The Last of the Children of the Tide

Many moons ago, in a faraway world, there lived a creature named Bonono, a giant eel larger than a coconut tree that would roam the ocean, hunting sharks and swallowing fishermen who had the misfortune to cross his path.

This is a legend of the people of the tide in the Tulun Islands, who live at the top of an underwater volcano in the Solomon Sea, known to the Western world as the vanishing Carteret atolls of the Pacific Ocean.

It’s said that they came here with the tide, many centuries ago, and attached themselves to the land, merged with it. No one has seen Bonono here for many decades but the Islanders are now plagued by a different beast: creeping, relentless and much more powerful.

It is devouring whole islands and its name is climate change.

I’m travelling there in my role as Chief of Mission for IOM, to inspect some bespoke climate change adaptation project we started on these remote, remote islands a year ago.

We start our journey in Buka, the capital of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea. My duty station is one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the only three that didn’t achieve a single Millennium Development Goal.

Our four-hour boat ride begins. We test the sat phone, check the food supplies, radio, GPS tracker and coordinates; all seems to be in order but the crew still looks anxious. Two weeks ago a fishing boat with 10 people onboard went missing – many people have vanished on this journey. The skipper, a weathered man with a mouth red from chewing betel nut, and skin so dark that it shimmers blue, looks relaxed. I guess I shouldn’t worry then. 

The engine is started and with a slight jerk forward, we’re off. The water is of such a shade of azure it looks like we are gliding on an icy desert. The giant white clouds are hanging so low, it feels like you can touch them, and their reflection on the water looks like submerged icebergs. Far far away we see pillars of rain that seem to unite some clouds and ocean, making them appear as trees growing out of the sea.  

Suddenly flying fish flit around and the boat and a little later the skipper frantically points to our right … a huge splash and we catch a glimpse of a whale diving back under, as he blows a fountain into the air. The water extends into the horizon in every direction with no landmass in sight. An eerie feeling sets in as I soak in this other-worldly scenery. As a kid, I remember reading about ancient cultures that viewed the earth as a flat plate propped up by three giant elephants standing on a colossal tortoise, and at the frontiers of this world the seas cascade off into the cosmos.

By noon, at last, we are on the approach to Han atoll, one of four Carteret Islands, and the boat stops about half a kilometre out – it can’t get closer without damaging the hull. We plunge waist-deep into the water and make our way towards the beach carrying our equipment above our heads. We meander between reef formations and clam shells of Jurassic proportions, trying to follow the submarine path and eventually, exhausted, aching and sunburnt with cracked lips, we step on terra firma. 

We are welcomed by Melanesian greeting songs and women splashing our feet with water, a ritual that will protect us from the evil spirits. After consultations with the elders we get to work, talking to the villagers and inspecting the fruits of the project.

IOM has been working here for over a year on climate change adaptation through a community-based approach, a grass-roots methodology we tailored for PNG. It’s a people-driven and cost-effective development model that enfranchises all members of the village, gives voice to every group, and produces a pathway for social and economic growth. If done right it works, it really works.

We see the newly built early learning classrooms (the first in ten years), seas walls, disaster resilient raised ‘keyhole’ gardens, improved seaweed and clam shell farming, new boats, water tanks, and the noise of ongoing sawing, hammering and agricultural training. The bonus is that all these ideas came from the community and, aside from seed funding and guidance from IOM, everything has been designed and constructed by the people themselves. Not bad for a remote island with no electricity, telecommunications or even a stable water supply.

More importantly though, the village is transformed: there is a tangible buzz of collective energy and momentum – “building of psychological resilience”, to use the language of development-speak.

“We’ve had many organizations, photographers, researchers come and go, but you guys left us with something real,” says Tony, the executive officer of the local administration, as he’s opening a coconut for me. It feels as though we’ve created a good Frankenstein; what started off as an adaptation and mitigation initiative has taken on a life of its own and evolved into a full-blown development programme.  

Despite all this progress however, the hard-hitting reality of climate change and sea level rise is painfully evident. We drive through a strait between two islands that were once one, not so long ago, we see depleting sandbanks, tree stumps rising from the water, we speak to families who point to the open sea to show where their gardens used to be. Whether you believe that the islets are sinking or the sea level rising, ultimately, resettlement is the only viable long-term solution for these people. They don’t like to hear that. This is their land, it always has been.   

As we are sailing from one island to another we encounter a frenzy of seagulls swooping down at the jumping tuna fish. Without giving it a second thought, our field officer Julius throws out a fishing line and within minutes we have our dinner flopping at our feet, even if it means fighting off birds that have taken a liking to our spoils. I begin to understand the relationship that the locals have with their surroundings. Their fabrics are interwoven: if forced to migrate a part of them will be left behind.

As we prepare to depart, the village elder explains to us how to stomp our feet on the ground and make grunting noises to ask the spirits for a safe passage back to the mainland. The light drizzle that begins to shower on us is the Island saying goodbye, we are told. The whole community is here to see us off and as I’m waving emotionally I try not to think about their future. But the reality is harsh and imminent, eventually the waves will engulf these atolls and the land will succumb to the ocean. The people waving back at me could be the last generation that treads these shores, the last of the children of the tide.

A special thank you to the people of Carterets, the Bougainville Women’s Association and the local level government officials.