An untold story (2016)…

On 16 November 1989, Kiribati Minister of Home Affairs and Decentralization Babera Kirata addressed the general forum at the Small Island States Conference on Sea Level Rise in Malé Island. Highlighting his nation’s concern over the emerging greenhouse effect theory, he stated:

“Over the centuries, the question of a rise in sea level was never heard of. Our ancestors had lived happily for centuries on our islands, without fear that one day, our beautiful homes may be lost as a result of the deterioration in the environment. We in this present generation have inherited those small islands, and we are very proud to be owners of the beautiful homes, which our ancestors had secured for us… The groundwater would easily become saline, making it impossible to obtain potable water, and agriculture would be destroyed. The plankton upon which fish live on will disappear, and the livelihood of Kiribati people, who depend on fish, would be seriously affected. The effect of rising in sea level, accompanied by strong winds and high waves would be disastrous for Kiribati.” (Kirata 1989: 2–3)

His remarks highlighted the intimate connection I-Kiribati (people from Kiribati) have with their land. Land in Kiribati defines one’s sense of personhood; it is as much a part of them as they are of it. When I-Kiribati are born, they are traditionally born on their land. They grow up and have families of their own on that land. When their time comes, their bodies return to the earth. Their spirits join the ancestors who have gone before, and together they watch over future generations of the land. Land, in Kiribati, cosmologically ties one’s past, present, and future together. If sea levels were to rise as predicted, the physical challenges for survival would be daunting. The problems associated with Kiribati identity and personhood could very well be insurmountable.

Experts say that the tiny Pacific Island nations, which collectively account for a mere 0.0012 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, are the most vulnerable and would be the first to feel the full brunt of global warming (Singh 2007: 1). To date, Kiribati has experienced devastating king tides, prolonged droughts, extended periods of rain, and, more recently, unusual cyclonic activity in the doldrums of the Pacific. Iorita Toromon describes the night that Cyclone Pam arrived in Tarawa:

“Yesterday and last night March 9, 2015, south Tarawa experienced strong winds with rough seas and high tides causing further destruction. Most of the seawalls, which were recently constructed, are now destroyed. Roads are covered with sand, gravel, and big stones from the ocean again. Residential houses along the coastal area are greatly affected by the strong waves too. Our lives are very threatened by sea-level rise, and we are worried about our future. Our wells, which are our only source of freshwater, have become salinized and are rendered unsuitable for drinking now. Our main food plants such as breadfruit and pawpaw are dying because of the ocean. Many workers do not want to go to work, as they stay home to rebuild seawalls from the rubble before the next high tide in a few days.” (Toroman 2015)

She ends in fearful anticipation of the approaching king tide, an abnormally high tide that has become more powerful and brought greater devastation to all islands in Kiribati over recent years. She has great reason to worry, as her house was located on land that rose just a couple inches above the ocean during high tide. Most islands in Kiribati are thin strips of coral that rise, at most, only several feet above sea level. The lands I-Kiribati live on today are ancient barrier reefs that once surrounded high volcanic islands. Over tens of billions of years, these towering volcanic islands subsided below the ocean, leaving a thin barrier reef behind. Early settlers of these islands, some four or five thousand years ago, lived in a delicate balance between man and nature. They exploited their environment in its totality, and their cultures evolved in harmony with it (Macdonald 2001: 4–5). Very little has changed since then.

I first went to Kiribati as a Peace Corps volunteer in 2000. I left home knowing very little about global warming, and when I arrived in Kiribati, I felt like I should have looked more into the subject. In my first letter home, I wrote this passage:

“It’s so pretty here, but scary too. I heard about global warming, and I wonder if it is true. Being here sure makes it seem real. But, I guess I trust the US government. They wouldn’t send us here if they thought it was a problem.” I asked one of my Kiribati teachers about global warming, and he assured me that it was nothing serious. He said, “people have been saying that Kiribati would go under the ocean ever since the 1980s, and look, we are still here. So, Mike, don’t worry.”

Over the past sixteen years, however, the growing devastation from the impacts of climate change has worried many in Kiribati. As a Peace Corps volunteer, I rarely heard any discussion about global warming in the village. Whenever I brought up the subject, close friends and family would laugh at the idea. Friends and adopted family members would reassure me that Kiribati was safe from drowning by pointing to rainbows (an almost daily occurrence on the equator), and saying things like, “See! There is his promise in the sky; we are safe!”

