“We are losing our cultural heritage just as the sea relentlessly wipes out our food gardens. We do not need labels but action.”
- The Carteret Islanders, the world’s first environmental refugees.
Carteret Islanders in need of relocation
infrastructure needs including new homes, schools, healthcare and social services.
Cost to build one house
Estimated cost per year of adaptation in all developing countries if emissions are not cut fast enough
Small atoll communities have been on the front lines of climate change and sea level rise for several decades. The Carteret Islands lie 86 kilometers North East of post-conflict Bougainville their highest point just 1.2 meters above sea level. For more than 20 years the Islanders have fought against the ocean; building sea walls and planting mangroves but they are suffering from shoreline erosion and loss of land having receded more than 18 meters due to rising sea level, inundation of fresh water supplies and rapid onset storm surges and “king tides”. During storm surges salt water washes away homes, destroys gardens and contaminates fresh water supplies. Taro, the staple food crop no longer grows on the atoll and as the islands are composed mainly of soil and sand there is no arable agriculture making the residents entirely dependent on marine resources for their livelihoods and food security. Coral bleaching and depletion of fish stocks makes searching for food more dangerous. Resource scarcity can cause social discord amongst communities which depend on its strong social fabric for both a well functioning economy and day-to-day life.
Climate change presents a new challenge to the right to self-determination for Carteret Islanders facing the prospect of being forced to abandon their ancestral homelands. Owning land provides islanders with an identity and a sense of belonging. Socio cultural impacts of forced relocation are often overlooked, the attachment of people to their land and by extension their cultural history and way of life, means that displacement can have large consequences for community self-sufficiency and well-being due to changed means of food production, opportunities for income generation and unequal voices for women and men in decisions surrounding climate change. For the Carteret Islanders there is a deep burden of loss and through the process of displacement and relocation there is a high possibility that traditional knowledge will be lost or will become irrelevant in new surroundings, creating feelings of isolation. For resettlement to be successful these socio-cultural aspects of integration need to be carefully navigated.
We support our partner community to document their heritage with the aim of maintaining a strong cultural identity in the face of permanent displacement. Community resilience is strengthened by supporting an integrated community-led relocation action plan. The Plan covers the construction of housing and infrastructure and envisages the development of agricultural and income generating projects, especially food security and land use management projects. Provisions have been made for strengthening education and healthcare facilities to benefit both the host communities and those becoming integrated. There are many complexities involved in integrating the Carterets’ people into existing communities that are geographically, culturally, politically and socially different. As such, we support Chief and Youth exchange programs and speaking tours between the Carteret Islanders and the host community to establish relationships of understanding, address changing skill needs, and gender climate change.
Photo: Shutterstock and N.Helajzen/Ethnovision.