Carterets to be Evacuated due to Rising Sea Level
I recently visited the Carteret Islands, 100 km north east of Bougainville, having heard that they were suffering badly from rising seas caused by global warming. All 6 of the islands in the group are being badly damaged and the islands look like making history as the first atoll to be abandoned due to rising seas. Food crops have been destroyed, houses have been washed away and malaria is now the most common cause of children dying.
Until World War Two the Carterets were seven islands. They were reduced to 6 after one was obliterated in a bombing raid. Now there are 7 again, as one of them – Huene – has been bisected by rising seas.
“When I was a small boy this island was big,” explains Jacob Tsomi, chief of the Dog Clan, whose land includes Huene.
“As I grew older the Island was getting smaller, and as you can see now the island is broken and is now in two pieces.
“The sea is eating the island away, and you can see how the beach is littered with fallen coconut palms. The sea has eaten the land out from under them and the land is getting smaller.”
There is evidence of this on all the islands. The fallen trees are most common on shores that face northeast, from where the current flows. Sometimes they fall in tangled knots of three, four and five trees together. It’s easy to believe Jacob when he says, “The sea rise is causing a lot of inconvenience on the island. The island’s getting smaller, and very soon it’s completely going to go. In 30 years time these islands may not be here.”
They don’t drive cars, the people of the Carterets. Even if they could afford them there wouldn’t be much point. With the possible exception of Han, all the islands can all be crossed in the time it takes to make a cup of tea. Transport between the islands is almost exclusively by dugout canoes, made from wood that has drifted over from the Bougainville mainland.
There is no electricity on the islands, except for the generator that fires up the DVD player a couple of times a week to show Hong Kong action films. And there is very little in the way of consumer goods. There are no shops of any sort on the atoll.
Other than cooking pots and utensils, second hand clothes and the occasional cassette player, there is little to associate The Carterets with modernity.
It would be a sad irony if these people, whose carbon footprint must be as low as any in the world, were to be the first to abandon their islands because of rising seas attributable to global warming.
“People are able to survive for now on fish and coconut,” says Minister Taehu Keali Pais from the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG). “We have been assisting them with the supply of store food, like rice, but that is their total diet at the moment because the food gardens have been destroyed.”
The rice is delivered twice a year, although the shipments provide very little relief. Most people claim the rice runs out after only two weeks, then its back to fish and coconuts. And it’s not just the Carterets. The Mortlock and Tasman Islands are affected also, and are being supplied with emergency relief. On all these islands, relocation is on the agenda.
No one knows exactly how many people live on the Carterets. Estimates vary between 1500 and 2500. It’s the most populous of the four atolls that are in the territory of Bougainville. It’s a lot of people on a small amount of land.
Even without the loss of land to the sea, the population has become larger than the islands can comfortably support. There was an attempt to relocate some people to Bougainville in the 1980’s, but the venture failed when civil war engulfed the province, and everyone moved back.
Had this relocation been successful, the problem now would not be so urgent. There was already some erosion of the islands observed by the 1980’s, but no one expected the situation to escalate so rapidly.
“I’m looking at a time sooner rather than later,” Minister Pais says, referring to the planned relocations.
“The situation now is getting worse than people thought it would be. I’d like to see some families relocated by January. This will help us to minimize what it is costing us,” he said, referring to the emergency relief.
It is difficult to get to the atoll. The boat in which I made the trip, a 3 m long open ‘banana boat’, was constantly bailed as waves and rain flung themselves at us for most of the five hour trip. The boat’s driver ordered bags of bananas and sweet potatoes dumped overboard to lighten the load.
120 km northeast of mainland Bougainville, the Carterets are six small islands around an atoll about 25 km across. They are about 1m above high tide and made of sand. The islands appear to have built up behind slightly higher outcrops of limestone that sit on their northeast shores, the direction from which the current flows.
All six islands have been damaged. Iagain (pron. young-ine) is possibly the worst. The entire island has been completely inundated to a depth of about half a metre every second year, with lesser floods at other times. There are no crops grown at all here anymore, but there is plenty of brackish water that settles in permanent swamps. These produce thick swarms of Malaria carrying mosquitoes. Large chunks of coral, washed in by the sea, can be found some distance from the shore. Fresh water is collected from rain, since the wells have become saline. When the rain-water is exhausted the only drinkable liquid is from coconuts.
