The first climate evacuation: what have we learned?

Carteret Evacuation

The evacuation begins... photo: Dan Box

Earlier this year, journalist Dan Box won recognition from environmentalist George Monbiot for documenting the world's first climate change evacuation, of the Carteret islands in the South Pacific. Now, he returns to his experiences to ask if this is the first evacuation of many, how should we do it in future?
What happens when you want to move a state? What happens when the Maldives moves to India and says it wants to still be the Maldives?

Ruth Marcella was crippled at birth and it hurts to walk this far around her island. But she is determined and, swinging her twisted hip, leads me through the palm trees to the white beach and the blue South Pacific ocean.

As she shows off her tiny homeland, Han, one of the Carteret Islands in the far east of Papua New Guinea, Ruth keeps saying sorry quietly. I think she is apologising, and ask her why.

'I am sorry for my island,' Ruth replies. 'I believe that one day this island will disappear, and we won't have this island. We will lose it.'

Behind us men are cutting down dead breadfruit trees for firewood. Once pawpaw, taro and banana grew here, but no more. The ocean, Ruth says, is rising. Trees that once stood in the forest are now 20 metres out among the waves. Many that remain are poisoned by salt water. The islanders are hungry, and afraid.

The Carterets, it has been decided, will be abandoned, in what is the world’s first official evacuation of an entire people because of climate change. If global warming continues as we expect, many more will soon suffer the same fate. But how do you move an entire people? No one knows. It has been left to these islanders to set a precedent for the world.

'Of course I would not like to leave my island,' Ruth’s father, clan chief John Sailik says. 'But I might have to go by force. The island will be all eaten up and I will have no where else to live.'

The younger generation, Ruth included, are planning on the basis that they have to leave the islands, now. But how is this evacuation actually taking place? Well, slowly.

Money and politics...

Where's next?  
Location 8 00 S, 178 00 E
Land area 26 km2
Coastline 24 km
Highest point
above sea level
5 m
Population 12,373
------------------- ---------------------
  Marshall Islands
Location 9 00 N, 168 00 E
Land area 181.3 km2
Coastline 370.4 km
Highest point
above sea level
10 m
Population 64,522
------------------- ---------------------
Location 1 25 N, 173 00 E
Land area 811 km2
Coastline 1,143 km
Highest point
above sea level
81 m
Population 105,432
------------------- ---------------------
Location 6 55 N, 158 15 E
Land area 702 km2
Coastline 6,112 km
Highest point
above sea level
791 m
Population 107,434
------------------- ---------------------
  The Cook Islands
Location 21 14 S, 159 46 W
Land area 236.8 km2
Coastline 120 km
Highest point
above sea level
652 m
Population 11,870
------------------- ---------------------


What happens when you want to move a state? What happens when the Maldives moves to India and says it wants to still be the Maldives?
Location 20 00 S, 175 00 W Land area 236.8 km2 Coastline 419 km Highest point
above sea level
1,033 m Population 120,898 ------------------- ---------------------       Maldives Location 3 15 N, 73 00 E Land area 300 km2 Coastline 644 km Highest point
above sea level
2.4 m Population 396,334 ------------------- ---------------------       Sudarbans delta Location 21 56 N, 88 51 E Land area 4,143 km2 Coastline (unknown) Highest point
above sea level
2.11 m Population 4,000,000 + ------------------- ---------------------    

The decision to evacuate the islands was first made by the Bougainville regional government - the islands' official political body - in 2005. A committee was formed, and plans drawn up to relocate 40 families a year. Negotiations over land to house them have started, stalled and spluttered back to life. But no one has actually been moved.

Partly, this is because the government is busy. It is a decade since Bougainville emerged from a dirty civil war that literally decimated the population. The government has to wrestle with disarming armed gangs, reconciling former enemies and finding some way of resurrecting the economy so they can at least buy drugs for the region’s single hospital, where a line of mothers clutching limp, hot babies wait in silence.

