Many of us think about the impacts of climate change as something happening only in the distant future. But for Joanna, a superstorm took the lives of her family and changed her forever.
It’s 5am, and Joanna Sustento wakes to the strong howling of the wind outside. She knows that a storm is due to hit where she lives, but thinks little of it, reassured by the calmness of her parents. She makes coffee for her father and helps her mother prepare breakfast. As the intensity of the winds increase and water starts entering the house, she realises this isn’t a regular storm.
Ultimately, Joanna would lose almost everything. In November 2013, super Typhoon Haiyan, one of the most powerful storms of all time, tore through the central region of the Philippines, laying waste to the land and killing thousands, including her parents, her eldest brother, his wife, and their three year old son.
There’s no way to recover what has been destroyed. But since that fateful day, Joanna has been working towards rebuilding a community united against the real perpetrators who have unleashed climate change upon us. She’s demanding justice by exposing the links between fossil fuel companies and storms made more extreme by climate change, so that urgent action is taken now, and that what happened to her doesn’t happen to anyone else.
What kinds of setbacks have you experienced in your campaign for climate justice and how have you overcome them?
The greatest problem I’ve ever faced in my life is losing my parents, my eldest brother, sister-in-law and three-year old nephew during Typhoon Haiyan. To this day, I still do not know how I was able to survive and go on with life without my strongest support system. I guess the first thing that really helped me accept reality was when I started writing again. From then on I became comfortable sharing my story with my relatives, friends, and eventually to different communities here and abroad.
To people who haven’t experienced it themselves, how can you describe what it feels like to survive a disaster?
Can you imagine what it’s like to lose your basic human right of living a safe life? Rebuilding your home and trying to recover what’s left again and again every time a typhoon comes? Can you imagine searching for missing loved ones? Counting dead bodies? Can you imagine being forced to flee the home you’ve built for your family because it is no longer safe? Trying to survive all that and at the same time grieving? Trying to cope with the trauma of losing family and friends? And all the while as your government and fossil fuel companies continue to endanger you…?
What do you mean when you say climate change and its impacts are an injustice?
The horror brought about by Haiyan did not stop when the typhoon subsided. Life became even more difficult for those of us who were left behind. Many families were displaced and forced to temporarily live in tent cities. Teenagers — especially women — had no privacy, making them more vulnerable to sexual abuse. The poverty rate increased because of damaged livelihoods which made some families resort to child trafficking and drugs.
The biggest injustice, though, is when people in a country like the Philippines continue to suffer greatly whenever catastrophes happen because of the decades of greed and deception by fossil fuel corporations who already knew that the burning of their oil, gas, and coal products would result in deadly and devastating climate impacts. That’s why I, along with other communities around the world, want to hold fossil fuel companies accountable and demand justice and positive change.
Typhoon Haiyan was five years ago. What impacts are your community still facing?
Years after Haiyan, there are still plenty of families in the resettlement areas with no proper housing or livelihood. Some are forced to live dangerously and rebuild their houses near the coast because fishing is their main source of income. Farmers are forced to borrow money when their crops are put to waste every time a storm hits. Farmers and fisherfolk feed the world, but why is it that they are the ones who go hungry every time we are met by catastrophes?
What have you seen and learnt from your community during the disaster and in the years since?
Resilience is a well-known Filipino trait. A lot of people say we are very enduring and adapt to whatever life throws at us. But the reality is some people just don’t have a choice. It reaches a point where people do not demand more from their leaders because they forget they deserve more.
Throughout the years, I’ve learned that pointing out the resilience of a community is not always a good thing. It blinds people, resulting in a failure to provide long-term, effective, proactive and sustainable solutions. And frankly, resilience just becomes an excuse to hold off from taking action against those who are accountable.
Do you find it difficult to convince people of the link between climate change and massive natural disasters such as super Typhoon Haiyan?
In my community climate change is undeniable. However, most people think that what’s happening is just the earth’s natural cycle — that we just need to adapt and endure.
The most difficult part for me is convincing people of the link between climate change and fossil fuel companies. For so many years, we have been buried by the myth that because we use energy — because we emit carbon — climate change is everyone’s fault. We lose sight of pointing out the fossil fuel companies’ accountability on climate change.
Sometimes I think to myself, if only my community knew how the fossil fuel industry deceived the world about climate change, they would be furious at this injustice!
What would you like to change about the way people see such devastating natural disasters?
The truth. That fossil fuel corporations knew about and exacerbated climate change, and they are the ones who should be held accountable for its impacts. Communities must take matters into their own hands and put pressure on their governments to craft and commit to new laws and policies and force companies to align their businesses plan with preventing dangerous climate change.
What continues to motivate you in raising awareness about climate change and calling for climate action?
Whenever I get emotionally and mentally drained, I forget why I’m doing this. But I always go back to my core — to my why.
I learned how the fossil fuel corporations knew about the consequences of their business models, and that they had the financial and technological capacity to curb the severity of the impacts of climate change. But instead of preventing it, they spent millions of dollars to undermine climate science and action. I just cannot unsee the truth anymore. I refuse to remain apathetic when it is my home that continues to suffer because of their greed.
I want to do this because my community — we are not mere statistics — we have lives, we have dreams, we have families whom we love so dearly, we have beliefs we want to pass on to our children. The things that we value most in our lives are at risk, and I want to be part of the movement that protects it.
Is there any sense of connection that you share with other communities on the frontlines of climate change?
I definitely feel connected with people from the Pacific Islands. Their stories resonate with us here as well. The ocean that has nurtured them all their lives is the same monster that is slowly taking away their land and the same thing applies to us. More than anything I feel very inspired and hopeful that a community also considered to be vulnerable to climate impacts is on the frontlines of taking action against climate change. For me, this sends a signal to the world that if vulnerable countries are doing something, powerful nations have no excuse.
Also, meeting the growing global movement of people suing their governments for climate destabilisation just proves that climate change is a problem that affects us all.
What have you gained from being able to tell your own story? What gives you hope?
Telling my story and the story of my community was at first very painful. It still is, but now I get a sense of empowerment whenever I tell our story.
It makes me realise that you don’t need a powerful position to have a voice. Whenever people like me are given a chance to speak to the world, it makes me think that who I am right now and what I can offer is already enough for me to be part of the change we want to see. That’s why I hope that more and more people from my community will be given the chance to be heard because they have millions of stories that deserve to be told, and the world needs to listen.
Rashini Suriyaarachchi is a freelance writer based in Kathmandu