I returned in May 2004 for work on my first master’s degree in on the growing HIV/AIDS prevalence rates and social stigma. Then, Tarawa was experiencing an unusually prolonged drought, and months before an exceptionally high king tide had washed over the land. The impacts of a rapidly changing environment were being felt. However, most people I talked with in this mostly Christian nation held onto the biblical teachings of faith and obedience. It wouldn’t be much longer before the evidence changed people’s minds about climate change. A ten-year time-lapse of a village adjacent to my host family’s community, Abarao Village, is provided to exemplify the damages experienced in Kiribati.

Host family elders laughed at me when I asked them about moving away from Kiribati if the situation were to become worse. In response, I would hear a chorus of, “I am from Kiribati, my land is here, and I will not leave.” The connection they have to their land is so secure that even the encroaching tide may prove too weak to break this bond.

On the other hand, Kiribati senior secondary schools graduate thousands of students each year. Of these, a handful will earn scholarships and continue their studies overseas. Some will continue schooling at local training institutions, and a few will find employment in Kiribati. The majority of graduates will return home. For this population, the opportunity to work overseas is an opportunity of a lifetime.

In 2001, New Zealand began accepting up to seventy-five Kiribati citizens each year through its Pacific Access Category (PAC) migration scheme. To qualify for the lottery, citizens must meet certain age, health, and character requirements. If picked, lottery winners must then obtain a job offer from a New Zealand–based employer. When employment is secured, the individual and immediate family can migrate to New Zealand as permanent residents. In 2007, New Zealand implemented a new work-based migration scheme. The aim of the Regional Seasonal Employer (RSE) scheme was to fill labor shortages in the New Zealand agricultural industry.

That same year, Ioane Teitiota, an RSE migrant worker, traveled to New Zealand with his wife. He worked in the agriculture industry while his wife worked in a rest home. During a 2011 routine traffic stop, Ioane was arrested when New Zealand authorities discovered that he had overstayed his work visa. Wanting only to extend his visa, he reached out to Michael Kidd, an Auckland-based attorney. His case took a significant turn when his extension was denied, and Kidd argued for his stay based on humanitarian criteria. Ioane’s case unexpectedly became a seminal case in the fight for climate refugee status (Weiss 2015). Ultimately, after a four-year battle, Ioane lost and was forced to return to Kiribati with his wife and three New Zealand–born children. In its final ruling, the court stated that “a ‘sociological’ refugee or person seeking to better his or her life by escaping the perceived results of climate change is not a person to whom Article 1A(2) of the Refugee Convention applies” (Buchanan 2015).

While the world continues to argue over the legal definition of climatically induced migrants, former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, works tirelessly to tell the rest of the world about the plight his country faces. In 2014, he purchased a 20-square-kilometer plot of land on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island for $8.77 million. The original purpose of the land acquisition was for agricultural purposes, but during a recent climate change conference in New Zealand, Tong stated that the land’s primary value was for international publicity and to give his people a sense of security: “People are getting quite scared now, and we need immediate solutions. This is why I want to rush the solution, so there will be a sense of comfort for our people” (Radio New Zealand 2016).

Kiribati is just one of many nations on the frontlines of climate change. My friends and adopted family members in Kiribati have silently suffered losses of crops, houses, and villages. Climate change is already having an impact on the country. What happens in Kiribati and other frontline nations should be a wakeup call for the entire world, but unfortunately, few people know Kiribati exists. Despite this, I maintain hope that we will find ways to move beyond business as usual, not necessarily because we will want to but because we will have to.

Buchanan, Kelly. 2015. “New Zealand: ‘Climate Change Refugee’ Case Overview.” Washington, DC: Law Library of Congress (accessed 16 April 2016).

Kirata, Babera. 1989. “Kiribati Country Statement.” Presented at the Small States Conference on Sea Level Rise, 14–18 November, Malé (accessed 15 April 2016).

Macdonald, Barrie. 2001. Cinderellas of the Empire. Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific.

Radio New Zealand. 2016. “Kiribati Climate-Induced Migration to Start in Five Years.” RNZ, 16 February (accessed 16 February 2016).

Singh, Shailendra. 2007. “Climate Change: South Pacific More Vulnerable Than Thought.” IPS, 22 February.

Toromon, Iorita. 2015. Personal communication, 19 March.

Climate activist, author, and visiting professor at the University of Cincinnati