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FEATURE STORYMarch 8, 2022

Creating a Sustainable Tomorrow in Papua New Guinea: Vinzealhar Ainjo Nen

Vinzealhar Ainjo Nen, Youth representative for climate change in Papua New Guinea

For International Women’s Day 2022, we’re talking with women leaders across East Asia and the Pacific who are advancing gender equality today to help create a more sustainable future for all. Vinzealhar Ainjo Nen mobilizes young people in her community to take climate action as the Youth Representative for Climate Change at Sustainable Ocean Alliance PNG.
What inspired you to start advocating for climate action?

I was nine years old when my teacher told me how waves crashed right into her family home, and she had to evacuate her mother. That really spoke to me. I just wanted to help them. A couple of weeks later I watched a documentary about the waves that were crashing into homes of another coastal community in Papua New Guinea (PNG). When I asked my late father about this, he told me that it was global warming. It made me want to help these people and create change in whatever ways that I could. That started my journey.

I’ve since worked with organizations such as 350 Pacific and Transparency International PNG, and I have also developed my own initiatives. I run the PNG Climate Change Tribe that has planted 15,000 trees across the country. I also created the reef restoration program, where we speak to PNG communities about how they conserve marine life through traditional knowledge. And I run the Out by the Ocean program, where kids come to the beach and discuss how we can look after the ocean. We have a session about allowing the ocean to speak to you, where they paint, draw, or use clay to express their ideas.

If you could describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Spontaneous, creative and a mender. My ideas about projects usually show up at 1am and I just decide to do it! I’m a mender because when there are problems I like to think fast and create solutions.

This year's theme is 'Equality today for a sustainable tomorrow'. How does gender inequality connect with climate change?

In PNG, urban communities are slowly starting to change when it comes to gender equality, but rural communities are rooted in a patrilineal belief system. PNG is one of the top 10 countries in the world that is most vulnerable to climate change, and gender plays a part in our response. For example, there was once a landslide in PNG, and while the communities were trying to resettle, boys were given the priority to continue their education while girls had to stay at home and support the family through gardening or working at the market.

Women also often have the cultural responsibility to collect firewood, tend to children and engage in subsistence farming and fishing. Climate change means that women have less access to food, such as fish, in places that were abundant before. Women must find a solution for these things and men don’t consider the amount of work women are doing. As a female advocate, it’s difficult to go into communities to talk about climate change because men often don’t believe us because of our gender. When it comes to the climate crisis, women and men should both put a foot forward.

Climate change can often elicit feelings of guilt, grief, and anxiety. How do you deal with these feelings in your advocacy and continue to push on?

Many times, I do have these feelings. But I’m a problem solver. I tell myself all the solutions we can execute to help these situations. As advocates, we have a small network where we hype each other up to keep afloat. We tell each other not to beat ourselves up about what's happening in these communities and to keep pushing forward in our efforts, to help them to adapt or to mitigate and create small changes.

Why is engaging with diverse voices in climate justice important, and how can we do it better?
Climate change affects the lives of all people, whether they're in Germany or PNG. This is very important for indigenous people and those from island communities. When we talk about submerging islands, we are not just describing loss of land mass and homes. We are also describing the loss of cultures, livelihoods and languages that are part of our global community.

Do you have any advice for young Pacific women who might want to pursue advocacy?

A lot of young people have the mentality that our government should help us. But our land should always be our business, whether we receive support from our government or not.

For young women, speak to your friends. Talk and act together because combating climate change cannot be achieved alone. Use social media platforms to talk about these issues. Speak about our cultures. Talk about what is going on in your community, your homes, your food, and the land. The more you keep talking, the more people around us are aware of what's happening. The more we bring life to the issues, the more the world will understand the reality of living in the Pacific during the climate crisis.

**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group.


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