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Klaemet jenj worlds. Approaching climate change and knowledge creation in Vanuatu

Les mondes du « klaemet jenj » : changement climatique et création de savoirs au Vanuatu
Arno Pascht
p. 235-244


Cet article porte sur les représentations des ni-Vanuatu relatives au changement climatique (klaemet jenj). Après une discussion des concepts théoriques relatifs aux « savoirs » et aux rencontres entre diverses idées, les perspectives du changement climatique (klaemet jenj) véhiculées par les villageois de Siviri, dans le nord d’Efate, sont présentées. Ces perspectives diffèrent considérablement des informations diffusées par les médias ainsi que par le personnel des organisations gouvernementales et non gouvernementales. Cette contribution soutient que ces différences sont si fondamentales qu’il n’est pas pertinent de concevoir les idées locales concernant le klaemet jenj en tant que forme de savoirs hybrides. Le klaemet jenj doit plutôt être considéré comme (faisant partie d’)une réalité ou (d’)un monde que les villageois créent au travers de leurs interactions avec leurs environnements matériels, non matériels et sociaux, et ce, dans divers contextes locaux et sociaux.

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1Today, the notion of “climate change” is becoming well known to many people in Vanuatu in various contexts. The Meteorological Department works to disseminate information about climate change via radio and Internet, Representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations (ngos) hold “awareness” events in town and in villages, the newspaper Vanuatu Daily Post informs readers about various related topics, and researchers ask questions about climate change.

  • 1 This term is used by the inhabitants of Vanuatu to refer to themselves.
  • 2 Bislama is a Pidgin language and one of the three national languages in Vanuatu. It is widespread i (...)

2As a result of this dissemination, many ni-Vanuatu1 now know the term “climate change”, or more precisely the Bislama equivalent, “klaemet jenj2. During the time of my fieldwork between 2017 and 2019, my interlocutors in Siviri – a coastal village in the north of the main island Efate – were not only aware of the term itself, but had specific ideas of what klaemet jenj is. These ideas differ from the information disseminated by the media or other actors, like non-governmental organisations (ngos) and the government of Vanuatu. They are important in the everyday lives of people in Siviri, although not in the way that one would expect.

3As a result of my findings at that time, the general question I will discuss in this contribution is: what is klaemet jenj for the people of Siviri? In order to answer this question, I will discuss whether it is adequate to ask what they know about klaemet jenj, how they come to know about it, and how people generate this knowledge.

4There could be several ways to approach this question. One could answer it by explaining that my interlocutors adopt, reject, or appropriate information about climate change according to the cultural background they have acquired as members of their (kin-)group, from parents and others. This is described in recent anthropological literature as a reception (Rudiak-Gould, 2010, 2013). In this context, reception is understood as a process whereby people accept, refuse, or appropriate information according to their pre-existing beliefs, their “prior commitments” (Rudiak-Gould, 2013: 10), or through which information is “interpreted through concepts and values” which are culturally specific (Rudiak-Gould, 2013: 176).

5In order to shed light on processes of knowledge formation in connection with climate change, one could also draw on aspects of the work of Kirsten Hastrup. Hastrup writes that “our collaborators in the field” in general are not “victims […] of culture" (Hastrup, 2014: 147) and like her, based on my research, I do not assume “that ‘culture’ frames the way in which people perceive and respond to climate change” (Hastrup, 2014: 146). This means that I refrain from ascribing culture a determining role which restrains the agency of people when they encounter new phenomena, concepts and practices. In contrast, I want to focus on the active role of ni-Vanuatu to their own knowledge generation.

6A possible perspective to answer the questions above, which puts greater emphasis on agency, is that people combine knowledge from different sources. This would include knowledge about their environment handed down by previous generations, what they have learnt from observing their environment, and the information gained through media, school, and other sources. This would lead to a hybridization of so-called “scientific knowledge” and so-called “local knowledge”. This perspective presupposes several assumptions: on the one hand, different kinds of knowledge exist and there is a clear-cut distinction between knowledge drawn from observation and from reception. On the other hand, the agency of people is mainly confined to the act of combining parts of knowledge – a sort of knowledge shopping, in which people strategically adopt (or reject) knowledge. In my opinion, in this perspective the emphasis on strategic and conscious action is too strong and the agency of the local people is confined to a process of combining already given knowledge, but does not consider the creation of something new.