Partly, also, it is because the government is poor, and partly because it is corrupt. Bougainville president James Tanis himself tells me millions of kina donated to fund the evacuation of the Carterets may have been defrauded. At the very least, he does not know where it is.

Finding land is the most common excuse given for the lack of progress. In Bougainville, land claims by one clan may be challenged by another, generation after generation. Those few colonial paper records that survive moulder in a government department that has neither phone nor fax.

'We know we cannot with our own resources and technical expertise do it ourselves,' says Raymond Masono, chairman of the evacuation committee. 'We will need help … The industrial nations of Europe, America Australia, Japan, they have to take some reponsibilities of what is happening out there in the atolls of Bougainville.'


Faced with this, the islanders have decided to evacuate themselves and have set up an NGO, Tulele Peisa, to do it (the name means ‘riding the waves on one’s own’).

Tulele Peisa has a paid staff of none and scrapes by on public appeals and prayers; the Catholic Church recently donated a few scraps of old mission land for the islanders to build new homes.

The Carterets’ Council of Elders then decided who should be first to leave, choosing the fathers of five families, each of whom had young children, did not drink too heavily and could be trusted to work hard. In May, I watched these men arrive in a single outboard-engine boat at Tinputz on Bougainville’s south island, where they began building homes in a jungle clearing before sending for their wives and children. Future boatloads will be landed on other plots of mission land, when money can be found to pay for boat-fuel and wood with which to build new houses.

These five fathers are quietly anxious about their new lives. In the past, other people have left the Carterets and moved to live with families on the mainland. Many were met with hostility and eventually returned. Some of the women were raped. Through Bougainville’s central mountains a private army – a remnant of the civil war - still marches under the rule of a self-declared king.

Tulele Peisa itself may have the best intentions, but is hobbled by a lack of power and money. The government has more of both, but so far has done little to reveal them. Worse, the two sides remain divided by petty politics and have failed to work together, causing even more delay.
This inaction is taking its toll on the people both organisations claim to be working to help. Andreas Kaholo, chairman of the Council of Elders, tells me he wants to resign.
'Really it is difficult. I do very much feel responsible for the people,' he says.

Is climate change to blame?

So how urgent a threat is it that is forcing the islanders leave their homes? The answer is bound up with another; once they leave, will the islanders become, as many reporters have described them, the world’s first climate change refugees? Sceptics say it is natural for coral atolls to sink, and this isn’t global warming at all. Ask President Tanis, whose government made the decision to evacuate these and four other island groups – around 8000 people in all – how he knows this is climate change and he replies:
'There is no independent scientist we have consulted. While the whole world is blaming the rising sea level on global warming, I don’t think we need to consult anyone. If the world is believing that, we are part of the world.'

Travelling to the islands, you are forced to negotiate this, and other obstacles, thrown up often by those trying to help.

One basic question; are they ‘refugees’? It is a phrase I too used, at first, but no, the Carterets people are not. Legally, a refugee is someone fleeing war or persecution in their own country, a definition that simply doesn’t allow the islanders in.

So, if they are not refugees, what about the other part of the phrase; is this really climate change? Bluntly, we may never know. Either this is climate change, or the Carterets are sinking naturally, or it is both of these, or neither. Talking to islanders who remember the shore being thirty or forty metres further out to sea than where it is now, my money is on both. I’m no expert, but this seems a good bet; in the language of aid workers, climate change is a ‘multiplier’, it indirectly contributes to and compounds other causes for people to leave their homes. In this case, the coral atoll may be sinking naturally but if so, the intense high tides and storm surges that regularly rip away what land remains, and which the islanders say are now worse than any in living memory, are making this natural process worse.

This complexity – or confusion – makes the phrase ‘climate change refugee’ redundant. The International Organisation for Migration prefers the term ‘environmentally-induced migrants’, which suffers in comparison, because it sounds more boring. And yet, it shouldn’t be, because the numbers involved are huge. How many people are we talking about? Estimates range from 25 to 50 million worldwide by the year 2010 to almost 700 million by 2050 The IOM leans toward a conservative 200 million by 2050 - equivalent to the combined populations of Britain, France and Germany on the move.

