It is hard to imagine a place more vulnerable to the sea than a coral atoll. Barely nudging above the world’s tropical waters, these islands are mere slivers of land, built up over millennia on the coral reefs which crown the now submerged volcanoes. Rarely more than a few metres above the sea level, life clings tentatively to the living reef, the sandy sweep of coast, and tangle of scrubby trees that encircles the central lagoon. Even in stable climate conditions, the survival of atolls appears, to the casual observer, to be tentative at best. With the threats of rising sea levels and increasing intensity of tropical storms forecast in current climate change predictions, their continued existence seems little more than a miracle.
But atolls are surprisingly resilient. Though so slow-growing that the islands may take millions of years to form from the first polyp clinging to the volcanic shores to sandy beaches nudging once again above the sea, coral reefs can keep up with gradual sea level rise. Unusually high tides or storm surges can actually throw reef debris and sand onto the slim, low islands, raising the elevation of the land. The native salt-resistant vegetation quickly recovers. However, coral bleaching, which is associated with the rising sea temperatures and increased ocean acidity symptomatic of global warming, endangers the islands themselves: it is only a healthy reef which is able to buffer storm surges and grow with changing sea levels. Climate change can strip away an atoll’s natural physical defences.
Here, human habitation is most vulnerable in the face of a changing climate.
Flying in to Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, this is heart-wrenchingly obvious. In most areas the island is merely two strips of beach divided by a thin line of trees. In the downtown core, where Majuro accommodates nearly half of the country’s population, houses jostle along the coastline, individual sea walls forming a crenulated and feeble defence against the encroaching waves. Elevations average mere metres above the sea level. In December 2008, and again in February this year, abnormally high tides inundated the capital, temporarily flooding houses and roads and raising health concerns as waves washed over cemeteries and mixed raw sewage into the standing water.
Though these high tides are still relatively rare, climate change is a growing concern across all atoll nations, threatening the way of life of the islanders, and prompting fears for their cultural survival.
Anthropologist Peter Rudiak-Gould, a specialist on the Marshall Islands who has researched perceptions of climate change across the low-lying country, explains that the changing climate has become a major concern for Marshall Islanders in recent years. In addition to storm surges and abnormally high tides, the effects of rising sea levels are evident in coastline erosion, where waves have undercut coconut palms, felling the trees into the deceptively quiet turquoise waters of the lagoons. Changing weather patterns are beginning to erode the traditional knowledge so long essential for life on these fragile islands.
This is true across the low-lying atolls that dot the Pacific Ocean, iceberg-tips of deep and complex reef ecosystems. Dr Heather Lazrus, an environmental anthropologist who conducted fieldwork on Nanumea Atoll in Tuvalu, writes that changing weather is affecting local knowledge which allows subsistence fishers to locate their catch. An elderly local recounted that ‘Clouds… reflect the currents in the ocean, and a good fisherman knows how to interpret clouds to find currents that will in turn lead to schools of fish… but it is all different now. You can’t read the clouds the same way because they lie. They no longer lead you to where the fish are.’
The culture on these islands is deeply interconnected with the land. In the Marshall Islands, steps are being taken to enable inhabitants to remain on their traditional lands for as long as possible. Geologist Murray Ford, who works in Majuro raising coastal literacy, says that there are a number of adaptation strategies that can be implemented locally. ‘If they’re planning for what’s expected to be half a metre of sea level rise over the next century, if not more, they can start building the kind of infrastructure to cope with it.’ This includes steps as simple as coastal plantings to limit erosion, to building houses further from the waves. But while smaller settlements mean there’s room to move on the outer islands, allowing for people to build closer to the lagoon beach than the more vulnerable ocean-side shore, on Majuro population densities have pushed houses to the very waterline.
In the poorest areas of the capital, tightly packed tin and concrete shacks press together and towards the high tide mark. There is little room for coastal planting where barricades of crumbling rubble, rusting car bodies, and other rubbish push in vain against the weight and power of the Pacific Ocean.
Indeed, these makeshift sea walls often do more harm than good. Ford explains that ‘this only telegraphs the erosion down the coast. Your package of land might be protected, but you’re passing on the problem.’ Late last year, the Marshall Islands announced tentative plans to build a five-kilometre long sea wall to better protect the most densely populated area of the capital. Local environmental groups have started planting native vegetation to protect vulnerable areas. But only time will tell whether these strategies will keep the islanders from being forced from their homelands.
Yumi Crisostomo, who works for the government of the Marshall Islands in Environmental Planning and Policy, is optimistic that building environmental resilience and focusing on risk management will allow her people to continue to live in their traditional lands. To not be able to do so would be unthinkable for the Marshall Islanders. ‘The issue of climate change is an issue of survival for us. These islands are our heritage and our identity.’