7Thus, I will argue that it is not sufficient to look at climate change in Siviri as a combination of different kinds of knowledges. Nevertheless, the notion of “hybridized knowledge” (Soselina, 2007) − “coming from two distinct sources, perhaps, but ultimately melding into something that blurs the line between science and local knowledge” (Crook and Rudiak-Gould, 2018: 13) − is a possible starting point for my argumentation. In order to arrive at a theoretical perspective that adequately deals with the ethnographic situation I encountered, that considers agency of the people in Siviri and includes the possibility of creating something new, my argument starts with general reflections on specific kinds of knowledge. After this, I will discuss the concept of knowledge space (Hastrup, 2014; Turnbull, 2003) and perspectives which consequently stress the praxis and engagement of people. I will finally question the concept of knowledge or knowledge space in order to look at what happened in Siviri when people encountered climate change. One important feature that led me to this is the finding of several researchers that Pacific islanders “are now attributing a great variety of local changes to ‘climate change’” (Crook and Rudiak-Gould, 2018: 11). For people in Siviri, this means that klaemet jenj does not solely include changing weather patterns or sea-level rise, it also comprises, for instance, the introduction and growing distribution of new technologies such as cell phones or the increasing consumption of alcohol among the younger villagers. This inclusion of ‘social’ changes hints at the possibility that ontological assumptions of people in Vanuatu do not differentiate between society and nature in the same way as most natural and social scientists do, for example. As a result, I suggest that it is adequate to assume the perspective that people in Siviri actively create their ‘klaemet jenj reality or world’ when they encounter media and other representations of climate change and engage in related activities, for example through climate change adaptation programs. I will argue that for people in Siviri, klaemet jenj is (part of) a (new) reality that is created through interactions with their material, non-material and social environments in their daily life praxis. The resulting ‘klaemet jenj reality or world’ is thus generated during a creative process by various actors/actants in their local and social context.

Narratives of Climate Change in Vanuatu

8Vanuatu, a Y-shaped archipelago in Melanesia, which stretches over an area of 12,190 km2 (Mückler, 2010: 162), was identified as one of the countries most vulnerable to climatic changes, with expectations that islanders will experience extreme weather events in the future (napa, 2007). Because of increased sea surface temperature, adverse impacts of climate change are predicted for all categories of coastal fisheries in Vanuatu, especially a decline of productivity (Bell et al., 2011: 268). When Tropical Cyclone Pam hit large parts of Vanuatu and caused serious damage in 2015, this was accordingly linked to climate change by government officials and development workers. Scientific climate models predict that vulnerability will be intensified by climate change because of expected higher temperatures, more frequent dry periods, higher variability of rainfalls, intrusion of salt water, erosion, hurricanes and other changes. International organizations claim that higher numbers of extreme weather events mean more stress for agriculture. Additionally, water management will become more difficult (fao, 2008: 39, 50; Australian Bureau of Meteorology and csiro, 2014: 330, 331, 336; Johnson, Welch and Fraser, 2016: 6, 7). Accordingly measures in the sector of agriculture and food security are classified as one of the priorities in Vanuatu’s National Adaptation Programme of Action (napa), which summarizes intended adaptation projects in order to deal with the current and predicted adverse impacts of climate change. About eighty per cent of ni-Vanuatu live in rural areas, and subsistence agriculture and some cash crops for export are the economic basis of their livelihoods (fao, 2008: 34-36; Johnson, Welch and Fraser, 2016: 10). Export is mainly based on agriculture and fishing, with the main products being beef, copra, and fish. Additional economic branches are commercial logging and a small industrial sector in the capital, Port Vila. The agricultural sector is thus the most important basis for the majority of ni-Vanuatu’s livelihoods, because most of the population lives in rural areas (fao, 2016: 3), while the money-based economy is concentrated in the two urban areas of Port Vila and Luganville.

9Vanuatu government officials were among the first in the Pacific to decide to engage politically with climate change. An initial step was the preparation of the National Adaptation Programme of Action (napa) in 2007 (naccc, 2007). This was intended to pave the way for climate change adaptation measures and to coordinate the implementation of adaptation projects. In 2013, the Ministry of Climate Change, Adaptation, Meteorology, Geo-Hazards, Energy, Environment and Disaster Management was established. The Vanuatu government introduced a range of climate change policies and laws, for example the Disaster Risk Reduction and Disaster Management National Action Plan 2006-2016 (2007) or the Environmental Management and Conservation (Amendment) Act No. 28 (2011). Furthermore, policies and legal regulations for various topics underwent climate change mainstreaming. Since that time, numerous new institutions, cooperatives and programs have been dealing with climate change on different levels, ranging from policy design for the country as a whole to adaptation programs on the community level, such as those found in the village of Siviri.