One immediate worry is that, like those reporters who turned up to pronounce the islanders the world’s first climate change refugees, both NGOs and the media have in the past chosen to throw only the wilder numbers and definitions around. The danger of doing so is that, by turning the issue into a sensation they may provoke a sensationalist response from governments, one that slams the door on those who need help. Speaking on environmental migration recently in the Hague, Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate change, warned of a world 'split between those who do not sleep because they are hungry and those who do not sleep because they are afraid of those who are hungry.'

The first of many

If the roughly 2500 people of the Carterets are to be joined by 200 million others also forced to flee their homes, it is likely that many of these evacuations, too, will be bedevilled by the same monsters of poverty, fraud, bureaucracy, land rights and hostility from local people. So it would seem worth learning the lessons of this evacuation, now. But aside from a constant stream of reporters – including myself – few people it seems are taking an interest.

'The worst part is this should be easy,' says one senior aid worker in Bougainville, who did not want to be named. 'This is just a bunch of people on an island moving a few hours by boat. What happens when you want to move a state? What happens when the Maldives moves to India and says it wants to still be the Maldives?'

A lawyer involved in the same conversation looks blank.
'It can’t be done,' she says.

Slowly, governments are starting to look for answers to these questions. In Search of Shelter, a UN-sponsored report published in June, says: 'Policy decisions made today will determine whether migration becomes a matter of choice amongst a range of adaption options, or merely a matter of survival due to a collective failiure by the international community to provide better alternatives.'

But, to stress it again, the international community is moving slowly. Seeing the damage caused to the Carteret Islands by the last storm season over Christmas, measured in fruit-trees destroyed and areas of productive land turned to salty, mosquito-rearing swamp, I wonder how much time they have to wait. A year maybe? A few more?

And yet, living on the islands, I am amazed by the lack of urgency. Children play happily. There is a weekly football tournament, most of the players barefoot, a few with a boot on only their kicking foot. Slowly, I realise these people simply cannot afford to panic, they have neither the money nor social infrastructure to respond to whatever threat the ocean poses. The islands’ seat of government is just that – a plastic seat, behind a bare wooden desk with a school exercise book for paper.

Instead they wait, living on fish, rice and coconuts. Sometimes a rusty old ship brings food aid from the mainland. I am continually asked when the next shipload will arrive. Yet these are the kindest people I have ever met. Every day someone among the islanders - different people on different days - gives me fish, freshly caught, to eat. Despite this, I lose a lot of weight.

Dan Box travelled to the Carteret Islands with funding from the Royal Geographical Society Journey of a Lifetime award.

A BBC Radio 4 documentary using material recorded by Dan on the islands can be downloaded here.

Let us suffer this alone...

The Carteret Islanders have seen little in the way of international help, but they have seen plenty of reporters – 16 separate visits at the last count, including mine. None of this attention has been of any direct benefit to the islanders themselves, though they have often been expected to provide free food and accomodation to reporters, despite being well aware that many plan to profit from the subsequent sale of their films, photographs or articles. As a result, a $5000 ‘administration fee’ has been announced, that must be paid by anyone hoping to visit the islands. In my case, this fee was waived.

The following is from a letter by the islands’ Council of Elders:

Advisory to journalists, flim maker, photographers, writers, researchers and tourists…

Thank you for your interest in the Carterets Atoll. We regret to inform you that the atoll community is currently unable to accept any visitor to any of the islands…

Should you wish to be considered to come to the atolls an amount of US$5000 as administration fee has been agreed upon by the Council of Elders and the Tulele Peisa and must be paid prior to coming to the island.

Last but not least, we would like to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation of your concern and interest. Once the situation is more settled and our future as well as livelihoods is more secured, we hope to be able to lift the ban and welcome visitors to our islands again.

God bless you!

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