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Indonesia and Fiji teams connect at Planetary Health Annual Meeting

The 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting was held at Stanford University this month, and brought together leading researchers and policymakers from more than 150 organisations from over 35 countries. The three-day conference discussed ideas from the mental health impacts of climate change, to strategies for helping people fight futility and come together to catalyse change.

RISE Indonesia Assessment Team Leader Ruzka Taruc and Fiji National University Focal Point for RISE Dr Amelia Turagabeci shared some of their highlights.

This year’s event sought to inspire and equip the next generation of scholars and practitioners to take on planetary health challenges. So, Ruzka… were you inspired?

Yes! There were researchers, medical doctors, nurses, lawyers, activists, and they all came from different countries – some from Indonesia, like me. It was really inspiring that everyone in the room is working towards a better future for planetary health.

The agenda looked packed with plenary sessions, workshops and break-out sessions. Did you get to do any presentations of your own?

In a way…! I presented a poster with RISE’s sampling approach, some of our baseline assessment findings, and the water-sensitive intervention. People came up to the poster and asked a lot of questions and they seemed very interested in what we are doing. And not only in the poster session – every time I started a conversation with anyone I would eventually talk about RISE!

For this trip, you were involved in the Speaker Ambassador Program, can you tell us a bit about that?

I was. The Speaker Ambassador Program provided me with a platform to engage and interact with speakers at the  event. I actually had the chance to meet  Dr Chris Golden, who is Assistant Professor of Nutrition and Planetary Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His latest project is fascinating – developing a model for marine management approaches in optimising fisheries and human health. Indonesia is one of the countries that is part of the project, so it was really a great opportunity to get his perspectives on conducting interdisciplinary research projects. Most of his previous work has been at the intersection of ecological and public health.

Actually, speaking of meeting people, I have to say it was great to have the chance to see my fellow RISE team members from Fiji in the flesh at the conference! We often only get to see each other via video conference, so this was a great chance to catch up in person about what is going on in Indonesia and Fiji.

Amelia – it’s been an emotional and galvanising time recently with climate strikes all over the world. How did it feel to be at this planetary health meeting representing Fiji, a country facing some of the harshest consequences of climate change?

Yes, representing Fiji at this global event brought mixed emotions, as I was the only islander there. The world knows Pacific island nations are sinking, but there was very little representation at the event to voice that. Information is not being considered at the political levels – at leadership levels – to acknowledge that change is happening, and unless we acknowledge it, island nations like mine will continue to sink. No amount of championing climate change globally will prevent us from sinking – we will need to change our behaviour, continue bringing environmental awareness, balance our activities to allow nature to heal and build floaters should that day come – God forbid – so that we can survive. We are from the blue continent, we need to save our ancestral land and save our people. I speak for my ancestral kinship – for the Polynesians, the Melanesians, the Micronesians, these are my people – and I hope there will be more of us at the next meeting.

My dream is that in the next Planetary Health Annual Meeting, there will be innovative ideas to help keep us afloat, keep our ancestral lands, balance in the Anthropocene so we are safe.

When you found yourself representing the Pacific, what were people interested in talking to you about?

Some attendees were very interested in Fiji National University (FNU) as a Pacific island university. We are a young university (we opened our doors in 2010), and we have a special program that brings all five of our colleges together: the Interdisciplinary Program on Climate Change.

We train locally and regionally as well, and almost all of our  postgraduate at the School of Public Health are offered online. If people are thinking about studying at FNU I’d encourage them to check out the website!

How were you inspired at Stanford?

Well, my health and wellbeing was definitely inspired. Walking around the beautiful campus was wonderful. Just walking from my dormitory to the venue on the first day, I clocked almost 5,000 steps. So, you can imagine over the three days that I definitely got my steps up. I told our RISE team that now I understand why Professor Steven Luby (RISE Human Head Leader) is so fit – it’s not the sports at Stanford, it’s the walking around the humungous campus.

The food was definitely planetary food too – we were vegans for the week!

Ruzka Taruc with her RISE poster at the Planetary Health Annual Meeting.

Dr Amelia Turagabeci from Fiji National University's School of
Public Health and Primary Care.