Several times I saw men lying sleepy and inert outside houses in the village on Iagain. At first I thought they were drunk, until someone explained that it was malaria. It was once a seasonal affliction, but since the swamps became permanent, so do the mosquitoes.
One man I saw collapsed against the wall of his hut was listening to a cassette player. The song that played as I passed proclaimed, “we’re finding it hard to believe we’re in heaven.” Spontaneous and ironic, the song underlined the tragedy these islands have become; dying islands, once close to what your average tourist brochure might call paradise.
I saw a ‘singsing’ on an island that still fits that description. Iolassa (pron. yollassa) has had only only one seawater incursion. Fruiting banana trees filled the space between towering coconut palms and thick, tropical under-story. It was a place of intense beauty.
The singsing was a performance of traditional and contemporary music and dances performed nowhere else in the world. There is a risk, as people are relocated, that this culture will disappear. Although crops were still healthy on Iolassa, the inhabitants, like elsewhere, accepted the inevitability of relocation.
But there were a number of people who were opposed to relocation. Bernard Galie who lives on Piul (rhymes with fuel) was one of them. Bernard was a minister in the political party associated with the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA).
When we spoke, his anger was palpable. Visitors to the Carterets are rare. To the best of my knowledge no journalists have visited for several years. Galie was grateful that I had taken the trouble, but with my white skin and shoes, I felt like a symbol of what was to blame for the tragedy unfolding here.
“We are frustrated, and we are angry at the same time. We are victims of something that we are not responsible for. We believe that these islands are ours, and that our future generations should not go away from these islands.”
“I think it’s about time these industrialized countries realized that these island countries in the Pacific are taking the toll. We are bearing the brunt of all these gas emissions. Millions and millions of dollars are spent on wars all over the world. Can they save people like ourselves?”
He does not believe the people of the Carterets should be expected to move. He believes we should compensate them for the damage done, and he doubts that a relocation would succeed.
“People are quite hesitant at the moment,” he explains, “not because they don’t want to go, but because they fear a law and order problem that is still existing on the mainland of Bougainville. Some BRA have not given up their arms to the rightful authorities. There are people with arms who are highly traumatized and who don’t respect law an order. My people are scared stiff.”
This lawlessness is something Urslula Rakova, my guide and translator, is dealing with even as she shows me around the Carterets. Ursula was born on the atoll but now runs a small NGO - Osi Tanata, in Arawa, on mainland Bougainville. The day before I arrived her organization’s car was stolen, the second in 4 years. Former combatants got their hands on it and demanded a ransom of K40,000 (AU$20,000) for its return.
But they drove it into a police roadblock, and the car was returned without payment of the ransom. Their response to this ‘injustice’ was the destruction of part of Osi Tanata’s office by arson. Lawlessness is a way of life for many in southern Bougainville. The north of the Island seems relatively safe and prosperous, but the south has a fearful reputation. Bernard Galie believes that lawlessness could again engulf the island.
Jacob Darakau, an old man from Wakunai, also fears violence could erupt again. Wakunai is the government’s preferred site for relocation of the islanders.
“There is fear about new people coming onto our land. So before any new people move in it will be have to be discussed and decided upon by landowners. Due to the tensions that were created during the crisis, there could still be some physical abuse. The situation is still at a stage where anything could happen.”
Wakunai, halfway down the east coast of mainland Bougainville, produces copra and cocoa. It was once the site of the largest plantation in the southern hemisphere. “White people came in and got the land in exchange for axes, knives and bits of clothing,” says Terese Willey, one of the traditional landowners.
The plantation was abandoned during the civil war. Her people have now reoccupied it and are claiming ownership. They are in negotiations with the ABG to have their ownership legally recognized.
Terese said there was “a certain amount of support” for moving people from the Carterets onto their land but that is was still “too early to talk about resettlement.”
