A 2008 return
The land was brown, and the plants were dying when I returned in 2008. “It has been like this since last year,” Rubenang yelled from the backseat.
The prolonged drought beginning in April of 2007 and ending in early 2009 affected all of Kiribati. The southern islands and Banaba were most impacted. The national Kiribati Adaptation Programme (KAP) office had just completed a nation-wide consultation with various island councils that identified more than fifty specific problems resulting from changing environmental conditions. Most frequently mentioned were concerns related to seawater inundation, which destroyed agriculture and freshwater sources.
The government is building up sea walls along all the causeways to stop the ocean, and families have made their walls to prevent the sea from damaging their homes and taking their land. I fear that soon we will all run out of land and homes to protect (KInterview 8. 2., 2008).
The immediate need to protect the land from stronger storm surges was evident. While rebuilding a broken sea wall, my cousin talked about relocating to another country. “Rebuilding seawalls and sandbags are only temporary fixes. I think if Kiribati is going to be flooded by the sea, there will be a big migration somewhere, that is the only way we can escape.” With no permanent adaptation options, migration becomes sensible. “Our land is not an easy thing to leave, and the problem with leaving is the cost. Moving takes money, and this is our land, our wealth. The sea used to make us rich, and it still does, but now it makes us poor.” I grabbed another bag of cement mix and dropped it on the wall. Another man shared his perspective,
Ten years ago, twenty coconut trees flourished in the front yard of my home on Tarawa. Today, only two remain. Each high tide floods my yard with salt water, killing the vegetables and coconut trees I cultivate for food. My problem is not unique. Climate change, the culprit behind the country’s droughts and rising sea levels, is slowly threatening to destroy the islands and render us as the world’s first climate change refugees (KInterview 8. 2., 2008).
Having a keen interest in what was happening, I spoke with the New Zealand High Commissioner’s office.
What we see from the President’s office now is, to adapt to climate change is to migrate. In the long-term, you will see that the adaptation strategy is not helpful. When you think about long-term investment for us, you need to relocate because you need to think about the future of your kids. I think most of the people would like to migrate, and we can tell because our PAC applications keep growing. They will get better opportunities in New Zealand (KInterview 8. 7., 2008).
The Pacific Access Category is an employment-based migration lottery scheme. Beginning when I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it permits 75 individuals a year from Kiribati, with specific requirements, to migrate to New Zealand as permanent residents with eventual citizenship opportunities.
In 2007, 4,398 I-Kiribati citizens, nearly 4.75% of the national population, left Kiribati. Federal immigration records show that of these, over half ended up in Fiji, New Zealand, or the United States. Those who left for higher education or temporary labor contracts went with the intent of returning. Others, moving permanently through ex-pat marriage, the PAC Scheme, or other ways, intend on starting new lives elsewhere. Then-President, Anote Tong, repeatedly stated his country was then in a dire situation, leaving many of his fellow citizens seeking international migration opportunities.
Climate change as a primary reason for migration has produced much research (Morrow-Jones, 1991; Wood, 2001; Bates, 2002; Castles, 2002; Perch-Nielsen, 2004; Frey, 2006; McLeman, 2006), which more often than not examines diverse populations experiencing similar environmental conditions. However, the focus of climate change has been on science, not humanity. In this way, long-term, transnational, and long-distance displacement studies, under the assumption that climate change induced migration will not happen for decades to come. Kiribati’s situation not only counters the belief that climate change belongs only to scientific paradigms of thought, and academic pursuits of distant theoretical value for the future of our planet. Devastatingly, Kiribati may be our canary in the coal mine, and we would be proper to heed its warning. “We may be gone first, but someone will go next. This makes global warming the single biggest moral test to humanity today (KInterview.8.3, 2008).”
Talks with my family highlighted the difference in opinions over migration. Some jumped at the idea of coming back to the United States with me, while others laughed and huffed at my question.
If you ask the older people, 70s-80s, if they want to leave, they will say why? I don’t want to leave; they have a traditional mind. Older people don’t want to die here (South Tarawa); they want to go to rest in their land. Mostly the older people won’t want to leave, the young would, because if you don’t have employment, how would you live? They will go to New Zealand or Australia and work on farms if they don’t have a proper education. But if it comes that we all must leave, I, we all have to choose the safer life and go (KInterview 8. 7., 2008).
That year, two more family members would win the PAC lottery and migrate to New Zealand.