“Don’t call us Victims” – Surviving climate change in the Pacific

  • By Nick Turner, EM TV News, Special to IOM

On face value, the Carteret Islands are a little piece of paradise in the Pacific. Located 86km north-east of Buka, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, the atoll is home to a scattering of five picturesque islands and some of the clearest ocean water I have ever come across.

However, dig a little deeper and spend just a few minutes on any of these five, low-lying islands, and the impact of climate change and rising sea levels is evident to even the untrained eye.

Cartaret Islanders read IOM disaster preparedness literature
Cartaret Islanders read IOM disaster preparedness literature

The people of the Carterets don’t want to be seen as victims though, instead wishing to be known as survivors. And survivors they are, with life amongst the atolls not exactly being easy.

Up until the introduction of seaweed farming, and the small income that a select few receive for their efforts in harvesting from the ocean, a currency-based economy was non-existent. The Islanders relied on trade amongst themselves and mainland Bougainville in order to survive, and many even say that the addition of the Kina to their everyday lives has actually been a negative one.

Having money has given rise to drug and alcohol related problems, and many are of the belief that the simpler, money-free life that the people of the Carteret have led for the previous 800+ years was a far greater option.

IOM representatives visiting the remote Carteret Islanders recently
IOM representatives visiting the remote Carteret Islanders recently

So with various social and environmental issues impacting upon the Carteret Islanders, how does positive change come about in order to empower the population and see them combatting, and surviving the negatives being thrust upon them?

Well, a helping hand is the answer, and that is coming from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and their development partners.

Working with various socio-economic groups amongst the five islands, the IOM Development Fund along with the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG), PNG Government and partners such as the Climate Change Development Authority (CCDA) have launched the Carteret Community Resilience Building Project.

The beauty of this new program comes in the form of it providing a helping hand, with the IOM and their partners providing ownership of the program to those of atolls and not simply being their to hold their hands through the implementation process.

An elderly, disabled local resident takes a breather
An elderly, disabled local resident takes a breather

Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation Manager with IOM, Wonesai Sithole, is the project director. Sithole says that when he first visited the Carteret Islands they asked him how the IOM could help them.

“Instead of saying what I could do for them, I asked them what they wanted to do for themselves,” he explained.

With that in mind, the IOM have developed a project that looks to empower the Islanders, and have them as the critical player in the transformative process.

“This is not a donation, it is simply complimenting what they want to do,” Sithole said.

Island Children pose for the camera
Island Children pose for the camera

The common trend here seems to lie in the fact that those of the Carteret don’t want pity, instead they simply want recognition and support for the issues they are currently facing.

Member for Atolls within the ABG, Raymond Masono, says that the project has his full support. He is excited by the prospect of the population being responsible for the implementation of the project, and hopes that those residing within the atoll don’t revert back to their default processes after the development partners leave.

“Everything we do, or try to do, is linked to climate change. You talk about education, you talk about health, food security, soil erosion, they are all part of climate change,” he said.

“These vulnerable communities are faced with the impact of climate change. Our people are already facing the realities of what the world is trying to prevent,” Masono added.

Over K150,000 worth of materials have been provided across the five islands for the various socio-economic groups and communities to use and implement the projects which they have chosen to pursue.

Water tanks, a new banana boat, building materials, sewing machines and approximately 200 bags of cement were a part of the haul, and the Islanders are excited to get started on a whole range of projects and initiatives.

  “some of the clearest ocean water I have ever come across”

  “some of the clearest ocean water I have ever come across”

One of the development partners involved in the project is the newly named Climate Change Development Authority. Manager for Adaptation, Emmajil Bogari-Ahai, says the approach being taken by the IOM in handing responsibility solely to those of the Carteret is an exciting strategy.

“I think the approach that IOM has taken where they want the community to take the lead is the right approach,” she said.

The big question though, which for now remains yet to be answered, is whether or not the community can follow through and successfully implement the plans and strategies that they have had the required assistance in creating.

Bogari-Ahai is one of many who has faith in the Carteret Islanders.

“They might have problems starting off but as long as they maintain that drive and don’t lose focus, I have confidence and faith in the project,” she states.

For the sake of the Carteret Islands, and the future prospects of those living amongst the low-lying atoll, let’s hope she’s right as it’s a piece of paradise well worth saving.

The author films local children

The author films local children

The Carteret Islands (also known as Carteret AtollTulun or Kilinailau Islands/Atoll) are Papua New Guinea islands located 86 km (53 mi) north-east of Bougainville in the South Pacific. The atoll has a scattering of low-lying islands called Han, Jangain, Yesila, Yolasa and Piul, in a horseshoe shape stretching 30 km (19 mi) in north-south direction, with a total land area of 0.6 square kilometres (0.2 sq mi) and a maximum elevation of1.5 metres (4 ft 11.1 in) above sea level.

The group is made up of islands collectively named after the British navigator Philip Carteret, who was the first European to discover them, arriving in the sloop Swallow in 1767. As of 2005, about one thousand people live on the islands. Han is the most significant island, with the others being small islets around the lagoon. The main settlement is at Weteili on Han island. (Wikipedia)