Kiribati: Climate Change Refugees and Ambitious Conservation

Published on October 1st, 2009 | by

Kiribati is a group of islands and atolls in the south Pacific- almost all Kiribati land is less than 3 meters above sea level.

“Kiribati is a Christian country and has a strong belief … that the Almighty God will surely not destroy His own creation,” says Tukabu Tereroko, Kiribati Minister of the Environment. “However, we know that the rising sea level is caused by human greediness to have more than enough.”

Photo Credit: Joplopy Are rising sea levels bringing the final sunset for Kiribati?
Are rising sea levels bringing the final sunset for Kiribati?

Rising sea levels are causing a slew of problems- higher sea levels mean more flooding happens in homes, The ocean’s salt water is getting into and contaminating groundwater traditionally used for drinking and farming. Also, the amount of ocean water where they can claim exclusive fishing rights is based on land size, so rising sea levels mean less legal fishing water. They also threaten the farming of coconut, Kiribati’s number one export crop, in the form of dried coconut.

Many residents are leaving, adding to the growing number of worldwide climate change refugees, many of whom are from Pacific Island nations like Kiribati.

Those who remain, though, are dedicated both to their nation and to conservation efforts.

“Some of my friends have migrated … looking for greener pastures. But I refuse. I chose to return to Kiribati and to stay in the Pacific so that I could help my people,” said Pelenise Alofa Pilitati of the Kiribati Church Education Directors’ Association.

Nations that feel the effects of climate change most immediately are making the most bold moves to combat it as well. The Maldives have pledged to become a carbon neutral nation, and Kiribati has created a marine life preservation zone the size of California. Their preservation zone makes up 15% of the protected marine area in the world and has perhaps the best, most well-preserved coral reefs in the world- valuable for research on the effects of climate change.

Kiribati’s President Anote Tong has tempered faith in the divine with a pragmatic Plan B: connecting with NGO’s and other agencies around the world to create capital flow to Kiribati and help preserve the local habitat.

Travel writer Maarten Troost, who spent two years living in Kiribati, said that taking matters into their own hands and planning ahead is a huge step for the country.

“The government [formerly] controlled everything and did nothing. Back in the day … officials in Kiribati were blithely confident that when push came to shove, God would step in and save the islands of Kiribati. So it’s good to see President Tong looking toward a Plan B should divine intervention fail,” said Troost.

The preservation created by President Tong is called the Phoenix Island Protected Area. Kiribati teamed up with the New England Aquarium and Conservation International to make the project happen.

Environmental issues and increasing overcrowding continue to create question marks behind the future of Kirbati. But Kiribati residents have one thing that other island-dwellers threatened by rising sea levels don’t have: A guarantee of somewhere to go.

The New Zealand government has guaranteed that all residents of Kiribati will be able to move there if the worst happens to the island nation. Residents and possible climate change refugees from many other island countries aren’t so lucky.

Kiribati and other island nations like it have preserved the past because of their distance from industrialization, but also show us the future from susceptibilty to the effects of climate change created on distant shores.

[Research and quotes from Global Post]


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