The village of Siviri

10The village of Siviri is located on the north coast of the main island of Vanuatu, Efate, a volcanic island of upraised tertiary limestone (Brookefield and Hart, 1971). It has approximately 200 inhabitants. The people of Siviri have a long tradition of combining fishing and horticulture. Villagers regard their gardens as important because they either supply food for daily life, or income through selling crops at the market, but they also provide important crops such as yam for ceremonial purposes. Nevertheless, over the past decades people have become accustomed to expanding the security of their livelihoods to other areas, such as selling firewood or wage labor (see Hetzel and Pascht, 2019). Fishing is seen as an additional source of food or income, in contrast to root crops which are regarded as the most important staple food.

11Siviri lies some 40 kilometres from Port Vila and villagers have easy access to the capital since the village is located close to the main sealed road, which circles the island. Transport of goods and people to the capital and to some of the more distant gardens is unproblematic. On weekdays, humans, food and garden crops travel in and out of the village. In many families, at least one person works in town or in other parts of the island, often in the education sector, the service sector or construction work. Over the past few years, people have either moved their gardens closer to their houses or at least installed an additional garden next to their kitchens. During the time of my stay in 2017, many families grew vegetables, especially aelan kabij (Abelmoschus manihot), next to their houses. Although every family had a garden, a considerable part of the family’s food supply was bought from markets or shops in Port Vila and at small road markets. The cash economy and wage labour has become a key factor in people’s lives over the past decade and people said that they have started to have less time for gardening than some years ago, although they did not indicate the same tendency for fishing. Nevertheless, every family member had access to crops from the individual or family gardens. One elder man described it as follows: “If you have a job in town it’s good, but still you have to have your garden, so that you do not depend on the food in the stores”.

12People in Siviri today are used to hearing or reading about climate change/klaemet jenj from various angles. This is mainly due to access to information through radio, the daily newspaper, or the so-called climate change awareness programs and workshops that have been organized in most of the communities around Efate. When asking people in Siviri how they first learnt about climate change/klaemet jenj or even first heard the words climate change/klaemet jenj, most mentioned the radio and younger people referred to their school education. Since on Efate, people have good access to information from town, they keep up-to-date with political measures and information based on scientific research. The majority of people in the village have experienced adaptation methods through various workshops held by ngos in the village. Besides the introduction of new methods regarding cultivation, they were aiming to “[i]mprove climate change understanding at provincial and community levels” (naccc, 2007: 24). Some have also participated in trainings at the Ministry of Agriculture (malffb) in Port Vila. One of the long-term climate-related programs in Siviri was carried out by experts from Papua New Guinea in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture (malffb). In this program, experts implemented a number of measures with the aims of improving food security in combination with climate change mitigation and adaptation. In particular, between 2012 and 2015, participants in this program attended workshops every two or three months, which provided them with information based mainly on natural science in combination with practical implementation. For instance, demonstration plots were installed in which the community could try out newly learnt cultivation techniques. One important goal, which I will describe in more detail below, was to change methods of cultivating food crops so that despite the adverse impacts of climate change (and other constraints), food security is maintained. This means that people should use those techniques and methods in order to secure the supply of food through their own gardens and, preferably, at the same time to produce surplus that they are able to sell. The objective was also that “[s]mall scale farmers […] have access to knowledge on improved integrated, intensive, organic gardening methods” (nab, 2013). Workshops were designed to combine theory with praxis and thus after the demonstrations of a range of techniques and methods to people in Siviri, participants of the programs partly put them into practice (see Hetzel and Pascht, 2019).

13Interviews with staff of implementing organizations revealed that they do not consider participating villagers as knowledgeable about climate change. What they mean is that villagers’ assumptions about climate change and its effects differ considerably from those disseminated by themselves. In order to shed light on different ideas about climate change/klaemet jenj, I will now look at some theoretical approaches regarding ‘knowledge’.

Knowing, knowledge spaces or creating worlds?

14For roughly a decade now, a number of social scientists focusing on anthropogenic climate change have been addressing the global versus the local character of discourses and knowledge. Recent publications propose overcoming this global-local dichotomy and stress the cosmopolitan character of climate change knowledge, as well as the necessity to consider the plurality and mobility of knowledge (Hulme, 2010: 563; Tsing, 2005). Knowledge about climate change and climate change adaptation has been conceptualized as a “travelling idea” (Czarniawska and Sevón, 2005; Weisser, 2013; de Wit, Pascht and Haug, 2018), and accordingly considerably different local meanings of these concepts have been described (Hofmann, 2018; de Wit, 2018; Friedrich, 2018; Rudiak-Gould, 2015). In this context of theorizing global and local flows of knowledge, Hulme considered that social scientists “need to pay greater attention to the different ways knowledge comes to be made in different places” (Hulme, 2010: 563). In reference to Hulme and this creation of knowledge, I will now focus on the related agency and creativity of local people.

