Sixth in a series of blogs on climate change and population displacement.
By Claire Havens, ACT population displacement researcher.
Imagine an entire nation, deciding on a date to emigrate en masse for their very survival.
Now imagine that date is rapidly approaching.
The timeline for mass exodus from the island nation of Kiribati is 2020 – less than five years away.
When a community is faced with threats to its very survival, the emergence of a strong and convincing leader to plan ahead, negotiate resources, and foster hope can be its saving grace. Two years ago, realizing his nation was in peril, President Anote Tong spent eight million dollars to buy about 20 square kilometres of land in Fiji, initially for agricultural support. But climbing sea levels, extreme storms, acidifying ocean conditions, and crop destruction from brackish water are threatening the population of 100,000’s survival more rapidly than expected, and the land is now considered a last resort for them to move to.
Even though Fiji – which recently became the first nation to ratify the United Nations Climate Agreement reached last December in Paris – is a three hour plane ride away, it will become the Kiribatians’ new home as they flee sea level rise.
“People are getting quite scared now and we need immediate solutions. This is why I want to rush the solutions so there will be a sense of comfort for our people,” said President Tong to Radio New Zealand in mid-February.
Half a world away, another nation is moving as well – the first climate refugees in the USA.
Thirteen years of campaigning by Chief Albert White Buffalo Naquin of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians has finally brought funding for his people to be relocated from their reserve lands on the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.
Chief Naquin has fought hard for his band (population: 360), which has seen 98% of its traditional lands disappear since 1955 due to sea level rise, land sinking, oil and gas development, and a decline in sediment deposition from the Mississippi River. In January, the Obama administration announced $48 million in funds for the band to “relocate to a resilient and historically significant community” further north and inland. The tribe’s website notes the reasons for their abandonment of traditional territory:
“Today, the land that has sustained us for generations is vanishing before our eyes. Our tribal lands are plagued with a host of environmental problems — coastal erosion, lack of soil renewal, oil company and government canals, and a rising sea level — which are threatening our way of life on this gradually shrinking island.”
Although the band rejected a previous proposal for relocation, the island is disappearing so fast that they have now resigned themselves to leaving it behind.
Chief Naquin and President Tong are the first of their kind: leaders of climate refugees tasked with leading their people to solid ground.
Their leadership will provide lessons, and a model for hundreds of future community resettlements around the world as seas continue to rise, and storms continue to brew.