Sione Tu’itahi is all too aware of the effects of climate change in the Pacific.
Hailing from Tonga where the effects of sea level rise and extensive coastal inundation are evident Mr Tu’itahi knows first-hand the toll environmental degradation can take on the lives of people.
“The Pacific region is where climate change is most pronounced,” says Mr Tu’itahi, who is the Executive Director of the Health Promotion Forum of New Zealand (HPF) and co-chair of a world health promotion conference in New Zealand next year where climate change will be a focal issue for discussion.
“Eroding and sinking islands, sea level-rise because of global warming, tsunamis, cyclones, and people having to migrate from their homelands because of these disasters. Clearly, the environment is one of the major determinants of our health and wellbeing,” says Mr Tu’itahi who is the first Pacific person to take the helm of HPF.
This is one of the reasons Mr Tu’itahi pushed so hard to successfully bring the 23rd IUHPE World Conference on Health Promotion to New Zealand.
Now with only months to go until the conference, which is co-hosted by HPF launches in Rotorua from April 7-11, 2019 Mr Tu’itahi is encouraging organisations and individuals in the Pacific and Pasifika peoples in NZ to attend this major global event.
He believes it is timely and propitious to have this conversation about climate change in our region so that health promoters, health workers, policy makers and other professionals whose work impacts on people’s health and wellbeing can come together to share experience and explore solutions.
The conference has as its over-arching theme “Waiora: Promoting Planetary Health and Sustainable Development for All,” and the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the framework.
It will be says Mr Tu’itahi a “rare opportunity for those whose work impacts directly on health and wellbeing, to share knowledge with colleagues from around the world, and to co-construct health-promoting pathways into the future”.
Mr Tu’itahi learned early on in Tonga that health and education are two important and related determinants of the wellbeing and prosperity of Pacific peoples.
His formative years were shaped through his family experience, especially from his grandparents and parents.
“They were humble folk from humble beginnings, but education, being prudent, hard work and serving others were central values and goals.
“Good education means not only you are enlightened, but you also have a decent income which enables you to afford a healthy life, and be in control of your future,” he says.
Mr Tu’itahi has certainly practised what he preaches with a career as distinguished as it is varied. He worked as a journalist in Tonga and the Pacific, before being retrained as a teacher. He taught at tertiary educational institutions in New Zealand before deciding to work in health.
“My mass communication, teaching, and strategic capacity-building experience were very handy when I was invited to set up a Pacific team at the Auckland Regional Public Health Service some 20 years ago. At the time I was starting to build the Pacific capacity of Massey University.
“I saw the invitation as an opportunity to do the same strategic work for Pacific peoples in the health sector as well. I was later seconded to build the Pacific capacity of HPF, which led to where I am today.”
Although Mr Tu’itahi started planning the conference in 2016, he has been involved with IUHPE for more than 10 years and was the first Indigenous person from the Pacific to be a member of the IUHPE Global Executive Board, and Vice President of IUHPE for the South West-Pacific region, a post he held for six years.
He admits it is a huge and challenging responsibility to lead HPF, a national non-governmental organisation with more than 100 members. HPF works with sister organisations such as the Public Health Association, the College of Public Health Medicine, universities and polytechs, and many Iwi-based organisations to advocate for health and wellbeing through health promotion.
“But it is a great opportunity and privilege to serve society, and to inspire, not just Pacific colleagues and fellow Indigenous co-workers from around the world, but also, and more importantly, to make a difference for the wellbeing of all at both national and global levels.
“Poor health means poor educational achievement. That vicious cycle will continue with succeeding generations, unless you change it through education. When you transform a generation through education, you have set up a new blueprint and pathway and have inculcated a new culture for the succeeding generations.
“And that virtuous cycle can continue for many generations to come. That is why I decided to broaden my professional experience from education into health promotion and public health.”
The indigenous focus of the conference is also something Mr Tu’itahi wants to highlight.
He is thrilled that for the first time Te Reo Maori will be one of the official languages, alongside English, Spanish and French, at a global conference. Indigenous speakers also feature prominently.
“New Zealand is a world leader in Indigenous knowledge and health promotion. Indigenous knowledge systems are now being acknowledged as contributors of solutions to world problems. We can share our experience with the rest of the world, and we can learn from their experience too.
“It might be a small step, but to have an indigenous language as one of the official languages of a world conference is a giant step for indigenous human rights. It is also a most empowering message to indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities in terms of championing their rights, their wellbeing, and preserving their knowledge systems through preserving their languages.”