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Will This Tiny Nation Sink?

Climate Change vs. Kiribati

by ANDRE VLTCHEK

There is just a narrow ‘defense line’ of mangroves and coral bottom under the shallow water, right next to the coast. This is all that separates the stretched but narrow archipelago of Tarawa – the most populated (and overcrowded) chain of the islands of the Republic of Kiribati – from the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

The mangroves were planted a few years ago. They were introduced near the airport and at several other areas along the coast. The rest of Tarawa Atoll appears to be exposed and unprotected, despite the fact that numerous sea walls have only been constructed just recently.

It is said that Tarawa is ‘sinking’, but actually it is precisely where it always has been; it is just that the sea level is rising due to climate change, triggered by the unrestrained consumption of the industrialized nations thousands of miles away.

Some experts say that if the trend is not reversed soon, or if a solution is not found, at least three countries in the South Pacific – Tuvalu, Marshall Islands (RMI) and Kiribati – will soon become ‘uninhabitable’. That does not mean that they will just disappear under the surface of the ocean in one or two decades; the islands and atolls will still be there. But life on them will simply become unsustainable. It would become cheaper and more effective to move the people to other parts of the world: to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, or anywhere else, rather than to import food, water and all the other basic necessities.

Various scientists disagree, offering much more optimistic readings of the future. But all these debates are either too theoretical, or of a strictly practical and pragmatic nature. They don’t take into consideration the most important factor: the decisions whether to go or to stay are being made right now, or they had been already made. And in most of the cases the people were not consulted.

‘Relocation’ or the so called ‘environmental migration’, would mean that these tiny but fully legitimate nations, with their own culture, identity, languages, history, oral tradition and immense beauty, would simply cease to exist. Taken from their geographic context and uprooted, the people and their nations would mutate into something absolutely different. Their present essence would be irreversibly lost. And our planet would become more homogeneous and culturally poorer.

Alexander Teabo, an opposition MP from Kiribati Way Forward Party (he is representing Butaritari Island) agreed to speak to me in his home at Bairiki. And when he spoke, he did so, with determination, urgency and often with outrage:

“People should be consulted first. Those who are supposed to be moved from their homes and islands are all human beings, not some things. We all know that the climate change is occurring, but if we roll up our sleeves, we could surely be here for a very long time!”

Many, including my friend and prominent expert on climate change Espen Ronneberg (Ronneberg was Vice-President of the Kyoto Conference of 1997 that adopted the Kyoto Protocol on the environment) would support his views: “We haven’t yet reached the point where it’s time to give up. I think there is still a window of opportunity to reverse the trend.”

But Mr. Ronneberg also warns:

“Some of the atoll countries around the Pacific are no more than a couple of meters above sea level. They are currently experiencing some very serious king tides and storm surges. These are associated with cyclones and storms that may not impact them directly, but the wave patterns they create tend to go over the top of the atolls leaving salt water behind, which is damaging to crops, to houses and other infrastructure. It also contaminates the fresh water supply if they use well water. Those are some very serious impacts that are actually being observed. In some islands, if the sea-level rises by as much as the maximum that is suggested by scientists, there wouldn’t be really much possibility of saving them.”

***

It appears that instead of getting busy with efforts to save their nations, the governments of Kiribati and Tuvalu are doing good ‘business’ abroad by marketing their islands as terminally ill; impossible to save. It is only the RMI that has been counting on some determined promoters, of the ‘fight’ for survival.

Periodically and frequently, the government officials embark on their epic overseas voyages, crying over the fate of their disappearing countries, and then ripping a rich harvest of foreign aid, which as a rule almost never reaches the average citizens. There is also this so-called ‘per-diem’ inspiring factor, which arouses so many government officials, into constantly circling around the globe in search of sympathetic donors.

“Our President talks a lot about our plight… on the international level”, explains Alexander Teabo. “But he seems to have no policies when he returns home.”

Others say that the President Anote Tong actually implements at home, what he learned abroad. Recently, during the speech competition on climate change, a student successfully paraphrased him, elegantly grasping the essence of his reflections: “If we have to move out of the country, we must not leave like refugees but as marketable people.”

