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That sinking feeling

Vanishing home: Carteret Islanders survey submerged trees on a once-sandy beach.

Thomas Parkinson

The Papua New Guinea (PNG) Government recently provided $800,000 to help relocate inhabitants from its Carteret Islands. But the islanders were hard-pushed to consider this anything other than a hollow victory. For 30 years they have been struggling to keep at bay the rising sea waters which threaten their homes.

Already vulnerable because of their location on the junction of the Australasian-Indian tectonic plates – the site of frequent earthquakes – the Carteret Islands are now experiencing the effects of climate change. Coastal waters have risen steadily for the last 20 years, and with the islands lying only 1.5 metres above sea level, the land could be completely submerged by 2015. The islanders – with no cars and no electricity – have themselves contributed little, if anything, to the environmental pollution which is causing global warming.

Bernard Tunim, chief of Piul Island in the Carterets, is angry. ‘We are victims of something we are not responsible for. We don’t want to move – this is our land. We believe that these islands are ours and our future generations should not have to leave.’ He wants the industrial nations in the region, such as Australia and New Zealand, to acknowledge their responsibility.

However, international law currently shields developed countries from the need to protect or compensate climate-change-affected islands, as Dr Jane McAdam of the University of New South Wales explains: ‘While moral or factual accountability for global warming may be attributable to particular countries, establishing legal causation and responsibility is difficult.’ New Zealand does have a yearly quota of immigrants it will accept from specific islands at risk from global warming, and one way forward may be for polluting countries to be obliged to offer asylum to climate refugees in direct proportion to their greenhouse gas emissions.

But for the Carteret Islanders true justice – recovery of their land – is now impossible, and relocation is the only option left. Despite the construction of sea walls and the planting of mangroves, salt water has destroyed crops and contaminated wells, and land previously used to grow bananas, taro and cassava lies abandoned. With almost no agriculture left, the staple diet of most of the population is just coconut and fish, and many are suffering from chronic hunger. The islanders do not know how long they can continue to survive in the face of such adversity.

So at one level the money from the PNG Government is welcome. It has been entrusted to the organization Tulele Peisa and will be used to help fund the relocation of the 2,500 islanders over the next twelve years. But one of the organization’s workers, Ursula Rakova, says that the PNG Government has offered no land for the homeless islanders to move to, and Tulele Peisa itself will therefore need to find a suitable relocation site on mainland Bougainville, 86 kilometres away. Even when such a site is found – and many islanders are worried about moving to Bougainville, which is struggling with civil unrest – the islanders are likely to face many problems familiar to displaced people everywhere: poor health, a lack of jobs and education facilities, inadequate sanitation and the psychological impact of leaving their homes. The Carteret Islanders are amongst the world’s first climate refugees, sharing a similar fate to the Lohachara Islanders in the Bay of Bengal, who lost their land in 2006, necessitating the relocation of 7,000 people, and fellow Pacific Islanders living on Tuvalu.

Jo Lateu
Bernard Tunim and Ursula Rakova can be heard on Radio New Internationalist’s Tribal Revival programme:

New Internationalist issue 409 magazine cover This article is from the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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