming (bakopra), whereby some islanders cultivate coconut trees, either on their own land or on someone else’s. While bakebung is mainly for subsistence, bakopra has been one of the main non-fishing sources of income in Beeng Darat. Copra is a dried coconut meat or kernel, slowly fried without oil to produce pure coconut oil used in products such as cooking oil, soap and cosmetics.
During the wet season from October to April, the coconut meat produced is thick, moist and abundant. However, Ostorpin observes that the dry season is getting longer and more unpredictable: “it used to start around May to August, but it can start early, and it can be longer than the previous year.” She added, “Dry season is not good for cultivating coconut because the meats become dry and it’s not good for copra.” As the price of copra has plummeted in recent years, and the climate becomes unfavourable, the income earned in this way is falling – and failing to adequately cover daily needs, let alone allow for savings.
Poorer women in the community do not own land and thus work as helpers in the field or do paid domestic chores. Women are usually paid using the staple foods of sago or fish, and are less likely than men to receive cash. Poorer women are visibly busier than the rest of the community: they help in the field from morning till afternoon, then return home to prepare a meal for the family. As climatic conditions change, poorer women bear an extra cost: they spend more time working in the field, with a higher probability of harvest failure due to late and unpredictable rainy seasons. This is on top of their own domestic chores and care responsibilities. This situation affects women’s control over their own use of time, with effects on their health, well-being, and ability to influence and negotiate within the household and in the community.
Environmental Change and the Built Surroundings
Climate variability and environmental change also has an impact on the built environment. The first visible change is in the housing materials, which have had to adapt to more unpredictable and stronger wind. Rumbia leaves are no longer used as roofing, and houses are built using cement and stones rather than bamboo and wood from the forest. Seen through the lens of safety and preparedness for climate-induced disasters, this may be a positive outcome – but it comes at the cost of intangible cultural heritage. Moreover, rumbia leaves were safer when they fell off, an important consideration in a place with a high earthquake risk. In addition, it is easily accessible, naturally available in all seasons.
Kapita Laung or Opo Laung (the village chief) notes that with more frequent and more severe storms compared to three decades ago, people in Beeng Darat have abandoned these traditional materials. The collective decision to switch away from traditional materials was also supported by the Government of Indonesia, which stipulated building materials while providing social assistance for housing to approximately 150 households. The change was already taking place before the government intervened, but poorer people tended to make the move only afterward.
The risk of sea-level rise has also forced people to build sea walls out of sandbags and tree-based fences to protect their homes from flooding. “There has always been flooding, but in the past years it seems to have increased. We never used sandbags until five years ago. We started to put some (sand bags), while reminding several houses to be alert if the water comes in.” Kapita Laung elaborates that so far, the coping strategy has been deployed in a collective manner: the community agreed to use the village fund to finance the sandbags, and worked together to put them in place.
Gender and Environmental Change
Gender influences access to and control over land. No poor women, especially disabled women and the elderly, own land on Beeng Darat island. Even their homes are built on someone else’s land – they are allowed to live there on sufferance. Many do not have relatives outside the island. The chances of being evicted may be low due to a sense of community obligation, but there is still uncertainty for these women and young girls. Some do odd jobs, such as helping with bakopra or bakebung or doing paid domestic chores for the better off. Those who are better off, such as permanent teachers,are not rich by urban standards, but they own land and earn a stable income.
By contrast, poorer men still have a degree of access to land. Better off men often ask them to take care of the land, and they share the produce relatively generously in recognition of this caretaker role, which prevents the land from being idle.
Gender also interacts with intergenerational knowledge production and the division of labour between men and women. Some knowledge or skills have been successfully transferred from older to younger generations, but this often at the cost of maintaining the gendered relations in the community. Thus, women have historically been taught to work in the field, while men tend to fish – and some also engage in bakopra in addition to fishing. There is no absolute segregation whereby ‘men work in the sea’ and ‘women work in the land’, but the division of labour often puts particular burdens on women’s use of time, especially poorer women without labour assistance, land, or stable income. For instance, if a man fishes, the woman in the household clean the fish and cook it – on top of their other activities. Sangir people, like other islanders, are physically strong and energetic, but for some people at the bottom of the ladder, physical exhaustion poses a risk to their wellbeing.
