Imagine awakening just before dawn to the sounds of roosters crowing and waves breaking on the shore just outside your cottage. Coffee mug in hand, you stroll out your front door onto a pristine, sandy beach to watch a magnificent South Pacific sunrise.
A dream vacation? Not exactly. For Emily Onufer, '17, such was the start of a typical day this past summer when she interned with the environmental nongovernment organization Te Ipukarea Society (TIS) on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.
A Bonner Scholar majoring in environmental studies and minoring in anthropology, Onufer used funding from her Bonner summer of service and a Burhans Civic Fellowship to pursue an internship that connected with her fields of study.
Onufer became interested in nature and the environment at a young age. Her mother, an environmental educator, brought exotic pets to the family home in Washingtonville, N.Y.
“At one point we had 28 pets, including leopard geckos, an iguana that walked on a leash, a California king snake, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, a Pueblan milk snake, and a blue-tongued skink,” Onufer said. “I was not a popular sleep-over house.
“I came to college sure I wanted to be an environmental lawyer. My biggest interest is in international climate-change agreements and the effects of global decision-making on the planet’s environment.”
Through her coursework, Onufer started making connections between environmental and social-justice issues related to indigenous peoples. In particular, the School of Professional and Continuing Studies course Global Impact of Climate Change, taught by Dr. David Kitchen in fall 2014, piqued Onufer’s curiosity about the intersection of these issues.
“It was super interesting to have 20-year-olds in class with 65-year-olds discussing climate change,” Onufer said. “That class got me interested in groups of people who have very little impact on global climate change themselves but will potentially lose their lifestyles and homes because of climate change.”
Inspired, Onufer embarked on a far-ranging search for an internship that would give her first-hand experience working with indigenous people on climate change. She found the TIS internship in the Cook Islands, where she could research environmental issues in the context of the Maori, the islands’ indigenous Polynesian people who comprise roughly 90 percent of the nation’s approximately 13,000 people.
“Rarotonga, a relatively low-lying island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, will become one of the first islands severely affected by sea-level rise as a result of global climate change,” Onufer said.
Onufer worries what the Maori will do when rising seas make the Cook Islands uninhabitable. “For the Maori, moving is not thought of,” she said. “The land is their home.”
Although rising sea levels related to climate change is a hot topic among environmental donors and at many international conferences, it is not the most pressing environmental issue for Cook Islanders, Onufer said.
Onufer recalled a school principal asking how farm run-off and trash were affecting pollution levels in Rarotonga’s lagoon. Later the same day, she witnessed a young child playing in a pile of ashes from burned trash. “I wondered how many chemicals he was exposed to,” Onufer said.
Back on campus, Onufer continues to explore the effects of the environment on people’s lives. She’s been conducting interviews for a forthcoming environmental exhibition at UR Downtown, a collaboration with the Southern Environmental Law Center. Set to open in September, the exhibition will envision the future of transportation and the environment in Greater Richmond communities.
Last semester Onufer wrote a paper about the legal status of climate-change refugees for International Environmental Law, a course taught by law professor Noah Sachs and cross-listed for both undergraduates and law students. “There are no protections for refugees who have to leave their homes for climate change,” Onufer said.
“I want to make environmental policy accessible to people who feel they don’t have the background knowledge or expertise to get involved on their own.”
Photo: Emily Onufer, '17, walks out on Rarotonga's coral reef at low tide to search for trochus snails to tag for the Te Ipukarea Society biodiversity program.