Madeleine Lavemai – Tongatapu, Tonga

A tale of small nations with significant impacts

Madeleine Lavemai, a 26-year-old Tongan woman, is among the group of Pacific Island students from The University of the South Pacific (USP) that started a global climate change movement that resulted in obtaining an advisory opinion from the world’s largest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

As the middle child of five, Madeleine never envisioned her deep commitment to safeguarding her island from rising sea levels and other climate crises, which would transform her into an influential figure in Tonga and among the Pacific’s climate warriors.

Growing up in Tonga, Madeleine’s childhood was filled with joy, love, and the inspiration of strong female figures in her family.

“My grandmother, a high school librarian, introduced me to a world of books and tales of adventure,” she recalls.

“As children, we’d often imagine our future roles and play them out. I always wanted to be a doctor and would pretend to be one for fun.”

“Often, as a child, we’d create scenarios in our heads of how we see ourselves in the future and act out those roles. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, so I’d act the part, and we just had fun with it.”

Inspired by those in her family, she enjoyed her early education journey at a local primary school, where she formed new friendships that are part of her network today.

“Primary school was very competitive as we were always eager to see who scored the highest marks in different subjects. This healthy competition pushed me to do better and excel in my early education.”

It wasn’t until she joined high school that she pivoted from her dream of becoming a doctor “because I wasn’t very good in science subjects” and chose accounting, economics, history and Japanese as her subject speciality.

“I developed a keen interest in history because it shapes the present we’re living in and helps us make informed decisions moving forward.”

“I spent much time with my grandfather from childhood to high school. He was a history teacher and often talked to me about history; it greatly influenced my subject choices.”

Nearing the end of her high school journey, Madeleine knew she wanted to pursue higher education at USP and follow in the footsteps of her older sister, father and maternal grandfather, who all attended the region’s premier institution.

“My father, may he rest in peace, has always pushed me to do better in life. He did his Bachelor of Commerce and Master of Business Administration at USP and often told me about his unique university experience.”

“My decision to choose USP was reinforced after my older sister joined the institution. She’d come home and share stories about the different learning modes and how it is an institution that brings Pacific Islanders of varying backgrounds together.”

In 2016, Madeleine joined USP to pursue her Bachelor of Law, a choice sparked by her interest in politics, leadership, government system and current affairs.

“I started with USP at the Tonga Campus, and most of my learning happened online. The units I registered for weren’t available for face-to-face classes at our campus.”

“The online learning mode was entirely new to me as I was only used to teachers showing up to class for their subjects in high school. I loved online learning because it pushed me to learn independently and think outside the box.”

Later in the same year, she secured a full scholarship to pursue her studies at the Emalus Campus in Vanuatu beginning in 2017.

“Moving from home to Vanuatu was a whole new experience for me. I have never been away from home for longer periods, let alone being in a different country altogether.”

Learning from the experiences of her older sister, father and grandfather, who all studied at USP, she decided to make new friends and explore the diversity of the regional institution.

“The friendships forged at the Emalus Campus are something I will cherish for the rest of my life. Sometimes, I missed home so much and felt homesick, but my friends would instantly lift my mood simply by doing what Pacific Islanders do: we talanoa, joke and have a good time, and we studied hard too.”

“Throughout my four years of studies, I witnessed what my grandfather, father and older sister had always discussed. Pacific Islanders are indeed a close-knit community, and I am grateful that USP recognised this and continue to promote and embrace our cultural diversity.”

During her study at Emalus Campus, Madeleine and her classmate’s law class took an exciting turn when they considered the application of environmental law on the emerging climate crisis in the Pacific as a basis to lobby and advocate for climate justice.

“We’ve heard about the climate crisis, and we wondered if environmental law can be applied to it as an attempt for the Pacific to amplify its voice in the fight against climate change. That’s how the whole movement started.”

Following this, Solomon Yeo, a Solomon Island law student in Madeleine’s class, founded the Pacific Islands Students Fighting Climate Change organisation alongside Madeleine and his classmates.

“We were passionate about taking our movement and lobbying for climate justice.”

In 2019, Madeleine and the PISFCC team travelled to New York in the United States to participate in the United Nation’s Climate Summit, a convergence point of global leaders, climate activists, non-governmental organisations and those passionate about advocating climate justice.

“Standing in the room full of people from various backgrounds, some you’ve only read about, others you see on Television, amongst leaders from around the world, we were determined to make our presence felt and our voice heard.”

“We presented our case, and the UN General Assembly adopted it before it was taken further to the International Court of Justice.”

After the UN Climate Summit, the PISFCC team returned home. Madeleine continued working at the Attorney General’s Office in Tonga as the crown counsel, a job she entered after completing her studies in 2019 while waiting for the ICJ’s decision.

“I was in Tonga when I received news that the ICJ had given an advisory opinion, the first of its kind regarding climate justice. I remember feeling overwhelmed and emotional because the years of hard work and countless discussions and meetings have finally paid off.”

“The movement has been ongoing since 2019. It was a proud moment for us all, especially because we were all regional students. The fact that students from the regional institute in the Pacific are the first to get this advisory opinion puts the whole region on the global map; it brings exposure and recognition of small island countries bound together as a large ocean state and solidifies our aspirations for climate justice.”

Though not legally binding, the ICJ advisory opinion can be used as a catalyst for climate justice, further amplifying the Pacific’s voice and a tool to accelerate needful action per the Paris Agreement to maintain global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

“It gathered so much support from civil society organisations, governments, researchers and scholars in the Pacific and worldwide. It demonstrates the potential of young people and their wealth of knowledge. They can bring about real and meaningful change if given a chance.”

The ICJ advisory opinion holds a much deeper meaning for Madeleine as it reminds her of her father’s continuous support throughout her life and a proud moment for him, having watched her daughter on television as she made waves in New York.

“When I got home after the UN Climate Summit, my father called me and said that he had recorded my interview that he watched on television, beaming with pride. I can only imagine how he would’ve reacted when the news of the ICJ advisory opinion came out. I’m sure he would’ve posted about it on social media and told everyone about it.”

The support of her father and grandfather left an indelible mark on Madeleine, one she has learned to cherish every day despite their passing.

“My father was one of my strongest supporters. He checked on me every day while I was away to make Tonga’s submission to ICJ.”

Reflecting on this successful endeavour, Madeleine emphasised the need for climate discussions to be encouraged in school to create awareness.

“You don’t often talk much about climate change or delve deeper into its various aspects in school. We wish relevant ministries in the Pacific should consider this as part of a holistic approach in our work towards climate justice.”

Now that the PISFCC have gotten the ICJ advisory opinion, the real work begins to push for high-carbon-emitting countries to be accountable for their actions, the implications of island nations, and the protection of resources like the Blue Pacific Continent.

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