Unfortunately, health facilities and services remain limited. A community health centre on the island opens every two to three months to perform health checks for the elderly, children, and pregnant women. The only nurse is only able to treat minor ailments (and often is out of the island). There is no doctor and medicine stocks are limited. A traditional midwife used to help with delivery, but as she gets older, some pregnant women are concerned that they cannot receive adequate medical assistance. The other nearby community health centre is in Salurang, 35 minutes away by machine boat.
Gender also affects migration. Depleting fish stocks and plunging copra prices have pushed the younger generation to look for other livelihoods, which often means migrating to Tahuna, the capital city of Sangihe on Sangir Besar, or to Manado or Bitung, two large cities located on the main island of Sulawesi. However, it is considered more acceptable for men than women to live “abroad”.
For instance, Desprianto Rompa, 18, wants to be a mechanical engineer, so he lives with his friends in Bitung, where he attends vocational high school, supported by social assistance through the Indonesia Smart Card. He lives apart from his family as he has no other option. Despite the challenges, he considers the opportunity to continue schooling to be a blessing. Desprianto wishes to continue his studies at Universitas Sam Ratulangi, the largest and oldest university in the North Sulawesi Province. Desprianto is bright and hardworking, and attending vocational school is an achievement in itself. Having no boat nor land on the island to some extent became push factors for him to take more risks.
Desprianto’s journey is challenging, but in the eyes of M, a young woman, he is lucky. M still lives on the island, but some days she wishes she could migrate to the city. Yet for most young women, without relatives living in Sangir Besar who could invite them to study or work in town, leaving is not an option. M helps her mother working in the field, growing and collecting vegetables and fruits for subsistence. Some young women in this position marry early, as they literally have nothing else to do. Such marriages are normal practices here.
For those who remain, do not imagine that they can get connected to the world all the time – electricity and internet signals are new to the village. While more people have installed fuel-sourced generators to provide electricity to their households, and a new telecommunication tower has been built in the nearby island, the islanders still do not have 24-hours access to electricity, nor stable internet signals. Only a few households own TVs, and there are no motorcycles, let alone cars in the village.
The cumulative impact of these factors—women having limited mobility, while having no fishing ‘know-how’, as fish become harder to fetch than before—raises questions. How can a community living on a small island sustain its livelihood? While everyone faces risk, is it fair that poorer women, the elderly and disabled people are at higher risks of unsustainable lives?
That is how lives have been affected on one of the frontier islands in Sangihe and the archipelago district in Indonesia. Fish abundance has reduced and fish have moved to deeper parts of the sea. The dry season is longer and less predictable. Strong wind comes more frequently and is often unpredictable. The slow-but-sure rise in sea levels has forced the community to adapt, with marginalised groups at higher risk. This situation risks not only the islanders’ livelihood and wellbeing, but also their social and cultural knowledge and heritage. For Desprianto and M and the many others like them to live their lives—on or out of Beeng Darat—will require community resilience to climate change, and thus, a political commitment to lead with, cooperate on, and implement policies on climate mitigation and adaptation, at the global, the national and regional levels.
Climate change in IPCC usage refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g. using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties, and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. It refers to any change in climate over time, whether due to natural variability or as a result of human activities. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) describes it almost similarly, where climate change refers to a change of climate that is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and that is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods (1992).
[1a]Federici, Silvia 2018, Witches, Witch-hunting and Women, PM; Mies, Maria & Shiva, Vandana 1993, Ecofeminism, Zed’s Books, University of Michigan; Klein, Naomi 2014, This Changes Everything: Climate Change vs. Capitalism, Penguin Books; Schneide, Victoria 2020, ‘How legacy of colonialism build a palm oil empire’, Mongabay.
Adaptation to climate change refers to a process by which individuals, communities, and countries seek to cope with the consequences of climate change (UNDP Adaptation Framework). A seminal work of Holling (1993) describes resilience as the capacity of a system to respond and rise from natural disturbances to maintain its basic functions, is an important characteristic of a system in reducing vulnerability to disasters.
 In Solomon Islands, due to rises in the sea level, several coastal communities had to relocate to the first official climate-induced relocation area in the world: a new village, Taro, in Choiseul Province.
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In Indonesia, this technique is called ‘sangrai’, or in passive verbs becomes disangrai.
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EDIT: Updated on 15 July 2020 to include citation 1a.