Knowledge and knowing

15Let me first discuss the concept of ‘knowledge’. What people in Vanuatu explained to me about klaemet jenj may be termed as ‘everyday knowledge’. Verena Keck defines this as:

“less a conceptual kind of knowledge than a procedural knowledge connected to specific contexts. It is knowledge that is not only an understanding system but at the same time and in particular an acting system as well. Since it is learned by observation or by doing, it remains mostly implicit.” (Keck, 1998: 10)

16For the kinds of knowledge which are an “understanding that is more fluid and flexible in character, how something is known, knowledge in practice” (Keck, 1998: 10), which in my interpretation includes everyday knowledge, she then proposes the term “knowing”. From this, she distinguishes the concept of “knowledge”, which she defines as “understanding that is definite and lineated, what is known, as an abstract pool of information” (Keck, 1998: 10). In this paper, I adopt this distinction between “knowing” and “knowledge”, but use the terms “knowing” and “everyday knowledge” interchangeably.

17Knowledge about climate change based on natural science and disseminated by media, government, or staff of development organizations can be viewed mainly as abstract information travelling to local places and contexts where people engage with it actively. As recent publications postulate (e.g., de Wit, 2018), people engage with knowledge in different places and contexts and relate it to their everyday life praxis during the various trajectories of knowledge.

Knowledge spaces

18In order to answer questions pertaining to the formation of knowledge, which is relevant for the research question of this article, I refer to the concept of “knowledge space” developed by David Turnbull (2003). A knowledge space is, according to Turnbull, “made up of linked sites, people and activities” and has “a wide diversity of components: people, skills, local knowledge and equipment that are linked by social strategies and technical devices” (Turnbull, 2003: 19-20). In one of her publications about climate change, Kirsten Hastrup (2014, 2016) draws on Turnbull’s concept, which she explains by employing the idea of “assemblage”. She defines “knowledge space” as “interactive, contingent assemblage of space and knowledge, sustained and created by social labour” (Hastrup, 2014: 140). This assemblage, she stresses, “pertains equally to scientific and non-scientific knowledge about climate and climate change” (Hastrup, 2016: 39). She specifies that “each individual, group, culture, and society assembles it both from the immediate surroundings and from other people, television features, Internet communication, and scientific reports” (Hastrup, 2016: 43). Furthermore, Hastrup stresses that anthropologists should “show how such potentially incongruent sources and knowledge practices fuse into a shared knowledge space, upon which people may act” (Hastrup, 2014: 142). This “fusing” is not an automatic or passive process, but rather people actively make such knowledge spaces, by combining and integrating knowledge gathered from various different sources.

19One important presupposition of both authors is the comparability of Western scientific knowledge and other forms of knowledge. They stress that there is no opposition or radical difference between scientific and “local” knowledge (Turnbull, 2003: 40-41; Hastrup, 2014: 140). Knowledge, Turnbull stresses, is always local – or better put, located (Turnbull, 2003: 19, 38-40). He uses the notion of “located knowledge” in a broad sense, including individual or collective views of a group of people as well as stressing conditions at specific times and sites rather than trying to generalize concrete situations in order to obtain abstract, context-independent knowledge. People produce and reproduce knowledge in direct interaction with people or objects and in contexts “that are site, discipline or culture specific” (Turnbull, 2003: 40). This definition of located knowledge differs fundamentally from the notion of “local knowledge” used in many other anthropological and geographical publications about climate change (and other topics). Turnbull argues that his definition is true for scientific as well as other knowledge traditions/systems: neither can scientific knowledge be seen as universal and value free and thus independent of cultural specifics, nor are other (often called “traditional”) knowledge systems as closed as they were often portrayed (Turnbull, 2003: 41). A differentiation between located knowledge and other knowledge systems, including scientific knowledge, is thus obsolete. As Hastrup shows, located knowledge systems are instead open for integrating knowledge from different sources, including scientific knowledge (Hastrup, 2014: 150).

