Some Pacific Island communities are already moving themselves beyond rising tides, but there’s nothing simple about how, why or when they’re doing it.
FOR the last ten years, Ursula Rakova has been trying to move her small community to higher ground.
Rakova grew up on the Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea. “It’s beautiful – like white, sandy beaches,” she says. “The sea is very clear. I mean, if you wanted a holiday, that is a place you will want to go – except that, if you intend to go for two weeks, you should bring extra food to cater for a month, in case the storms decide to come.”
The atoll is in the South Pacific, three hours by boat “on a really calm day” from Buka, the northernmost island of Bougainville.
A decade ago, at the request of her elders, Rakova founded an organisation called Tulele Peisa – which means “sailing the waters on our own” – to guide her people’s relocation. She toured Australia in April this year, to muster support and funds for the move, and to advocate for climate change mitigation. One evening at the University of Melbourne, she told a small audience: “We can no longer tell when the strong winds are coming. The climate is changing and changing fast.”
Progress, however, has been slow. Rakova says the Carteret Island population numbers 2700. The Catholic Church donated four parcels of land in Bougainville. So far, only ten families, just over 100 people, have moved to one of those plots, at Tinputz.
Rakova prizes the carefulness and thoroughness of the transition process, but the delays are a source of anguish. “As I’m talking to you, the schools on the island are closed,” she tells me. “Why are they closed? The children cannot get enough food to get them to concentrate in class.”
“The Carterets will not be underwater soon, but growing food is becoming very very difficult. Sustaining lives on the island is the biggest question and it’s urgent,” she says. “I thought the government in Bougainville would have declared a state of emergency on the Carterets many years back.”
The Carteret Islanders’ new settlement at Tinputz is just one example among many Pacific Island communities in flux – from tiny villages though to whole cities, from mere metres to thousands of nautical miles, on someone else’s land or their own. In the media, Pacific islands are rapidly populating with apocryphal climate change “firsts”: the first islands to disappear, the first “climate refugees”, the first village to relocate, the first city to move, the first nation to disappear.
But as Rakova knows too well, what’s happening isn’t straightforward. It’s a complex phenomenon, one that encompasses lived-experience and science, perception and propaganda, concepts of justice and questions of land. So why are people planning to relocate in the Pacific? Is it something new? Who’s talking about it, and what are they saying?
This article was published in Nature Climate Change, September 2016