Our kids can’t play in the front yard – Regenerative stories from the frontline of climate change  

Aunty Rose Elu standing by the Cop27 sign in Egypt - Regenerative Story

McRose Elu is one of those unstoppable aunties. A veteran climate change campaigner, social rights advocate, and 2021 Queensland Senior of the Year, she can’t imagine ever putting her feet up. “There’s so much to do,” says the 70-something-year-old.

Last week I had the privilege of meeting Aunty Rose – as she’s known – on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. This archipelago of around 270 islands are located off the northern tip of the continent. They are the frontline of Australia’s climate emergency. 

I don’t use that expression “climate emergency” lightly. It’s a phrase, if you hear it too much, becomes irrelevant. But when you’ve got saltwater lapping over your roads and your kids can no longer play in the front yard due to storm surges…. This is a real emergency.

Aunty Rose has experienced this first hand. 

When sea walls cannot stop the storm surges

Saibai Island in the Torres Strait facing inundation from rising sea levels.
Saibai Island in the Torres Strait Islands. Image © Brad Marsellos. Used with permission. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
The sea wall at Saibai Island in the Torres Strait no longer holding back rising sea levels.
Saibai Island in the Torres Strait Islands. Image © Brad Marsellos. Used with permission. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

‘I’m from one of the outer low-lying islands of Saibai. Even back in the 1940s the salt water was coming. My father decided to move us all to the mainland. We grew up on Seisia – land given to my father and his brothers by the Aboriginal people of the Cape.”

Out of the seventeen inhabited islands of the Torres Strait, seven are becoming inundated as sea levels rise a shocking 6-8 mm per year. Soon, these seven islands will become uninhabitable.  

We often feel forgotten and alone,” Aunty Rose continues. “Australia feels so far away and the politics of Canberra and climate change feel so out of touch. The government thinks that just building a new sea wall will fix the problem. But I’ve told politicians — including Scott Morrison [the former Prime Minister of Australia] that’s not enough. People who think that climate change is not an issue need to see and understand what is happening to us.” 

“We can’t grow veggies anymore. Too salty. We are losing our grave sites and the places of our ancestors.” She places her palm flat on her chest, her voice low and wistful. “But I still love that place, bub. That’s our home.”

Thursday Island - Connecting to country

Colourful welcome when the ferry arrives from Horn Island at the wharf on Thursday Island (TI).
Colourful welcome when the ferry arrives from Horn Island at the wharf on Thursday Island (TI).
Monsoon storm clouds gathering on TI.
Monsoon storm clouds gathering on TI.

On the first morning of my short trip to Thursday Island (TI), the administrative centre of the archipelago, we are given a tour of the island by a local, Uncle Frank Cook, in his mini-bus. 

The first thing he says, “Where your placenta is, that’s where you are from. And I’m from this beautiful island of TI.”  

Among First Nations peoples, the sense of belonging and of connection to country is so palpable, you can feel it.  For Aunty Rose, this is what gives her strength and the will to keep campaigning.

In regenerative thinking, we often talk about “the story of place”. 

This is where we start when designing a project. Each place is different, so we need to design any project according to the unique attributes of the place it is situated in. We sometimes talk about “place-sourced potential”. This is a fancy way of saying… what are the unique attributes of this place, this island and the community who lives there? What is the potential of this place to change, to heal, to regenerate?

By designing from the ground up, we have a better chance of finding solutions because we aren’t aiming for a one-size-fits-all. Instead, we are aiming for harmony with the locality around us.

Aunty Rose: meditation as her motivator

Aunty McRose Elu with Annastacia Palaszczuk and Dr Jeannette Young being presented the 2021 Senior Award of the Year.
(l to r) Annastacia Palaszczuk, Premier of Queensland, Aunty McRose Elu - veteran climate campaigner, Dr Jeannette Young, Governor of Queensland
Aunty McRose Elu in Hawaii for the Social Anthropology in Oceania Symposium.
Aunty McRose Elu in Hawaii attending a Social Anthropology in Oceania Symposium.

When Aunty Rose was presented with her Queensland Senior of the Year award, the Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said, “Since 1980 Aunty McRose Elu has been drawing attention to the impact of climate change in the Torres Strait, speaking at the United Nations and to business and political leaders.”

That’s forty years of campaigning. A long time for anyone. 

Last year Aunty Rose travelled to Egypt to attend COP 27 (see photo at the top of the post). She’s just returned from delivering a paper on Food Sovereignty at the Social Anthropology in Oceania Symposium in Hawaii. Yet, she has such strong energy, warmth and – despite the knock backs – optimism. Her faith supports her (she’s a committed Anglican). Her daily 4:00 am meditation practice strengthens her.

“I always meditate at that time,” she says. “It is dark and peaceful.” Her hands turn over in front of her, as if she is running them through water. “Meditation renews my energy. It has always been a great help to me.”

Speaking to Aunty Rose reminded me, too, of another regenerative principle: to grow our inner capacity to face the challenges of our external environment. This is where you find balance and harmony. 

The spiritual is as important as the physical… and she’s testament to that. 

3 things you can do

  1. Especially, if you live in Australia and don’t know much about the Torres Strait, make a point of learning more about this rich and varied culture. 
  2. This map here gives you its location, or click here to find out more.
  3. Take a moment today to connect to your country. Walk barefoot, touch the earth, really notice where you are. 
A digital map of the north cape of Australia and the Torres Strait.
Map of the north cape of Australia and the Torres Strait. © Torres Strait Island Regional Council 2016.

Hi, I’m Claire. Through my business Wordstruck we help companies bring their sustainability strategy to life. As the Founder of Regenerative Storytelling, we’re helping leaders do more for their people, their community and the planet. I publish regular content about storytelling, regenerative leadership and reframing how to address our rapidly heating world. To see more of my content, please sign up – and join the conversation by sharing a comment below.