Knowing and encountering worlds

20Whereas some authors of recent publications assume that local knowledge is not contrary to scientific knowledge (de Wit, Pascht and Haug, 2018), others differentiate in a substantial way between science and other kinds of knowledge. For instance, Michael Schnegg argues that the ways of knowing the weather of Damara pastoralists in Namibia and the ways of knowing of scientists differ so distinctively that it is apt to speak of different “weather worlds” (Schnegg, 2019: 2). He argues that these different worlds are not mutually exclusive, but show that multiple ways of knowing the environment are possible (ibid.). Referring to the work of Heidegger, Schnegg depicts everyday knowledge as substantially different from scientific knowledge. According to him, everyday knowledge is characterized by practice, as people engage the world in everyday life through use. This means that we “encounter entities primarily in relation to us and as something that we might use” (Schnegg, 2019: 3). He concludes for the Damara’s case that entities (like a tree, or rain) exist only when experienced in a specific situation. This leads to different perspectives and to different ‘worlds’ – in this example, scientific and everyday worlds – which according to Schnegg reveals that:

“people can have multiple ways of knowing and that they change between different ways of encountering and being in the world. This switching is largely initiated by the technologies or things used and the ways they participate in enframing nature.” (Schnegg, 2019: 11)

21The argument that anthropology should reflect on differences between worlds (rather than worldviews) was brought forward during the last decades by a number of scholars who emphasize ontologies and alterity (see Holbraad, 2009; Viveiros de Castro, 1998; Latour, 2007; Blaser, 2009). In certain facets, they go further than Schnegg who assumes that “natural entities (as the ‘things out there’) exist and can be accessed” (Schnegg, 2019: 12) by asserting that people in certain regions assume the existence of a plurality of worlds (Viveiros de Castro, 1998) and that anthropologists and “ethnographic subjects” do not have different perspectives upon the world, but differ “rather in the ways in which either of them may come to define what may count as a world, along with its various constituents” (Holbraad, 2013: 470). These different worlds are seen as “realities conjured by the presence (or absence) of things (entities, concepts, relations) encountered or generated within ethnographic relations” (Salmond, 2014: 168). For these authors, it is not knowledge about the world which has to be investigated, but a question of “what kinds of worlds are there and how they come into being” (Blaser, 2009: 11).

Klaemet jenj in Siviri

22Knowing their environment in a very detailed manner and engaging with the land and the associated reefs and inshore areas is identified by Edvard Hviding as one of the two “twin foundations of Pacific islanders’ worldviews”, along with a view of other environments and cultures connected by the ocean (Hviding, 2003: 254-255).

  • 3 I use this term here in the sense of Ingold (2000) as continuously created in practice through inte (...)

23The immediate environments with which Siviri villagers have a close relation, and actively engage in/with, include land, forest, reefs, and inshore areas close to the village, but also some places in town as well as social contexts. This means that engaging with their immediate environment(s) is a fundamental part of their lifeworld3 and is closely connected with their livelihood, including the cultivation of food crops or fishing.

24People in Siviri not only know the term klaemet jenj, but they identify quite a wide range of recent developments with it. Klaemet jenj is not an abstract concept for them, but a lived reality. It should be noted that people in other parts of and contexts in Vanuatu explain klaemet jenj in a similar, but not identical way. For example, compared to Siviri, in the village of Dixon Reef in the rural area of Malekula in the Western part of Vanuatu, people made fundamentally similar statements about klaemet jenj (Hetzel and Pascht, 2019), whereas among the young ni-Vanuatu in Port Vila, assumptions about klaemet jenj are substantially different (Hetzel and Pascht, 2017).

25In what follows, I deliberately avoid distinguishing between domains used in some other climate change studies like ‘observation’, ‘responses’, ‘reception’, ‘adaptation’, or ‘mitigation’ (Crate and Nuttall, 2009, 2016; Rudiak-Gould, 2011, 2013), which differentiates between what is given and what is done with these givens. I assume that these are not meaningful for illuminating the statements of my Siviri interlocutors. I will now begin my depiction of villagers’ thoughts and practices related to klaemet jenj in Siviri in the same order in which most villagers talked about these issues.

What klaemet jenj changes

  • 4 When I quote my interlocutors in English, these are my translations of their statements in Bislama.

