“Each night we wonder whether we will see the morning, or if a tidal wave or tsunami might wash us away in the night”, Bernard Tunim of the Carteret Islands community in Papua New Guinea told a public meeting on September 19 organised by Friends of the Earth (FoE) and Oxfam Australia.
Ursula Rakove and Bernard Tunim spoke of their islands’ impending doom as rising sea levels have destroyed their ability to grow crops and will flood the islands totally by about 2015. They have set up an NGO, Tulele Peisa — “sailing the waves on our own” — which is trying to relocate the whole island community to nearby Bougainville, where they have cultural links.
The Carteret community of some 3000 people live on six small coral atolls with a total land area of 0.6 square kilometres and a maximum elevation of 1.5 metres above sea level. One of the original six atolls has already been lost to the sea, and another atoll, Huene, split into two. Bougainville is the nearest land, 127 kilometres to the south-west, between two and four hours by boat (if the weather allows it).
Rakove, a landowner from the now divided atoll Huene, told the meeting that the islanders have been witnessing the evidence of rising sea levels for at least 20 years, but that it has become worse in the last 10 years. Now salt water bubbles through the ground at high tide, and the soil is too salty to grow their staple crop of swamp taro. Rakove said the islanders are living on a diet of fish and dried coconut. This is augmented by food aid, but the last delivery — just rice — was in May.
Rakove said that the incidence of diabetes has increased due to the reliance on food aid products, and just recently two small children died from eating bad turtle meat. The islands have two medical aid stations, staffed by the islanders, but these frequently run out of supplies. While some aid organisations have helped in the past, the only current assistance the islanders are receiving is from the Autonomous Bougainville Government, and it is not enough for their needs.
While the Papua New Guinea government authorised the evacuation of the islands in November 2005, Tunim told the meeting that no PNG government evacuation plans have been made. The islanders are trying to raise 1 to 2 million kina (A$380,000-$760,000) to buy 300-500ha of land in Bougainville from the traditional landowners there, on which to establish a cocoa and coconut plantation and settle the Carteret Islander community.
The speakers stressed that the Carteret Islands do not even have electricity and have barely contributed to climate change, but “are suffering the brunt of something we are not responsible for”, Tunim told the meeting. “We do not want to be called the world’s first climate refugees, but we have no choice.” He said that older residents on the islands “don’t want to leave, and if the island sinks they say they will sink with it. They feel they are a part of the place, it is in their blood.”
Rakove reported that the two representatives had had positive experiences in meetings with various parliamentary and government officials in Canberra the previous day, including staff from foreign minister Alexander Downer’s office. But she said “Australia needs to walk its talk in assisting those at the forefront of climate change and help relocate them to their choice of new home”.
Tour organiser Cam Walker from FoE told the meeting that the government officials seemed to think that they would like to help but needed to “tick too many boxes” before they could commit to anything. Walker pointed to FoE’s campaign for Australia to recognise climate and environmental refugees as a separate category for its refugee intake. He said that the ALP seemed to be moving toward a similar situation where, if in government, it would set up a new category within the established definition of humanitarian refugees; however, the overall quota would not be lifted, meaning that climate refugees would have to compete with all others seeking entry to Australia.
New Zealand already has a program of relocating climate refugees from the pacific. Currently, Walker said, the only government assisting Tulele Peisa is New Zealand, and he called upon the Australian government to do likewise.
Originally published in Green Left Weekly issue 725, 26 September 2007.