With Each Passing Month the Situation Gets More Desperate: Climate Change Sinks Carteret Islanders


all photos courtesy Jennifer Redfearn

Though it may be a number of years before your life is personally impacted by climate change, for people in low-lying island nations and the world's great river deltas rising sea levels and saltwater ruining land is already a fact of life. One such place is the Carteret Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea. TreeHugger recently interviewed documentary filmmaker Jennifer Redfearn about her work-in-progress Sun Come Up, which chronicles the efforts of these people to uproot their lives and find new homes: TreeHugger: For someone who hasn't heard of Sun Come Up or the Carteret Islands, what's the film about and what are the issues?

Jennifer Redfearn: Sun Come Up is a documentary following the relocation of the Carteret Islanders who are some the world's first environmental refugees. Climate change is impacting communities across the globe, but the Carteret Islanders, as far as I can tell, are the first to organize a community-wide evacuation due to climate change.

If you don't know what's happening to small islands...communities like the Carteret Islands are on the front lines of climate change, because of rising seas and severe weather--they are experiencing more severe storm surges, coastal erosion. On the Carteret Islands, the ocean, during the high tide season, actually rips through the island. Some of the houses have been washed away; it's contaminated all their freshwater sources on the island; their gardening land, they aren't able to grow as much food because of the salt water inundation.

They now face three severe problems: They have a food and water shortage. They have an increasing population. And, they have decreasing land. So, they need to move and need to move quickly. They are planning to move to Bougainville, which is 50 miles away--another island that is experiencing some of the same problems, like coastal erosion, but it's mountainous and not as vulnerable as the Carteret Islands.

They have an extensive relocation program, that is being organized by the Carteret islanders themselves. It's called an integrated relocation program--they don't want to just pick up, buy a plot or land and move there. They know there are problems with that approach [and are] really interested into integrating into the local population. It's been an on-going program.

Unfortunately...they don't have a lot of resources or a lot of money to make this happen. They are being very resourceful about the move, but they need money to buy land, to build houses and to plant gardens--so when the local population moves they can sustain themselves.

With each passing year, with each passing month I'd say, the situation gets increasingly desperate.

TH: Most people seem to think that seas actually flowing over the land is the big problem, but saltwater inundation is actually a bigger problem, at least at first. How is this effecting the Carterets?

JR: They did have fresh water tables on the islands, but all of [them] have been contaminated with salt water. During the high tide season...it destroys the crops and a lot of the land used for growing fruits and vegetables. So even though the islands themselves won't be underwater for several years, the land becomes increasingly uninhabitable.


They are mostly living of fish and coconut now, but they used to grow vegetables, is that correct?

Their staple food, swamp taro, no longer grows on any of the islands. They used to plant root vegetables and bananas. Some of these crops grow still, [but] the land the can grow on gets smaller each year. Mostly they are living off of fish and coconut.

They eventually got rainwater tanks, when their fresh water was contaminated with salt. But they are dependent on the rain and if it doesn't rain, they are living off of coconuts.

They are also vulnerable because they are so remote and don't have a lot of resources.

For example, there was a recent tsunami that hit Samoa and Fiji. If something like that happened--and, as we know, climate change will increase these severe weather events--they don't have the resources to respond quickly to an emergency like that. They don't have reliable communication with the outside world. They are living very simply by the sea.

A couple of people in the community do have generators that they can run...but for the most part they are living without electricity, without running water, without roads. They don't, for the most part, live in a cash economy.


Ursula Rakova, head of the Carteret Islands' relocation efforts
Can you talk about the relocation procedure a little more? It seems it's made easier because there are cultural ties going back to Bougainville...

...One of the things Ursula Rakova (head of the Carteret Islands relocation program) said is 'some ways we are dealing with this tragedy, but in some ways we're lucky because a larger island to move to.' They have the same clan structure on Bougainville...they have have some cultural connection. So it's not like moving to an entirely different culture, even though their societies are different.

Then again, [Ursula] has also said, 'When that last coconut tree is standing, we'll still return to the reef, because our ancestors are there, our history is there.' Their ancestral past is tied to the land. In that region of the world you're identity comes from the land. So, losing land is like losing a piece of your identity, a piece of your history, a piece of your ancestral past.

But they are putting programs in place so that they can maintain those connections to their past and to their culture.

What sort of outside assistance are they getting?

They have had some assistance for some programs. For example, when we were there last year, they had an awareness program where young people travelled to Bougainville, [went] from village to village and talked about climate change...this is what's happening, this is why we have to move. What will it take for us to be part of your community? How can we build this relationship?

But they haven't received much support for the actual relocation.

Right, Ursula has said it's going to take $150,000 for the first 80 families or something like that?...

...Yeah. I don't know why they've received support for these programs and haven't received support for the actual relocation. It takes money to buy to buy land, to build houses, to plant gardens.

There are some people though that don't want to go, right?

It's more the elders that are less interested in moving. In part because the lifestyle is definitely different; the physical labor is more intense [on Bougainville]. Although life is getting more difficult on the Carteret Islands, this is their home. This is land they love and the lifestyle they are accustomed to. So the idea of moving, for them, rebuilding and starting over...they just aren't interested in doing that.

I think the younger people are more interested because they know their future is limited on the islands. They know their children's future is limited. And they know there are more opportunities for them on Bougainville: More educational opportunities, more economic opportunities. I think it's sad for them, and difficult for them, [but] they are more likely to be looking ahead and looking at future opportunities.

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For more information on Sun Come Up and to view a trailer for the documentary visit: SunComeUp.com

For more info on the Carteret Islands relocation efforts: Tulele Peise
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Tags: dispatches | Global Climate Change | Global Warming Effects

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