One thing she was clear about was that “the landowners do not want to sell the land, but there should be an arrangement that whoever comes in to work the land does so under the arrangement of the land-owners… There are large amounts of copra and cocoa being produced now, but if settlers were to come in we could increase the productivity.”
“Previous experience has shown us that the land owners always claim that the settlers have not paid for the land and it’s not legally theirs,” says Bernard Galie. “That has caused a lot of conflict and a lot of fighting and violence. When people still have guns, you can guess what might come.”
Minister Taehu Keali Pais is aware of these problems, and is working to find a solution that will not only find new homes for the islanders, but create a precedent for the thousands of people who will follow the first 10 or so families that he hopes to move in January.
The 1951 International Convention on Refugees does not include people displaced by a changed climate, such as rising seas, expanding deserts and shrinking ice.
Senator Christine Milne of the Australian Greens would like this to change. In November she moved a motion that the federal government should use its influence in the United Nations to amend the convention it include a definition of Environmental Refugees so that people displaced by global warming can be recognized as refugees. Both major parties voted against.
Without this recognition she believes that the ad-hoc relocation of displaced people will lead to the loss of cultural identities and could also threaten regional stability.
“Unless people can be relocated as a group we run the risk of people losing their languages and becoming socially, culturally and economically isolated. If the convention can be expanded to recognize climate refugees, then resettlement can be done in a way that keeps language and culture together.”
Bougainville is very much like other parts of PNG, of which it is still officially a part until an independence vote determines its long term future in 2013. People live as they have done for centuries, on ancestral lands that are passed down through generations. In Bougainville the land is owned by women and passed to their daughters.
Tribal laws and customs have traditionally dominated all areas of life. In places where tribal structures have been weakened, such as in the expanding urban areas or when tribal groups feel their rights have been infringed, the relative stability of traditional ways can be undermined.
The reaction of landowners in central Bougainville to the Panguna Copper mine and the civil war that followed is one example. Landowners were incensed at the environmental damage being done to their land and began an armed resistance. An island-wide civil war followed which shut down the mine and most other income-generating activities on the island.
Ursula Rakova, in a report delivered to Minister Pais, has recognized several factors that could bring failure to the relocation efforts, including language differences and clashes in cultural practice, such as performance of traditional ceremonies. Inadequate infrastructure, housing, farming equipment and training to help people adapt to a different way of life could also threaten the viability of the relocation.
She believes that the problems can be overcome, however they will require ongoing attention and in-depth negotiations. With the government’s plan to fast track the relocation, she is now concerned that the details of her plan will not receive the attention they require.
The Australian Government has been actively assisting Pacific nations affected by global warming. In addition to monitoring efforts, $23 million has been spent over the last 14 years assisting nations to adapt. These include $2 million towards the World Bank's Kiribati Adaptation Project, $1 million to assist Tuvalu with water security measures and $4 million for a new project directed at adaptation in the face of sea level rise.
According to Senator Milne, “It’s a miniscule part of Ausaid’s budget. Loss of food and water will lead to insecurity in affected communities. It is not only in the interest of island communities but also in our own interest to maintain stability in this region by providing greater funding to help people find secure food and water resources. We need to do more than just send in the military when things go wrong.”
“Australia has refused to take real responsibility in the Pacific region. You can see this in the direction that the International Whaling Commission has taken in recent years. Australia has lost any influence. We send in troops and police when there is civil disorder, but we have abandoned any claim to leadership in this region by ignoring the needs of island communities.”
Cam Walker of Friends of the Earth claims that the problem of climate refugees is already a escalating global problem. “The International Red Cross estimates there may be around 25 million environmental refugees at present (people displaced from their homes for a variety of environmental causes). It is impossible to say exactly how many of these are climate refugees; that is, people directly displaced by global warming, although the figure seems to be at least several million.How many people will become refugees depends on how much action is taken to stop global warming.”
Climate scientist Graeme Pearman says a 2 degree rise in temperature could create 100 million refuges by the end of the century. Norman Meyers of Oxford University thinks there could be 150 to 200 million refugees. The Canadian environment Minister, David Anderson has warned that if climate goes unchecked there could be 500 million refugees created in one human lifetime.
