CLIMATE RISKS | Santo Sunset: Local Network Addressing Climate Risks and Empowering Women and Youth Leaders

A disabled father being assisted by his wife to weed their | Photo Source: Santo Sunset Environment Network (SSEN)

In the heart of the remote and beautiful Western Santo region in Vanuatu lies a beacon of hope and resilience known as the Santo Sunset Environment Network (SSEN). Established with a vision to safeguard the environment, marine resources, and traditional practices from the relentless impacts of climate change, this community-driven initiative stands as a testament to local ownership and empowerment. Western Santo, like many other regions, faces the brunt of climate change impacts. Rising sea levels, more frequent tropical cyclones, landslides, and fires have been common occurrences, posing threats to the livelihoods and well-being of the local communities. SSEN recognized these challenges and made it their mission to address them.

The network employs a multi-faceted approach to combat the impacts of climate change and thrives on community collaboration and government partnerships. To combat the pressing issue of climate change adaptation, SSEN has pioneered efforts to enhance food security. They have introduced initiatives such as backyard gardening and the cultivation of traditional food crops, maintaining a delicate balance between traditional and modern farming practices. These endeavors ensure a consistent food supply year-round, especially crucial for a region often cut off from external markets.

“Our organization is dedicated to encouraging local communities to continue practicing traditional methods of food cultivation and preparation. We believe in striking a balance between traditional and modern crops. We promote local staples like yams, cassava, bananas, and taro to reduce dependency on imported food supplies. By doing so, we aim to foster resilience against the effects of climate change and reduce reliance on external food sources. These efforts represent a valuable step towards addressing the climate change adaptation needs of our community”, says Mr. Joses Togase, the SSEN Project Manager.

This network, founded in local ownership, is a community-driven endeavor, owned and operated solely by the people of Western Santo. Operating in a remote region with limited road access and connectivity challenges, the network has successfully introduced internet access in key villages across 42 communities. This step has improved communication and connectivity, even in this remote location.

The network has been focusing on rescuing indigenous knowledge and practices that can contribute to the construction of more resilient ecosystems and communities on these islands. SSEN has strengthened its work with a grant from the UNDP-Adaptation Fund Climate Innovation Accelerator (AFCIA), a programme that aims to foster and accelerate innovative technologies, practices, and business models for local adaptation through tapping into the incredible potential of NGOs, civil society, women and young innovators.

Women play a crucial role 

The network’s remarkable dedication to increasing women’s participation in community activities is a key facet of promoting gender equality and empowering women to assume pivotal roles within their communities. The project provides training and support for community members to establish sustainable local businesses, mitigating the challenge of limited access to external markets.

In the communities where the network operates, gender empowerment and equality play a major role. Women are actively involved in decision-making processes, and the network provides training and support for small businesses, enhancing their economic independence. The empowerment of women has fostered a more equitable distribution of power between genders in the community.

The network has also adopted a comprehensive approach to address loss and damage in the region. For example, landslides impact the community, leading to garden destruction and flooding. In response, the network conducts assessments and procures tools and materials. Women play a pivotal role in disaster response efforts, including rebuilding efforts in new locations and relief distribution. The network has also established women ranger groups to document and report environmental changes, enabling prompt responses and interventions. In the aftermath of cyclones, women rangers assess damage, collect data, and capture images. The information informs relief and recovery measures such as planting new crops and reinforcing infrastructure like sea walls.

“The network has also adopted a comprehensive approach to address loss and damage in the region”

“As we continue to come together and harness the collective wisdom of our community, we recognize that women play a crucial role in shaping our future. The empowerment of women has proven to be a catalyst for positive development, and we’ve seen tangible outcomes stemming from their active involvement in decision-making processes. This shift toward gender equality has become a driving force behind the progress and development we are experiencing,” says Mr. Allan Taman, Chairman of SSEN Executive Committee.

Involving youths 

Young people, who represent the largest segment of Western Santo’s population, also play a pivotal role in the network’s initiatives. They serve as rangers, monitor community conservation areas, and are actively involved in leadership roles within the Network’s executive team. Young people are also at the forefront of forming Community Disaster Climate Change Committees (CD triple Cs) in all 42 communities, highlighting their commitment to addressing climate change and disaster risk management.

SSEN Team conducting adaptation awareness with chiefs and community leaders | Photo Source: SSEN

Project challenges  

The journey has been riddled with challenges and addressing them has been vital. One significant challenge they encountered was related to communication. Communication barriers were addressed by partnering with local satellite communication providers. Another challenge is transportation, particularly for bulky items like building materials. The Network has made 80% progress by securing an additional boat and outboard motors to support team travels by sea to implement project activities among the 42 scattered communities in Western Santo, as well as making regular 8 hours boat trips to Luganville town, located at the southeast end of Santo Island, to procure and ship project supplies back to the region. Regular shipping services to Western Santo remain infrequent, causing occasional delays in procuring supplies.

“Regarding funding, we encounter challenges since we do not have our own revenue streams yet. However, we require technical support to develop project proposals effectively. Even though we maintain a positive partnership with the government, aligning our projects with government priorities can be challenging due to government resource constraints and their own business plans,” says Mr. Togase.

“However, through our efforts to build community capacity in climate change and conservation, we have enabled individuals to better prepare for cyclones. For instance, some community members now utilize satellite internet to communicate, order basic retail goods and supplies in town, and connect with children attending schools far from Western Santo. We provided small business training, teaching women from Western Santo how to produce local soap and coconut oil. This training has allowed them to generate income even during challenging times when access to external markets was limited. Our work extends to all 42 villages in Western Santo, fostering awareness, capacity building, and economic empowerment among community members”, says Ms. Donackly Bune, the Santo Sunset Women Network (SWEN) Project coordinator.

A more resilient and sustainable future 

Looking ahead, the Santo Sunset Environment Network envisions expanding its reach beyond Western and Central Santo. They believe that other communities can benefit from their knowledge and experience, acquired through partnerships and stakeholder collaborations. To achieve this vision, they are actively preparing to scale up their efforts. The organization has the capacity to share knowledge and best practices with other islands and communities. However, sustainable funding streams are vital to support this expansion and maintain operations.

In the remote and resilient Western Santo region, the Santo Sunset Environment Network stands as a shining example of community-driven climate change adaptation. Their commitment to local ownership, gender equality, and empowering young people paves the way for a more resilient and sustainable future, not only for Western Santo but for communities far beyond its boundaries.

About this story: 

This story has been co-created with the support from ICCCAD, UNDP, and Santo Sunset Environment Network (SSEN), in the framework of the UNDP managed – Adaptation Fund Climate Innovation Accelerator (AFCIA). The UNDP AFCIA programme counts with the financial contributions from the Adaptation Fund and the European Union, and has awarded 44 micro and small grants to locally-led organizations across 33 countries worldwide, accelerating their innovative solutions to build resilience in the most vulnerable communities.

UNDP-AFCIA, is one of the funding windows anchored under the Adaptation Innovation Marketplace (AIM), a multi-stakeholder strategic platform that promotes scaled-up adaptation at the local level, launched by UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner at the Climate Adaptation Summit in January 2021.

Authors: Farah Anzum is working as an independent consultant.