26All my interlocutors agreed that klaemet jenj in Siviri refers to a change in weather patterns. In particular, they explained that the difference in the weather between the annual dry time and rainy season is no longer as clear-cut as before: short sunny and rainy periods now alternate in the dry time as well as in the rainy season. Dry times do not emerge at the expected time of the year and “rain comes now at any time, unexpected”4, as a villager in his forties explained to me. People also talked of a change regarding cyclones, which now not only appear during the period of the year where they are expected, but in other seasons as well. In 2017, two cyclones occurred after the end of the expected cyclone season. People in Siviri consistently stated that the temperature is higher than before or that the hot time spans are longer now. These weather phenomena – hot periods, even extreme dry periods, rainy periods, cyclones – are not new to the people of Siviri, but they no longer occur at the expected times. Because of this, people sometimes say “Ol taem i difren. I nomo olsem befoa” (“All seasons are different now. It is unlike before”). But ‘season’ is a very narrow translation of “taem”, and we will see below that this latter concept may contain much more information than merely the chronological understanding of time/weather implied by the word ‘season’.

27The moving coast-line and the erosion of the beach areas, to which villagers refer as “solwota stap kam insaed” (“the sea is flooding the land”) is another phenomenon villagers link to climate change. One man in his sixties showed me that the space between the houses of the village and the water has decreased by about five meters over a period of forty years. Some people in Siviri observe that for some decades now, the sea has come closer, and thus the land area of their village has decreased. Other inhabitants, however, claim that they have recently observed the opposite process, namely that the sea is building up the beach again in some places, a process which they also connected with klaemet jenj. In this context, one interlocutor thought, by pointing at the beach, which was very close to her house, that it is important not to move the houses away from their present location, because: “when the houses are moved, the sea will come closer”. This notion is connected with the assumption of people in Vanuatu, explained below, that the sea, like other items of what may be called the environment, is closely related to humans and sociality, so that changes in one realm implies changes in others.

28Climate change is also identified with other phenomena in Siviri, in particular with the experience that fruit trees – mango, but also breadfruit or avocado trees – now bear fruits continuously, in contrast to the past when these fruits could be harvested only once a year. People were somewhat ambiguous as to how to evaluate these changes. On the one hand, farmers appreciated that they now can harvest fruits at nearly any time of the year. On the other hand, they were puzzled because the patterns of the past no longer apply. This and other phenomena, people told me, result in an uncertainty because what they know seems no longer reliable. “Everything is crazy! You cannot predict anything now”, explained for instance a male inhabitant of Siviri in his forties. For some people of Siviri, klaemet jenj means that the soil is now better for cultivating food crops, and the yield has already increased. People told me that in contrast to the past, they now often plant yams later in the year – but they grow well, they stress. Others, in contrast, complained that the harvest in recent years has not been as good as in the past.

29“There are more fish now in the lagoon” was another statement which was made in relation to climate change. Spearfishing, and to a lesser degree other fishing methods, is a popular activity that complements the daily food supply in Siviri. I did not hear a single statement in which people linked climate change/klaemet jenj with an increasing or extreme scarcity of fish. Most of my interlocutors, however, did remark that klaemet jenj changes many things or even everything: “It changes many things. Good ones and bad ones. It changes the system of life. I think it changes the thinking of man” or “climate change changes many aspects of life”. This means not only that weather patterns change or the sea-level rises, but also that many other changes are occurring. One man in his late sixties, for example, explicated that “climate change makes some men lazy. They are too weak to work. They sleep the whole day”. Others explained that klaemet jenj is also linked to teenage pregnancy, increasing consumption of alcohol, marihuana, and cigarettes, especially by young boys and girls, less engagement in community affairs, and increased usage of new technology like mobile phones or Internet, especially Facebook. “Climate change affects [not only weather, cultivation, or the sea level], but human beings too. [...] Technology is now very important for us [...] It is the same as cultivation or sea [level rise]”, explained a Siviri woman. She thus established a close relationship between an increased use of mobile phones, laptops, the Internet and other technical devices on the one hand, and shifted dates of planting food crops or rising sea levels on the other. Interlocutors frequently mentioned climate change in direct relation to a range of “social” changes – sometimes directly in a causal relationship, sometimes indirectly by orienting the conversation about climate change from changing weather patterns to changes in community and family life.

Causes of klaemet jenj and the future

30When I asked people in Siviri about the causes of klaemet jenj, I received fairly homogenous responses. After telling that they do not know exactly what causes klaemet jenj, my interlocutors in Siviri referred to negative impacts they have experienced and listed factories, machines, cars which pollute or consume the air. But they did not always lay the responsibility on industrialised countries. After general statements about global processes, they started talking about Vanuatu:

“We [ni-Vanuatu] cut down too many trees. [...] We have to leave some of the big ones, we may not cut them or burn them down. [...] This is important to hold the humidity in the soil [...] The trees also bring rain so that the place is cool.”

