Global Warming Uprooting Islanders
The Carteret Islands. Photo: Pip Star
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The far-reaching consequences of global warming, while dire, have yet to directly affect the everyday life of those in the developed world. While it is a serious issue and most people understand the long-term effects, some choose to ignore it or hope that others in their proactivity may solve the problem before it threatens their way of life.
Unfortunately, for most indigenous peoples in low-lying island nations, it is not an issue of whether global warming will threaten their societies, but when. The island people of the Carteret Islands near Papua New Guinea are on the front lines of climate change, which has directly affected their existence. They cannot afford to sit back and wait for the situation to improve. In fact, in November of 2005, they began a concerted effort to vacate their ancestral home on the Carteret Islands, which are projected to be submerged by 2015, and move to the nearby island of Bougainville.
The islanders first made contact with European explorers in 1767, when British navigator Philip Carteret arrived on the Swallow. Outside of another expedition conducted by Benjamin Morrell in 1830, the islanders have lived a secluded life, growing their staple crops of coconut and taro, which is a tropical plant grown primarily as a vegetable.
Over time, the islands had become increasingly uninhabitable — not only has the island slowly retreated into the ocean because of rising water levels, the flooding has also contaminated their fresh water supplies on the island itself. This has greatly affected their supply of taro; while it once grew wild on the island, it has effectively gone from staple crop to virtually non-existent. This has caused the islanders’ dependence on fish to increase dramatically, but their access to fish has been reduced by the international commercial industry, as well as the illegal practice of dynamite fishing, in which large schools of fish are stunned by explosives in order to be easily collected. This practice has additionally increased the salt water contamination on the island and has caused significant damage to the surrounding coral reefs.
The increasing population of the people on the Carteret Islands has had a detrimental effect on the food supply, as well as the relocation efforts. Even their relocation to Bougainville is problematic because that island was mired in civil war and has only recently begun to recover economically and politically.
In November 2005, the Carteret Islanders received significant media coverage as the world’s first environmental refugees. The government of Papua New Guinea has helped fund the migration to Bougainville and was originally going to be completed by 2007, but access to these funds has proved to be problematic. In early 2009, the migration efforts took a step in the right direction when a group of men from the Carteret Islands moved to Bougainville to begin building homes and act as diplomats for their people. While the move has garnered some opposition among the elders of the island, most younger people view the move as necessary and more than 1,700 people are slated to move to Bougainville over the next five years.
“In some ways we’re dealing with this tragedy,” said Ursula Rakova, the head of the Carteret relocation program, “but in some ways we’re lucky because we have a larger island to move to.”
Documentary filmmaker Jennifer Redfearn chronicles the Carteret people’s migration in her new film, Sun Come Up.
“With each passing year, with each passing month I'd say, the situation gets increasingly desperate,” said Redfearn.