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  • Michael Roman

Adaptation or migration?

Updated: May 29

Over time, population density has exponentially grown due to many factors in Kiribati and most pronouncedly in South Tarawa. Inland migration, an early adaptation strategy, was briefly implemented, however relocating on narrow strips of land had limitations.


Inherent in the concept of adaptation is having room to adapt, but we don’t have room, we can only move so far before we end up on the other side of our islands.

Another impact of climate change has been the loss of arid land. Taro, a locally grown tuber, necessitates pools of fresh water. Climate change impacts inhibit crop production. Mangroves, along with breadfruit, coconut, and pandanus trees, protect islands from erosion. However, increased occurrences of king tides and cyclonic activity accelerate erosion, and long-lasting impacts are e seen everywhere. Locally constructed sea walls made from coral stripped beaches and land reclamation projects utilizing foreign aid and technologies speed up the destruction of natural environments.


If adaptation strategies are short-term fixes, transnational migration, which raises questions of national sovereignty, may be the long-term solution.


On the 8th of July 2013, Fiji’s Acting Prime Minister announced the signing of a 6,000-acre estate purchase by the nation of Kiribati. The lease stipulated land use for agricultural purposes only. A year later, President of Fiji, Epeli Nailatikau, stated:


If the sea level continues to rise because the international community won’t tackle global warming, some or all of the people of Kiribati may have to come and live in Fiji, Fiji will not turn its back on our neighbors in their hour of need. You will be able to migrate with dignity. The spirit of the people of Kiribati will not be extinguished; it will live on somewhere else. You will not be refugees.

Essam El-Hinnawi of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) first described environmental refugees as those who have been forced to leave their traditional habitats, temporarily or permanently because of a marked environmental disruption that jeopardizes daily existence, severely affecting the quality of life (1985). Critics of this definition question its viability. Its broad qualifications could theoretically validate all interpretations ranging from volcanic activity to poor soil quality (Bates, 2002). In the case of Kiribati and other atoll nations, it could grant refugee status to impacted populations, something not permitted under the declaration as it currently stands.


Under the 1967 Refugee Convention Protocol, a refugee is a person who is “outside their country and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”


Many in Kiribati do not wish to leave their islands. The cosmological bond between land, personhood, and identity is too strong, and as Mikaio told me long ago, what God created, God will not take away. I believe there will be no flood, and everyone on the islands will be safe. He promised this to Noah and all of us in Kiribati.


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