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Losing Paradise: Stories of Adaptation and Displacement Between Kiribati and Fiji

I took this picture last summer, while I was living in a village on Tarawa, the capital island of the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati. The children are playing and enjoying themselves in the cool water that separates the two villages of Tanaea and Buota, on the northern side of the Tarawa atoll. This island...

Children play in North Tarawa, in the Republic of Kiribati. Image by Janice Cantieri.

I took this picture last summer, while I was living in a village on Tarawa, the capital island of the tiny Pacific nation of Kiribati. The children are playing and enjoying themselves in the cool water that separates the two villages of Tanaea and Buota, on the northern side of the Tarawa atoll. This island nation, however, might become uninhabitable during these children’s lifetimes due to rapid sea level rise associated with climate change. Kiribati, like many low-lying island nations, is almost entirely at sea level, so any change in sea level has serious consequences, especially for villages and families who live right at the shoreline. Some islanders have already migrated from Kiribati to New Zealand, Australia, and Fiji, but many more are still on Tarawa, adapting to the changes and remaining on the islands until the possibility of migration becomes inescapable. Last summer, I interviewed families and investigated how these changes have and are currently affecting the culture, community, and daily lives of those living in Kiribati villages, and how these communities are adapting and developing solutions. This year, I will return to the islands to collect and share the stories of families and communities as they face the possibility of wide-scale migration and displacement.

This is me with the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong. When I spoke with Mr. Tong about Kiribati, he told me, “The biggest question we are facing is whether it makes sense to spend resources in development for a country that will be underwater.” Image by Janice Cantieri.
This is me with the President of Kiribati, Anote Tong. When I spoke with Mr. Tong about Kiribati, he told me, “The biggest question we are facing is whether it makes sense to spend resources on development for a country that will be underwater.” Image by Janice Cantieri.

“The biggest question we are facing is whether it makes sense to spend resources on development for a country that will be underwater.” –Kiribati President Anote TongTweet this

The most pressing concerns for i-Kiribati living on low-lying atolls like Tarawa are the scarcity of secure food and drinking water sources and the significant property damage caused by the high tides and tropical storms. It is expected that the islands will become increasingly uninhabitable in the next 50 years. Most families in the outer islands of Kiribati practice a primarily subsistence-based fishing and harvesting lifestyle and their diet consists of the daily catch of fish supplemented with local produce. As the sea level rises, the coconut and breadfruit trees are dying, and the gardens and taro pits have been inundated, which makes it increasingly difficult for families to maintain their subsistence lifestyle without supplementing their diet with expensive imported foods.

The Banabans

While I was living in Kiribati last summer, I met Pelenise Alofa, a director of multiple climate change adaptation programs based in Tarawa and throughout the Kiribati islands. Pelenise works with families as they adapt to the changes caused by sea level rise and face the possibility of migration. She feels a deep connection with these communities because she herself is a descendant of a displaced island community, the Banaban Islanders. The residents of Banaba Island, also a part of Kiribati, were forcibly displaced by the British Phosphate Commission in December of 1945 and were moved to Rabi Island in Fiji, where a majority of the population has remained. Their home island of Banaba was nearly destroyed by the phosphate mining, and, even after the mining ceased, little was done to rehabilitate the island. The Banabans hold an anniversary ceremony on Rabi in December of each year to commemorate their displacement and celebrate their heritage. I will be documenting and sharing the 70th anniversary celebration on this blog.

Ms. Pelenise Alofa testing a newly constructed rainwater collection tank she helped implement in June of 2014. Ms. Alofa works throughout the Kiribati islands to manage community-based climate change adaptation projects. Image by Janice Cantieri.
Pelenise Alofa testing a newly constructed rainwater collection tank she helped implement in June of 2014. She works throughout the Kiribati islands to manage community-based climate change adaptation projects. Image by Janice Cantieri.

Pelenise grew up on Rabi Island, separated from her ancestral homeland, but she now works and lives in Tarawa, helping i-Kiribati communities as they again face the possibility of wide scale migration due to sea level rise. Her story inspired me to develop this project. As I return to the islands, I hope to discover further connections, lessons, and stories that can be shared between these two Pacific populations as they adapt to the reality of losing a physical connection to their heritage and sense of cultural identity. For the next nine months, I will follow these two stories of displacement, one historic, and one ongoing, to share the stories of the islanders as they face unimaginable changes. I hope that sharing the voices of these two populations will create opportunities for exchange and learning between them, while also raising awareness of both communities, their culture, and their challenges at the global level, which will connect human voices and personal stories to large-scale issues like climate change, migration, and displacement.

I will collect the stories of these two populations using personal interviews, images, video footage and journaling. I will first travel to Tarawa in Kiribati, then Suva City in Fiji, where many i-Kiribati are migrating to find work and educational opportunities as their resources diminish in Kiribati. Then, for the second half of my grant period, I will travel to Banaba Island to collect the stories of the original Banaban Islanders remaining on the island, and will finish my project in Rabi Island in Fiji, where the Banabans have lived for the past 70 years. I hope to run journaling and photography workshops in each of my field sites to transfer the storytelling process to the hands of those who I will be speaking with, to provide a form of expression and create an outlet for those whose voices have been suppressed or ignored.

Related News Articles:

Leader of Island Nation Advocates Exit Strategy for Rising Seas

Prediction of Rapid Sea Level Rise Won’t Change Global Climate Talks

Will Pacific Island Nations Disappear as Seas Rise? Maybe Not

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Meet the Author

Janice Cantieri
Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who will be documenting the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She will follow the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past seventy years. She will also follow the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She will be telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced using a combination of written stories, images, and video.