31Many people considered that they had contributed to climate change by felling too many big trees, but also by burning plastic and other rubbish.

32In order to learn more about the specific climate change situation in Siviri, I talked with inhabitants of Siviri about future developments regarding climate change. All of my interlocutors were convinced that it is not possible to stop the process. Instead, they stressed that “we go with the flow”, “you cannot run away from it”, or “we must be ready to face it”. There are ways, they explained, to mitigate the effects of climate change, or to control them, or to adapt to them: irrigation, planting of Gliricidia sepium (a tree that fixes nitrogen in the soil), planting of other trees and ceasing the destruction of trees, not burning or throwing plastic into the sea. “We are not afraid of climate change”, said one couple, an opinion which was echoed by the greater part of the people I talked to in Siviri. Nevertheless, this is not the case for everyone. Some regard climate change as a serious problem or even as a “disaster” for the future. More than once I heard that people trust in God and that “climate change is now a part of nature”, so that there is no reason to be afraid. It is possible to adapt, said one interlocutor, because “I also change together with climate change”.


33As illustrated above, klaemet jenj is not entirely new to people of Siviri. When asked about the origins of klaemet jenj, many of my interlocutors answered that it started in the 1960s or 1970s. The weather phenomena that people link with climate change – (extraordinary) strong sun (san i strong), dry soil (graon i drae), and heavy rainfall (tumas ren) − are weather events that people know and regard as normal. What people explained as (relatively) new is that these events do not occur at the expected times: it is often dry now during the rainy season, it rains quite often in the dry season, cyclones arrive after the end of the expected cyclone season. Villagers also mentioned the erosion of the beach as a mid-term transformation, while some also saw a kind of reversion: that the sea rebuilds the beach in some places. Carlos Mondragón mentions that “mid- and long-term environmental fluctuations have long been a part of ni-Vanuatu engagements with the physical world” (Mondragón, 2018: 26, 27), so that for people in Vanuatu the process termed erosion is not unidirectional, but may lead to reverse dynamics as well, albeit possibly in other places or contexts. As described above, several of my interlocutors explained that the sea does not only come closer to their houses in some places, but that sand also accumulates elsewhere.

34On the other hand, there are a number of developments which people identified as new. Whereas some villagers regarded the El Niño period after cyclone Pam in 2015 as a phenomenon that emerges from time to time, and some even regarded it as a normal event that occurs every year (but with varying intensity), others considered it as a singular event with no precedents. As new developments regarded as directly or indirectly connected with klaemet jenj, people also described processes that we – as anthropologists – would tend to classify as “social”: that people use more and more technical and digital devices and increasingly communicate via social media, that money gains in importance in everyday life, that consumption of cigarettes, alcohol, and marihuana increases among the young population, that the participation in community affairs and work decreases, etc.

35Klaemet jenj in Siviri is linked to everyday practices, experiences and problems like cultivation, fishing, and sociality, with responsibility resting not only on industrialized countries who produce harmful greenhouse gases, but also on people in Vanuatu who log trees and increasingly use machinery and cars. Self-blame of this kind has also been found in other locations in Oceania, for example in the Marshall Islands (Rudiak-Gould, 2014).

36Siviri villagers’ discourse about klaemet jenj may be interpreted as – mainly – everyday knowledge (as defined by Keck and explained by Schnegg) or knowing, which they have made or created in engaging with information based on scientific knowledge about climate change in their daily life praxis. Cultivating food crops, fishing, and building houses involve mainly practical and personal knowing acquired in and connected with concrete contexts and places, and with various entities and values. For example, people can explain which wild plant is useful, what they can use it for, and how to treat it so that it is useful. They also know when is the best time for planting. This is not abstract knowledge, but everyday knowledge. When we discussed the appropriate time to plant yam, people mentioned certain months of the year, but there was a relatively large amount of variation of statements about the time of the year depending on who I spoke to. Later I realised that, although they formulated this as de-contextualized knowledge, the time when they actually planted their yam gardens depended on the context (see Borofsky, 1987 for a similar observation in Pukapuka). Weather and the season are only two factors for the decision about the specific moment of planting the yam tubers, whereas social, religious and economic conditions also play a crucial role. As in other parts of Oceania (see e.g. Borofsky, 1987), for ni-Vanuatu in many contexts, learning is a process of observing, practicing, and repeating, while knowing is to a great extent not systematically formalized and involves various kinds of entities, forces, and moral values (Hviding, 2003; Mondragón, 2018: 33) as well as social contexts. As Carlos Mondragón aptly depicts, knowledge types in Vanuatu:

“are living, shifting and contested bodies of experience and moral value, which remain extant as common domains of shared praxis insofar as they emerge from the most relevant of locally grounded activities – namely food production and ritualized exchange.” (Mondragón, 2018: 33)

37Klaemet jenj in Siviri has to be seen in this context which may be described as everyday knowledge. In the following paragraphs, I will use the perspectives discussed above to shed light on the process of formation of (knowledge about) klaemet jenj.

