Journey to the Sinking Lands

A witness to the world's first evacuation of an entire people due to climate change

What’s going on?

Now I’ve been home long enough to talk to people about where I have been and what I have seen, I realise that some of the most basic facts about what is happening to the Carterets  – like the fact 8000 people are facing evacuation – never made it onto the blog at all.

Maybe I was just too wrapped up in the day to day while I was out there, whatever the reason I thought I’d put the following together to fill in the gaps. The two pictures here also show how much smaller the islands are getting (you see that coconut palm stump standing out in the sea? that used to be on the land) and what damage was done in the recent storms and high tides.

What are the Carteret Islands?

The Carteret Islands – or Tulun Islands in the local language, which translates as ‘Horizon’ – consist of five small islands amid a coral atoll about 50 miles off the coast of Bougainville in the far east of Papua New Guinea. The population is believed to be about 2500, scattered across the islands with one, Huene island, supporting only two families.

The islands were ‘discovered’ and named after himself by the British explorer Captain Philip Carteret who sailed there on his sloop ‘Swallow’ in 1767. They are now part of the autonomous region of Bougainville, which is recovering from a bloody civil war and hopes to become independent of Papua New Guinea.

What are they like?

Small. You can walk around the largest and most populated island, Han, in less than an hour. Life on the islands moves to its own rhythms; the only electricity is supplied by a few generators or solar panels so people wake and sleep with the sun. There is virtually no paid work and instead, people fish and gather fruit from the forest to survive. They are some of the nicest people I have met and, having visited, it is more the similarities between life there and at home that stay with you. The kids go to school, people go to church on Sunday. There is a weekly football tournament. And, on Sunday afternoons, the generator is fired up and the men gather around the only television to watch sport.

What’s going on?

The islands are getting smaller. Trees that were once part of the forest now stand out among the sea. The adults can tell you where they remember the shoreline reached in their childhood – as much as 50 metres further out from where the beach is now. Coupled with this are storm surges and high tides that are far worse now than any time in living memory. These smash in and strip away the land and the people’s fruit crops. What crops remain are being poisoned by salt.

As a result, the regional government has decided to evacuate the entire population of the islands, as well as those on three other coral atolls, Mortlock, Tasman and Niguria, and one island, Nissan, that are also experiencing similar difficulties. A conservative estimate puts the total number of people involved at about 8000.

Is this climate change?

The regional Bougainville government is convinced that it is, making these the first entire peoples in the world to officially be evacuated because of climate change. Certainly, what is happening to the atolls is exactly in line with the predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Others argue that subsidence into the sea is a natural geological feature of coral atolls.

As far as the people of the Carterets are concerned, it could be one, the other or both. Either way, they are being forced to leave their homes.

Are these people climate change refugees?

No, although they have often been mistakenly described as such. Technically, a refugee is someone who flees their country for fear of persecution. These people are being evacuated, and are leaving their homes, but they are not refugees.

What are people doing about it?

The regional government in Bougainville is in negotiations to buy land to resettle the people on Buka, and island to the north of Bougainville. Progress is slow and little has been made since the decision to evacuate was made in 2005. In the meantime, a ship carrying food and water makes the journey to the islands every 4-6 months, when the government can raise the funding to do so.

Frustrated at the slow pace of change, the people of the Carterets have set up their own NGO, Tulele Piesa, to manage their evacuation. So far the fathers of a few families have settled on mainland Bougainville where they are building homes for their families to join them.

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3 Comments»

  Harriet wrote @

Thanks. That very basic summary is really helpful.

  seven wrote @

I started sailing on an inland lake 35 years ago. Many of my favorite islands are gone. It was erosion. I must chart and remember the islands to prevent running aground. It sure isn’t global warming at all. It is settleing and washing away of the surface by wave action. All this was calculated when the lake was built. They expected the shoreline and small island erosion to cause a build up of the bottom. It has.

[…] “Dan” chronicled his experience at the Carteret Islands in his blog, “Journey to the Sinking Lands,” where he describes how life has been impacted by the encroaching sea: You can walk around […]


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