The South Pacific island state of Kiribati is in danger of disappearing into the sea. Its government decided to buy land in Fiji to protect its residents from rising sea levels. Bastian Hartig paid a visit.
“All that land,” says Sade Marika as he makes a long, sweeping gesture with his arm, “belongs to Kiribati.” The area that the thin man on the hill points out stretches from the South Pacific, a few kilometers off in the distance, to the mountain tops that scrape the sky about the same distance away in the other direction. A dense forest stretches between them. The area is more than 2,000 hectares (50,000 acres). The tiny island state of Kiribati purchased the property on the much larger and, above all, higher island of Fiji, three years ago. Residents on Fiji’s coast are affected by rising sea levels, but those living in the interior of its two main islands – the volcanic mountains of which rise 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) above sea level – are not. Everything in the Kiribati atoll, on the other hand, is near the coast, with no part of any of its islands more than a few meters above sea level. Life for the island state’s 115,000 residents is becoming increasingly difficult. The rising ocean is not only forcing people together on less and less land, it is also increasing the salinity of their drinking water.
The forward-thinking president
The coming disaster forced Kiribati’s then president, Anote Tong, to take action back in 2014. It was his administration that purchased the piece of property that Sade Marika is now standing on. Marika is the village leader of the 270 resident community of Naviavia, just a few hundred meters down the dusty, red sand path that we are standing near. This is an idyllic corner of the world, framed by coconut palms on one side and a crystal clear rivulet on the other. It is very peaceful. A few men have gathered to chat, standing on the narrow path that winds its way through the village. Birds chirp all around and children are waiting for dinner as a dozen young men play rugby – Fiji’s national sport – on the village sports field. These people are all the descendants of slaves that their former British overlords brought here from the Solomon Islands in the 19th century to work on cotton plantations.
Naviavia’s future, however, is uncertain. The tiny community lies right in the center of an area that now belongs to the country of Kiribati. And Kiribati has big plans for the area. “We were told that they want to farm here, planting mainly manioc (taro) and yaqona (the root from which kava is made),” explains Sade Marika.
For the economic development of Kiribati
When I ask Reteta Rimon, Kiribati’s ambassador to Fiji, about the plan, I find that it is only half of the story. “We are still in the planning phase,” says the elegant lady, on the sidelines of a preliminary meeting in Fiji’s third-largest city, Nadi, ahead of the global climate summit in Bonn. “It has yet to be determined exactly what will be done with the land but whatever is done it will be used to benefit the economic development of Kiribati.” The possibilities here are many and go far beyond farming. “There are also musings about expanding our fishing sector,” says Rimon.
The 33 islands and atolls that make up Kiribati are spread over an area of 5.2 million square kilometers (2 million square miles), the area is also home to the richest tuna fishing in the Pacific Ocean. To date, Kiribati has profited little from that fact. It leases out its own fishing licenses but most of the profits go to others and Kiribati residents scrape together an existence from shoreline fishing. “Our current government is planning to build up a new, open sea fishing fleet,” explains Reteta Rimon. “Furthermore we want to start up a fish processing industry.” That will require space and a lot of fresh water, things that Kiribati itself does not have. It also lacks other resources, like wood and stone.
But all of those things do exist on the 20 square kilometers that surround Naviavia. Thus, sooner or later, the villagers will get new neighbors – even though no one knows just how many will come from Kiribati and when. Ex-President Anote Tong once said that if necessary all of Kiribati’s residents could be sheltered on Fiji. But Reteta Rimon can’t see that happening, “Kiribati is our home, we don’t want to abandon it.”
Coming to grips with a new reality
People in Naviavia express cautious optimism. “Here in the Pacific we are all somehow similar,” says Efraimi Tangenagitu. The small, stout man stands in front of his wood and sheet metal hut. “I don’t think we’ll have any problems.” But as he says this, his warm round face betrays a certain inner tension. When the plans were presented to the villagers they were by no means excited about the prospects. There were worries about whether they would be able to live together, simply because both peoples speak different languages. But now, no one really wants to talk about all that. People here say it is a done deal and they do not want to do anything to damage relations with their future neighbors before they even arrive. Kiribati also seems interested in cultivating good relations. The president himself visited the village to assure residents that they had nothing to fear.
In Naviavia, residents have decided to accept this new reality – for they really have no other choice. No one ever asked them if they were in favor of selling off the land. The property itself belongs to the Anglican church, which simply allows villagers the right to use it. The village now has 120 hectares to use as it sees fit. Village leader Sade Marika says he wants to concentrate on the positive side of the situation. “They promised us that we would be included in the economic development of the country,” he says, adding that he hopes Kiribati’s plans will also mean jobs for Naviavia residents. The only thing that is certain here, is that lives will be fundamentally affected by climate change. In Naviavia, residents are determined to make the best of it. They have no other choice.