Climate Change's First Refugees (Page 2 of 3)

'The hardest thing will be to lose our sacred places, our tambu places,' says Chief Paul Mika from Han Island. 'We can talk to our ancestors, and they can talk to the gods to calm the weather or bring rain when we need it. We tried using magic to stop the rising seas but it seems not to have worked. The old gods can't hear us. Some elders blame sorcerers from other islands, or that canoes are travelling too much, or that the young people are misbehaving. Some say the old gods are angry that we are Christian now, so they are punishing us by flooding our islands.'

Charlie Tsiri (left) clears bush for a sweet potato garden at his new home on
Tinputz Catholic mission land. In the background are the first three houses
built for resettled Carteret islanders.

While the Catholic Church has given over some of its land for resettlement on mainland Bougainville, the autonomous government there is having trouble alienating larger tracts of land for the Carteret refugees. Pressure on land is intense throughout the region with growing populations and most good agricultural land already utilised. The Bougainville government is facing now what many other governments will soon face: how to relocate entire communities so they can be self-sufficient and live harmoniously with other communities, especially the kastom land owners.

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Chief Paul looks downcast, the looming sense of loss apparent in his face.

'We will miss our island life; it is a very easygoing life here. Isolation has had its own security. Here there are no taxes, no police, no government, no mortgages.we feel safe, we feel free here. Now we know that our islands will soon be swept away by the sea and my people are frightened.'

Yet it is equally important to recognise the traditional resilience and mobility of these island communities. Throughout history, islanders have moved when various pressures afflicted them, from tribal war, to fresh water scarcity, fishing grounds, to the lure of Christian missions and urban life. Climate change presents just the latest challenge for islanders to make the best of a bad situation and adapt — as they always have.

Although island leaders remain angry at the disregard industrial nations seem to have towards vulnerable island states, they don't wish to be seen as victims or refugees yet. Many are hoping to take advantage of the situation, sensing that billion dollar funds are opening up by groups including the United Nation, Commonwealth and European Union. Funds available for climate change mitigation can be harnessed to achieve basic developmental needs and infrastructure.

As Dr Rolf Payet of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) said
recently: 'Solutions to climate change are also the solutions to global poverty.'

In fact, Pacific states are realising that they may have a distinct advantage in the re-ordering of the global economy as it moves away from a dependence on fossil fuels. Developing nations in equatorial zones have begun a concerted move towards renewable energy.

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