38In order to explain the processes of the formation of knowledge, Hastrup (2014) and Turnbull (2003: 19-20) use the notion of knowledge space: in practising everyday tasks, people are creating knowledge spaces as networks involving people, skills, entities, places, and social developments. Drawing on other theoretical perspectives (Viveiros de Castro, 1998; Holbraad, 2013; Blaser, 2009; Schnegg, 2019), I argue that beyond reception and combining of knowledge, and creating knowledge (spaces), it may be apt to view this as creation of specific “klaemet jenj realities/worlds”, not by construction but by engagement. In this context, Siviri villagers actively create klaemet jenj worlds by engaging with their everyday world(s), which includes media as well as actual people who disseminate information about climate change based on scientific results. In connection with this, it is important for anthropologists doing research about climate change in different localities to take the warning of Rudiak-Gould seriously, not to be caught up in a “Western nature-culture dichotomy” and to impose a Western ontology onto the lives of the people concerned (Rudiak-Gould, 2016: 263). As Mondragón states (2018: 37), people in Vanuatu explain climatic variations within a context where a culture-nature dichotomy is absent.

  • 5 I do not imply here a uniformity of the meaning of the concept of climate change in these contexts.

39In this context, klaemet jenj is not just a combination of different knowledge about something (in this case, the climate), but something completely new which not only includes environmental aspects, but also encompasses the sociocultural life of Siviri villagers. Changes of everyday life in the village and social problems are connected with klaemet jenj, but there is also an assumption that klaemet jenj is now a part of nature, so there is no reason to be afraid and it is possible to adapt because humans also change together with klaemet jenj. Thus, I argue that it may be useful to view klaemet jenj as a reality or world which people create and practice by engaging with their environment(s). I understand this process of creation in the sense of “a growth based on improvisatory moves in a vast terrain of possibilities” (Hastrup, 2014: 144 referring to Ingold, 2010: 122). Creating klaemet jenj realities/worlds in Siviri involves, in my view, processes of assemblage of knowledge as sketched out above. However, these processes do not comprise the important ontological dimension as well as the aspect of innovation that this article has emphasized. In Siviri, klaemet jenj realities or worlds are created in specific contexts by specific actors, and thus the villagers’ concept of klaemet jenj should not be equated with “climate change” as it is used, for example, by scientists, politicians or staff of development organizations5. Differences between the concepts of climate change and klaemet jenj reflect ontologically different worlds in which sociality/culture and physicality/nature are not divided in the same way.

40In klaemet jenj realities or worlds created by people in Siviri, changes of human life and changes of the weather, the sea, and the land are connected. Because of these relations, it is clear that it is not possible for the weather or the sea and the land to change, without humans also changing. These changes must not be identified with the narrow concept of “adaptation”, but have to be regarded as all-encompassing lifeworlds of the people involved.

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1 This term is used by the inhabitants of Vanuatu to refer to themselves.

2 Bislama is a Pidgin language and one of the three national languages in Vanuatu. It is widespread in Vanuatu and is spoken by a high percentage of inhabitants. In order to emphasise that klaemet jenj for Siviri villagers is something significantly different than the concept of climate change based on natural science explained and used by scientists, media or staff of aid organisations, I will use the Bislama term in the text when I write about their assumptions. When I refer to climate change outside the local context I do not use the Bislama term.

3 I use this term here in the sense of Ingold (2000) as continuously created in practice through interactions among humans, more-than-humans, animals, and plants in contrast to culture as mental representations of the world.

4 When I quote my interlocutors in English, these are my translations of their statements in Bislama.

5 I do not imply here a uniformity of the meaning of the concept of climate change in these contexts.

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Arno Pascht, « Klaemet jenj worlds. Approaching climate change and knowledge creation in Vanuatu »Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 149 | 2019, 235-244.

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Arno Pascht, « Klaemet jenj worlds. Approaching climate change and knowledge creation in Vanuatu »Journal de la Société des Océanistes [En ligne], 149 | 2019, mis en ligne le 15 février 2022, consulté le 30 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Arno Pascht

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München,

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