Seven tiny coral atolls in the Pacific are home to the world’s first climate change refugees. The Carteret Islanders are desperately seeking a new home before their homeland is completely swallowed by the sea.
The evacuation plan is being lead by grassroots community group, Tulele Peisa, who aim to relocate 1700 people, almost two thirds of the Carteret’s 3000 inhabitants to the mainland Bougainville, an autonomous region to the east of Papua New Guinea by 2020.
After years of worsening storm surges and flood deluges that have infiltrated fresh water supplies and devastated crops, in the absence of international aid, the island’s elders took matters into their own hands. Accordingly in 2006 they established the community group Tulele Peisa, tasked with managing the controlled migration program.
Lauren Beldi for ABC News met with the community organisation’s director Ursula Rakova who worries that rising sea levels are having a major impact on the people’s health. “We are beginning to get more requests for people wanting to move because of the situation and the dire need for food,” she said. According to Rakova, with increasingly prevalent storms and king tides, not only houses but also people’s livelihoods are being washed away.
There is no cash economy on the Carterets, and with the only source of food being what people can grow for themselves, and as large swathes of farmland are becoming enveloped by sea water, the islanders have become increasingly dependent on intermittent government aid to survive. “On Carteret, we have lost nearly all our food gardens… forty years ago we grew a lot of our own food, we didn’t depend on the government to supply us with food,” says Ms Rakova.
Tulele Peisa initially obtained 25 hectares of land along the coast of Bougainville from the Catholic Church, enough to resettle 100 people, or 10 families. More recently the Church has just made an additional 60 hectares of land available, where the group hopes to relocate 25 more families. At this stage the first step is building houses and planting crops to sustain the new arrivals.
Ms Rakova says the relocations are also crucial to finding more arable land and resources for families choosing to stay on the islands. Many of the elderly are refusing to move, adamant that they shall live out their lives on their homeland. However relocated families must work extra hard, not only to produce food for themselves, but also enough to send back home in order to support those left behind.
Tulele Peisa is also making efforts to stave off the effects of climate change by building sea walls, planting mangrove seedlings to help prevent erosion of the coastline, and by building raised garden beds for crop cultivation. They have also implemented programs to help protect the coral reef, and document traditional knowledge that they fear may be lost in the future.
However Rakova acknowledges that all of these measures can only hold off the inevitable for so long. “The science predictions on Carteret say between 2040 and 2050 the islands will be totally submerged…We know the islands are going, but we are looking at supporting our families,” Ms Rakova said as she stressed the importance of maintaining a feeling of connection with her people’s homeland despite it’s uncertain future.
The Carteret Islands are located to the north east of Papua New Guinea, near the Solomon Islands. With their highest point only reaching 1.5m above sea level, the islands are some of the first to become enveloped by rising ocean tides. According to University of Tasmania academic John Hunter, the future is not looking good. Sea walls can “buy a few more decades,” but eventually the islands will be gone, he says.
Nearby islands Mortlock, Nuguria and the Tasman Islands make up the Atolls Temarai and are faced with similar fears. Chairman of the Temarai Association, Pais Taehu is nervous for their future and believes the international community should do more to help. “Our shorelines are getting really really small… We have lost a lot of land- its been washed away,” Taehu says.
Rakova and Taehu have teamed up with Friends of the Earth to conduct fundraising activities and raise awareness of the islander’s plight in Australia. The team conducted tours in April 2016 in order to help secure a marketplace for their coffee crops, and also in a bid to garner support from the Australian government to help pressure the PNG government to do more to help the islanders.
“The islanders on the Carterets are victims of what other people have caused and the international community needs to aid and support the work that we are doing,” she says.
Rebecca just returned from a year-long exchange program in Seoul, South Korea.Her majors include Korean language and North-East Asian studies, with a focus on developments on the Korean peninsula.
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