Cam Walker would like to see Australia recognize these displaced people as refugees but adds, “any intake of climate refugees into Australia should not be at the expense of existing programs.”
But Bernard Galie of Piul doesn’t want to be a refugee at all. He wants industrialized countries like Australia to compensate the islanders by building them a sea wall to hold back the rising waters. And not just on the Carterets, but on all affected Pacific Islands. Tuvalu, Kirabati, Fiji, Vanuatu and the Cook Islands are among those who are contemplating or pursuing relocations and evacuations.
“We believe that industrialized countries can still help us, countries like America, England, Australia and New Zealand. If these people can spend millions and millions on sending troops to fight other countries why can’t they spend a couple of billion to save people like ourselves?”
Cam Walker agrees. “If we are to respond ethically to the shared problem of global warming, Australia, like other industrialized nations will need to find ways of ‘paying our debt’. There are many elements of this, including clean technology transfer, increased foreign aid to help with adaptation, and through direct financial support providing compensation. It makes sense for these funds to be channeled through a global fund.”
While doubts continue about the cause or even the reality of global warming, it is difficult to imagine such a fund being established soon. Which is possibly why Friends of the Earth Netherlands are looking at other ways to hold the polluters accountable. They are currently considering mounting a class action for damages against the Dutch Government, on behalf of people like the Carteret Islanders.
Damien Ase of CELCOR in Papua New Guinea is working with Friends of the Earth to see if they can build a case. “We need to prove that the problem on the island is actually caused by climate change if we are to succeed in court.”
Dr John Church of the CSIRO is one of the people that the Friends of the Earth might look too for such evidence. John has just completed a study of ocean levels in the Pacific, titled “Sea Level Rise at tropical Pacific and Indian Ocean Islands”
In response to a specific question about the Carteret Islands John said recently “Sea level rise, which we believe is primarily caused by [human induced] global warming, is a significant factor now (it is probably the reason that 70% of the world’s sandy shorelines are retreating while only 10% are moving seawards) and will be increasingly important in the future. The global average sea level rise for this century will be around 0.5m, while we are talking in terms of many meters of sea level rise for the next century.”
He does not think that sea level rise alone can account for the damage being observed on the Carterets or on other pacific islands. Other possible changes that global warming could be bringing to the Carterets, “are higher waves due to stormier conditions, reduced rainfall and increased erosion due to some other factors,” Dr church said.
The observations of the Islanders fit this scenario very well. “You can even ask the old people. They have never seen such strong currents, not even in their younger days” says Bernard Galie. Jacob Tsomi agrees, adding that it is not the just the speed of the current that has changed, but also it’s direction and the seasons themselves. “When I was small I can only remember a few times when we had strong winds,” John Salik of Han Island recalls, “but now there are heavy rains and strong winds every 2 or 3 months. And that’s what makes the sea go up and spoil things on the Island.”
The Carteret Islands may be about to make history as the first pacific atoll to made uninhabitable by global warming. If predictions that the sea will rise by ‘half a meter or more’ by the end of this century alone come true then climate refugees will become a widespread global phenomenon. Not just in the small numbers that are being made by the loss of the Carterets, but in their millions, as other islands, river deltas and low lying coastal regions become inundated.
“We live in a most difficult situation,” says Bernard Galie. “We are taking the brunt. We are victims of these greenhouse gas emissions, of the pollution made by industrial countries. We are victims of something we are not responsible for.”
“We’ve been getting supplies, but it’s not enough. It’s like a bandage. Now governments are suggesting relocating people elsewhere, but we still are not convinced. We love our island and we are prepared to die on our island come what may.”
John Salik, who founded the first school on Han Island 40 years ago, just hopes the islands will outlive him. “I say the people who are causing the ice to melt should look to us on the islands and try and do something that will help us because we love to live on our little islands.
“I agree with the young people moving out, but for me it’s very hard to move, because I have lived here for so many years. I love the island. Let me die on the island.”
The main photo feature Bernard Gaile of Piul (rhymes with fuel). This photo was recently awarded in the FoE climate justice photo competition.
by Pip Starr PO Box 89 Clifton Hill, Victoria, Australia 3068
Story reposted from Melbourne Indymedia