‘Marketable people’ could hardly be described as a local traditional expression with its origins in Oceania.

To criticize or to ridicule the President and his government can be very dangerous here: several journalists had been fired and the opposition intimidated. There is a law permitting the government to shut down newspapers. On several occasions during my recent work in Kiribati, the country was described to me as a ‘police state’.

The funding government is securing (part of it to feed corruption in its own ranks) is simply too substantial to be jeopardized by some nuisance like the independent press. Transparency could inspire a free flow of ‘uncomfortable’ questions. Or even worse: it could help to create a group of well-informed citizens demanding the survival of their country! That would be unacceptable, as Mr. Tong already made up his mind (and many deals): “The country has reached “the point of no return… To plan for the day when you no longer have a country is indeed painful, but I think we have to do that…” ‘While being paid for such planning’, he forgot to add.

It is now illegal to film or to engage in investigative journalism in Kiribati, unless one fully submits to government surveillance and supervision, pays the fee and fills all the ‘necessary’ forms. Such regulations are unheard of in most of the South Pacific nations.

In the Ministries (including the Ministry of Education) where I used to circulate freely, I have been asked repeatedly for permits and authorizations. At the tiny National Museum, Mr. Natan Ilonga, a ‘cultural officer’, began interrogating me after I had managed to ask just one question: “How do the local artists react to the government policies on the climate change?”

“We want to help you”, pressed Mr. Ilonga, with what he probably thought was a genuine MI5 grin: “Of course, before you talk to me you have to speak to my boss. However, before you speak to my boss, you have to pay 350 AUD and fill out these forms… just a few pages, as you can see… and you have to study what you are allowed and not allowed to document… And then we have to wait for the decision from above… Only a few days… But we are really here to facilitate your work…”

To make his day, I asked him whether he was really a curator, or an intelligence agent. Finally he gave me a big broad smile: “Both, of course”.

I happened to be less corpulent than this out of shape local 007, and more agile. I brutally outmaneuvered him. I jumped into the car and in no time got away from Mr. Ilonga, who was probably significantly slowed down by the avalanche of his own forms.

***

Fortunately I still had some friends and allies on the island. I used to live in Oceania for more than three years, studying and documenting the plight of almost all countries and territories of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, with the exception of Niue and Nauru. The result of my research was book named Oceania.

***

After outmaneuvering Mr. Ilonga, I drove to the Ministry of Education in search of Ms Teekoa Letaake, who used to be the Permanent Secretary of Education. I worked with her during my last visit and was impressed by her determination and honesty. But she was not holding the same position anymore.

It was Friday early afternoon and payday on top of it. The offices of the Ministry were desperately empty.

“You see, it would never have been like this when Ms. Letaake was in charge”, explained a young professional lady, who did not want to be named. “During lunch hour, the staff used to take turns. We used to work a lot… Now I am the only one who is still here…”

I asked her whether people of Tarawa discuss global warming and the rising sea level at home.

“It is not usually discussed”, she replied. “Only when something big happens, like when there is a tsunami warning. The probability of a tsunami is discussed on the governmental and Parliamentary level, but not in public and not in people’s dwellings.”

“You know”, she continued, “We don’t really know what is going on here, or what game it is that this government is playing. Kiribati is our home. There is no place like home. We don’t want to go anywhere. Well, some people do, but I don’t and the great majority of our people don’t. The government keeps scaring us, threatening us with tsunami, but we have never had any tsunami here, not since the day I was born, not since the days when my parents and grandparents were born. They say a tsunami would wipe us all out. If that is the case, why don’t they build shelters?”

“Why aren’t they building shelters?” I ask the local MPs, government officials, and common people. The answers come in different forms, with various nuances, but the meaning appears to be the same: there is no political will. There are funds, but no determination. Some people say that tsunami threats are fabricated. “They are frightening us. The government tries to convince the people that a tsunami is around the corner, so that they will run away, or at least agree to leave the country. But it is just the President’s utopian world that is being imposed on us”, says Alexander Teabo.

Back at the Ministry of Education, a lady I spoke to is defiant: “We don’t believe this government, anymore. You know what my father did the last time there was a tsunami warning? He just sat in his chair and laughed, saying: ‘if the tsunami hits, we wait until we are all dry, then we pack our things and take a boat to another island. But we will not abandon Kiribati.’”