Less optimistic, Rudiak-Gould believes that ‘there are people alive in the Marshall Islands today who very well might not live out their days there’. But while many Marshall Islanders have migrated to Hawaii and the mainland United States for economic reasons, Rudiak-Gould maintains that the very notion of having a homeland to return to is culturally important.
It is perhaps for this reason that the Marshall Islands have made no official resettlement plans. While all the low-lying atoll nations face similar threats in the face of climate change, only two have plans for resettlement abroad. The densely populated and politically savvy Maldives has floated plans to use its not inconsiderable tourist revenue to purchase a new, continental homeland; officials from Kiribati have requested that Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa accept their citizens as permanent refugees, should the worst case scenario occur, and their home islands become uninhabitable.
But the Marshallese government and people remain resistant to resettlement as a ‘solution’ to climate change. Here, land has a cultural as well as an economic significance. With deep connections to their environment and an ancient chiefly system that holds land tenure at its heart, even second generation residents of Majuro identify with their outer-island roots. ‘Marshall Islanders are very hostile to the idea of a resettlement due to climate change, and very hostile to the idea of selling land,’ Rudiak-Gould explains.
The Marshallese, however, are no strangers to resettlement. Between the end of the Pacific War and 1958, the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons on remote Enewetak Atoll and, more famously, Bikini Atoll. After decades of struggle, the displaced residents have managed to win monetary reparations for their suffering, but they consider this poor compensation for the monumental sacrifice of giving up their homelands.
After extensive cleaning, topsoil stripping, and covering contaminated areas with concrete, locals have been able to return to the scarred islands surrounding Enewetak’s lagoon. However, radiation left by the nuclear tests, including the massively powerful hydrogen bomb Castle Bravo, means that Bikini Atoll remains uninhabitable. Though now a World Heritage site known for its wreck diving and aquatic life, its people remain displaced and dislocated.
In many ways, the Marshall Islands are prime real estate. Tropical weather, pristine beaches, and coral reefs that drop off into unimaginably blue waters make the islands tempting to tourist resorts and hotel chains. But none have yet found a foothold in the islands. Rudiak-Gould says that ‘a lot of people have tried to get Marshall Islanders to sell their islands, but they always refuse. Nuclear testing forced the islanders to sell their islands, and climate change will do the same. Both are, at heart, threats to the land, and the land and the culture are very closely tied together. ‘
Because of these traditional ties, Marshall Islanders conceive of their culture as being linked to the land. In contrast, they associate modern, Western culture with money. Rudiak-Gould maintains that to the Islanders, selling land for money would be the ultimate replacement of tradition with modernity. Receiving financial compensation for flooded islands would seem little different, and surrendering lands to climate change by resettling abroad would be symbolic of Marshall Islanders turning their backs on tradition.
Consequently, climate change has strengthened local distrust of modern, Western culture. Rudiak-Gould says that the idea dovetails with local notions of cultural decline. ‘When the term “climate change” was translated into Marshallese, they used a word for ‘climate’ that means cosmos – environment in the widest possible sense. So when scientists say that the climate is changing, what people are actually hearing is that scientists say that the cosmos is changing, and there’s all sorts of evidence of that, not just environmental change, but social and cultural change. For instance, people say that time goes faster than it did in the past, and that’s considered to be part of climate change.’
While coastline erosion has only recently become evident throughout the country, signs of modernization have long been undeniable. Modern diets, based on imported white rice, canned fish and meat, have led to some of the world’s highest rates of diabetes. Where once people relied on traditional staples of breadfruit, taro, coconut, pandanus fruit, and locally caught seafood, a typical meal might now be a bowl of white rice accompanied by a few spoonfuls of canned tuna, or a breakfast of American-style pancakes and fried Spam. Traditional building techniques, using palm-frond thatching to catch cooling breezes, have been replaced with the stuffier, although more solid, imported materials of concrete blocks and corrugated metal. Ancient and sophisticated methods of navigation, used to pilot traditional outrigger canoes across vast expanses of ocean, are in danger of being lost forever.
It is generally thought that climate change can only be slowed through a worldwide reduction of carbon emissions. Marshallese contributions to greenhouse gasses are insignificant, and even current and optimistic schemes to promote renewable energy throughout the country will have little effect on a global scale. There is little that Marshall Islanders can do to stem the rising tides. But reinvigorating traditional subsistence lifestyles means that islanders can control at least one aspect of their changing cosmos. While climate change may be eroding the islands, it’s galvanizing Marshallese culture; this culture is greatly needed in such an uncertain time in this low-lying nation.
All photos by the author.