Climate Change's First Refugees


Chief Bernard Tunim confronts the issue head-on: 'We didn't create global warming but we are its first victims. The industrialized world must take decisive action at the Copenhagen summit before it's too late for everyone.'

Standing in knee-deep water on Piul Island, Chief Bernard points to a decaying coconut stump nearly 200 metres offshore from the beach we are standing on.

'That used to be our shoreline only 10 or 15 years ago,' he says. 'Look how the sea is eating us away. We are only a small island, the king tides have already swamped our gardens and soon we'll have to leave. The future of my island is now only for fish, not people.'

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Piul is one of 5 atolls that make up the Carteret Islands group in Papua New Guinea, where the 3,000 islanders who live on these beautiful yet vulnerable atolls are being recognised as the world's first climate change refugees.

Preparations are being made to relocate them to nearby Bougainville, a large mountainous island, over the next year or two. For them, talk about climate change and rising seas is not an abstract concept but one that's a hard reality.

Chief Bernard has no time for debates over whether the problem is man-made or not, the effect is the same for him and his people — they'll lose their homeland. Like many islanders, he worries that the debates by scientists and climate sceptics, along with government inaction, are delaying concrete action.

Chief Bernard Tunim stands in the destroyed gardens of Piul Island,
washed away by continuing king tides and sea surges.

Two or three times a year, king tides wash over the islands, destroying the gardens with their force and salinity. Root crops like taro and sweet potato, once their staple diet, can no longer be grown and the Carteret islanders are now living on fruit, fish and food aid, mainly rice, sent by the regional government. It can be a terrifying experience to be on these low-lying atolls during a storm, when wind and seas lash their vulnerable villages.

'My husband and I have had to rebuild our hut twice in the past few years because of flooding,' says one woman on Han Island. 'I woke up in the morning once with water rushing in and my pots and pans floating out to sea.'

Young people are ready to leave the atolls, once enough land and housing has been set aside for them on Bougainville. They say they have no future left here.
Yet many old people say it is too late for them to leave their homes. They are too old to start and maintain new gardens. They prefer to 'go down with the ship' they say with nervous laughter.

The kastom (traditional) life of many Pacific Islanders often revolves around the ever-present spirit world. Ancestral spirits are acknowledged and often worshipped.  Part of the trauma of islanders leaving their homes is the feeling that they'll be abandoning their ancestors, including those buried in cemeteries.

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