As so many other people I spoke to she explains that many citizens of outer islands are forced to migrate to Tarawa, as there are no jobs and no educational facilities (apart from primary schools) or well-equipped hospitals on their islets and atolls. This is the same story that I heard in Tuvalu three years earlier.

“Are there any educational programs?” I insist. “Is there some part of the curriculum that deals with global warming, the rising sea level, with climate change?”

“No”, she replies.

As I walk to the car, I see young woman rushing towards the school. She smiles at me. I run after her. “Are you a teacher?” She nods. “Can we talk?” I literally drag her to the car. It feels like we are doing something very nasty, very much forbidden in this country. Once we are inside, I go straight to the point: “Listen, do you teach the kids…. You know… about climate change and about the options that Kiribati has?”

Her name is Veronica. She has a tender smile, but has absolutely no clue about what I am talking about. “I am not sure”, she says. “Maybe at social classes… I am new here… I am sorry… I really don’t know.” I have a feeling that I disappointed her: she expected much better script, much better lines from me.

***

The less the information there is on climate change, the more the attempts to make people ‘believe’ in the mostly nihilistic outcomes – in the inevitability of the future exodus or in some Armageddon scenario. Education is not allowed or encouraged, to address the most essential matters.

In the meantime, the country is becoming home to countless religious extremist implants, mainly from the US, represented by their emissaries dressed in white shirts and armed with nametags and bibles. Sterile prefabricated houses of various faiths, ranging from Mormons to Jehovah Witnesses are penetrating the slums.

Social issues are hardly discussed and political movements and parties have no ideologies. Kiribati remains one of the poorest countries on earth and it is scarred by the scale of social problems, staggering unemployment, illnesses ranging from AIDS to leprosy, child abuse and child prostitution.

After Kiribati yielded to Western advice and switched its ‘allegiance’ from China (PRC) to Taiwan, corruption (particularly on the outer islands) increased. Instead of building infrastructure as China does all over Oceania, in Kiribati most of the Taiwanese aid ends in the pockets of local government with very little tangible results for the community.

By the time the country gained independence, its reserves of sulfites had been exhausted. There is copra on the outer islands, but the old cargo ship ‘donated’ by Spain mysteriously broke down before it could be put to use and now rots idly, almost one mile offshore.

The tiny airport, with its grotesquely oversized runway, is used to refuel US military and coastguard planes, and could be easily converted to a military base at short notice, would the sole Empire find it desirable.

The industrialized world, the one that put most of Oceania to this dire condition, seems to do close to nothing. There are ineffective aid programs, as well as wining and dining trips for the government officials. But shockingly there are hardly any substantial infrastructural projects that could protect affected nations from disappearing.

***

Tarawa has several villages that could be described as sitting right on the frontline of the battle against the devastating climate change. At Temaiku Village, people are lamenting that climate change is already knocking on their doors. The salty water is coming to the edges of their dwellings, which are now built on stilts. People sleep on elevated platforms. There is a new seawall made of stones and bags. It all looks like some fortification and it stands at the worse affected part of the island.

“We do worry about the sea level rising” says Mr. Terobimo. “But we know very little about what is ahead of us. Look at the water: it is right next to our houses. We all want to leave Kiribati, and at the same time we don’t; we want to stay. We are not sure… We are confused… We are not told what is going on.”

The Deputy Secretary of Environment seems to sympathize with the plight of his people, although he is clearly being diplomatic. Long after his working hours we are sitting in his office, having a face-to-face discussion:

“I think people of Kiribati are doing their best to fight coastal erosion and other climate change related problems… But I can’t be sure whether Kiribati will survive.”

He mentions the integrated environmental policy that is now being designed and approved by the government, but which cannot be understood by anyone I spoke to on the atoll.

MP Teabo goes much further: “We can survive as a nation on these islands. We shall and will fight! And if we lose, there is always the UN – we are part of the international community after all – we are part of the world. But let’s not frighten our people before they even have a chance to fight. Let’s defend the country. And let us retrieve only if everything else fails.”

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the  South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu . His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.

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