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

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

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.
  • Christopher Pala

    That sea-level rise will leave low-lying islands underwater makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, it’s not true. As I explained in Science magazine here
    and in The Atlantic here
    mainstream scientists who study sand islands (they’re called geo-morphologists) have determined that so far, the five-inch rise in sea level in the past 50 years has had no significant effect on the size of any atoll. They say that as the sea in the central Pacific rises four feet by 2100, waves from big storms every few years will wash over them and deposit sand ( which is how the islands got this way in the first place) and the islands will actually rise in tandem with the sea. In other words, the fact that the atoll islands are just a few feet above sea level is not a coincidence, but an equilibrium that will be maintained as the level rises. Thus, there is no existential threat.
    In addition, Kiritimati, the largest atoll in the world, will survive the rise almost entirely unchanged, and an EU study has determined it has enough freshwater for another 20,000 people — more if, as predicted, more frequent El Nino events will increase rainfall in the East-Central Pacific.
    Since you are going to Fiji, I would urge you to travel to the property the Kiribati government bought for about $8 million taken from the country’s $300m trust fund. You will likely be told, as I was, that the purchase makes no sense because only a couple of hundred people could live off the land there, and they would have to learn farming techniques wholly foreign to atoll dwellers. And the notion of buying the land for food security makes no sense either, since the food grown there by I-Kiribati for consumption in Tarawa would be far more expensive than that available in the Fiji markets.
    Where Kiribati needs aid and expertise is how to motivate the recent settlers to the flood-prone parts of South Tarawa that were previously and rightly shunned by native Tarawans to return to the safe parts of the outer islands from whence they came. They will need better schools, health care, transportation and communication — but the payoff is they will be able to maintain the culture and lifestyle at the root of their identity, which they clearly wish to maintain.

  • Rimon Rimon

    Bravo Pala!

    What a reassuring statement you are presenting here!

    Perhaps you would have a different say if you were making those comments from the atoll islands but no, you are making them from the comforts of your highly-elevated home somewhere in DC!

    This is what I see first-hand: that the sea level is increasing at an alarming rate, that we get water every other day because our water lens (our only source of drinkable water) is being intruded by the sea water, that our local food crops can’t grow well as the ground water is brackish. Is this the equilibrium you so fondly write about?!

    You can’t surely rely and insist on your so called study-findings and say that its safe for us in the islands? Common Pala, the life of humans should never be put at risk not especially when they are already experiencing signs that spells disaster.

    I invite you to switch homes, come stay in my home in Kiribati while I stay in your home in DC… perhaps then you may understand what we are crying out for…

  • Matthieu Rytz

    Dear Christopher,
    I am not a scientific but a filmmaker doing a feature movie about the Kiribati and the brave quest to of its people find solutions.
    I saw, in few publications, the discussion about the fact that the atoll can grow as any other corals structures in the world… but the problem is that due to acidification of the ocean most of the corals are diying, meaning that the atolls will not be able to adapt themselves to the rise of the see level. Could you please give your comments on that ?

  • Brady Fergusson

    First of all, thank you, Janice, for working on this project. I hope the stories you collect will help us better understand what is happening to and what is being done by the people of Kiribati so that we can come up with ways to help them face their challenge.

    As far as the impact of the rising sea, it is not only causing problems on Tarawa, but on outer islands also, as saltwater intrusion is making wells brackish and reducing the production of coconut trees, breadfruit trees, and taro. Even if the islands themselves can adapt, the people who inhabit them may not be so fortunate. Unlike the millions of people on the continents, the people of Kiribati have nowhere to which they can retreat.

  • Tebetikan Langley

    Hi Janice
    Thank you for taking this ‘issue’ to the forefront of today’s concerns. I believe climate change plays a big role in the demise of the I-Kiribati people however, I also believe the I-Kiribati people play a role (but to a lesser degree).

    As a nation, we have totally depended on aid donors to help us out with our infrastructure, education, health etc but we have not stepped out in front of the world to show how we can resolve most of our issues. For example: 1) Causeways – bridges would have been a better option. A scientist does not need to tell us this. 2) Sea bed dredging – the locals should be educated and reminded about the consequences of removing large stones and rocks that act as water barriers. A scientist does not need to tell us this. 3) Over population – on Tarawa. A scientist does not need to tell us this. 4) Cleanliness and good health. A scientist does not need to tell us this.

    We have very highly educated people in Kiribati who should be able to establish a ‘think tank’ group in order to motivate the locals to initiate constructive and sustainable ideas regarding how to better cope with climate change.

    I agree with PALA’s suggestion in the last paragraph of his comment, that people from the outer islands should be encouraged to move back to their home islands. I see this as a positive strategy – the island communities can come together to work on projects that will help prepare them for disasters.

    My understanding of the Adaptation Program is to provide the communities with EXPERT advise on what to do and how to do it. I also believe the Adaptation Program should be encouraging the outer island communities to relocate from Tarawa back to their home islands.

    Wouldn’t it be so wonderful to hear in two years from now that the island of Butaritari is home to the Ministry of Agriculture; Maiana is home to the Ministry of Education; Abemama is home to the Ministry of Natural Resources and so forth. That will certainly deal with the over population problem on Tarawa. Tarawa is rapidly becoming one huge ‘shanty town’!

    Regarding the displacement to Fiji, I am going to keep a keen eye on this development. I am sure that losing one’s identity, culture and way of life can be a very devastating experience.

    I always look forward to my trips back to Kiribati but by the same token, I feel very saddened to see self inflicted negative changes coupled with the effects of climate change.

    I do hope you get to interview the elderly as well. I am sure they will be able to share some personal experiences, thoughts and observations, regarding climate change, with you. I look forward to reading more of your articles on Kiribati in the near future.

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