Environment, Forced Migration & Social Vulnerability
International Conference 9-11 October 2008 Bonn, Germany
INTERNATIONAL RELOCATION FROM PACIFIC ISLAND COUNTRIES:
John R. CAMPBELL1,
1. Department of Geography, Tourism and Environmental Planning, University of Waikato, Hamilton,
ABSTRACT: Increasing attention has been given to the issue of adaptation as a response to climate
change, especially for Pacific Island countries (PICs) which have been identified as among those most
likely to be effected. One set of adaptive responses that has received a considerable amount of media
and political attention is relocation of communities from sites that might be rendered uninhabitable. There
has been much postulation about the likely need for, or problems associated with, relocation. However,
there has been very little research into the types of relocation that might be required, and the social,
cultural, political, economic and environmental implications of such an adaptive option. Relocation,
although a last resort, may become more common with many communities residing close to the high
water mark on the coast, on atolls, in wetland areas and on river flood plains. While most attention has
been focused on international relocation (particularly of atoll populations) other forms of relocation are
likely to be at least as significant including moves within countries (island to island) and within single
islands including “proximate” relocation such as moving inland from a coastal village site. All forms of
relocation have happened and/or continue to occur in Pacific Island countries for a variety of reasons
including phosphate mining, nuclear testing and tropical cyclone events, particularly following storm surge
devastation. The movements have often been associated with social, cultural, political, economic and
environmental issues such as tensions over land, community dislocation, inadequate resources and
unsuitable sites. The paper reports on field research in Fiji and analysis of literature sources to establish
a comprehensive list of relocated communities in the region, procedures under which relocation occurred
and implications of relocation for the communities concerned.
Key Words: community relocation; Pacific Islands; adaptation.
Pacific Island communities have been identified as being among the most likely to be affected by climate
change (Mimura et al., 2007). Accordingly, there has been a good deal of postulation about the likely
need for, or problems associated with, relocation as an adaptive response, by these communities, to
climate change and variability. However, there has been very little research into the types of relocation
that might be required, and the social, cultural, political, economic and environmental implications of such
an adaptive option. Relocation by Pacific Island communities, although a last resort, may become more
common with many residing on atolls, close to the high water mark on the coast, in wetland areas and on
river flood plains likely to be affected by global warming. The logistics of relocation need to be
investigated more thoroughly than has been the case to date. This paper reports on a project that
examined relocation in Pacific Island countries. This work included participatory research in a relocated
community and documentary research for information on other cases of relocation.
2. A NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY.
There are a number of terms used in the context of environmental variability and change and the
movement of people (Bierman and Boas, 2007; International Organisation for Migration, 2008; Kniveton
et al., 2008). Quite often the term relocation is used in relation to a variety of these concepts. For this
study it is important to distinguish community relocation from other concepts such as evacuation,
displacement, migration and environmental refugee, although there is often some overlap in the
meanings of these notions. Lieber (1977: 343) uses the general term resettlement to refer to „a process
by which a number of homogenous people from one locale come to live together in a different locale.‟ In
this study, the term relocation is used to refer to the permanent (or long-term) movement of a community
(or a significant part of it) from one location to another and in which the important characteristics of the
original community including its social structures, legal and political systems, and worldviews are retained:
the community stays together at the destination in a social form that is similar to the community of origin.
The term adaptation has been defined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as
„adjustment in natural or human systems in response to actual or expected climatic stimuli or their effects,
which moderates harm or exploits beneficial opportunities‟ (Parry et al. 2007: 869). The IPCC
acknowledges that adaptation may have costs which include the „costs of planning, preparing for,
facilitating, and implementing adaptation measures, including transition costs‟ (Parry et al. 2007: 869). In
the rural context of the Pacific Islands region, which is the basis for this study, the relevant „human
systems‟ will be village communities which may be seen as groups of people connected by kinship and
linked by birthright and/or kinship to local land and sea resources (after Hunnam, 2002). This paper seeks
to identify some of the social costs of community relocation as an adaptive option. If a community is not
able to re-establish itself in a new location, it may be considered to have failed to adapt successfully to
change and variability.
3. RELOCATION IN PACIFIC ISLAND COUNTRIES.
A literature search was conducted to identify relocated communities in the Pacific region. Ninety-six, of
the more than 500 items entered into a bibliographic database, were initially identified as cases that
involved population movement that had been described as relocation. These 96 cases were categorised
according to the reasons why relocation took place. On closer examination, many of these were, by the
definition adopted for this study, cases of evacuation in which the communities concerned returned to
their home site, or migration of individuals or families. Eventually we reduced the number of relevant
case studies to 33. As Figure 1 shows these relocations took place at a variety of dates, mostly in the
twentieth century and over a range of distances. Two thirds of the community relocations were forced by
environmental change, mostly in the form of natural hazards, although there were also cases of human
induced environmental degradation such as mining and nuclear weapons testing. A number of themes
emerged from the various studies and these are discussed below.
The literature search included ten case studies from a seminal 1977 publication, Exiles and Migrants in
Oceania, edited by Michael Lieber. The book reports on ten case studies of communities that „relocated‟
in the colonial era (a point that will be returned to later in this paper). As Lieber pointed out in his
introduction, there were a range of movements ranging from what has been defined as relocation in this
study through gradual development of „satellites‟ on new islands through to community dispersal upon
relocation. Using the information gathered from these cases and also from fieldwork in Biausevu, a
relocated village in Fiji, it was possible to identify four categories of relocation based not only on the
distance moved by the relocatees, but also the nature of the „boundaries‟ crossed in the process of
relocation. These categories included proximate relocation within customary land boundaries, proximate
relocation but beyond the communities' customary lands, long distance relocation within national
boundaries but outside internal boundaries such as beyond one‟s island or province and finally,
Figure 1: Summary of 33 case studies of community relocation in Pacific Island Countries showing the
range of dates (1905 – 2004) in which relocation took place and the range of distances covered (1 –
3,600 km.). The case studies are from 11 of the 22 political entities in the region (based on current
3.1 Proximate relocation within customary lands: the village of Biausevu
The Biausevu people and their forebears have relocated their village no less than four times in the past
135 years (see Figure 2). Originally the Biausevu people lived at Tilivaira, a fortified settlement on a high
ridge inland from the present site. Around 1875 the community moved to Teagane, a site on lower land,
closer to the coast, following the „pacification‟ of the local area when missionaries encouraged
communities to move from their inland settlements. This move was to land that belonged to the original
inhabitants of Tilivaira and where crops were probably grown in the fertile flood plain. Following a flood in
1881 in which Teagane village was destroyed the community moved further upstream to a site known as
Biausevu (No. 1). The village site still has clearly visible yavu (house mounds) and several graves are still
in good repair. The community remained at this site for almost sixty years until they were again subjected
to flood devastation in 1940. As a result of the damage the villagers moved to a new site known as
Busadule which was then inundated in 1972 during cyclone Bebe, one of the most destructive cyclones in
Fiji‟s history. The village was rebuilt in the same location but plans were put in place to seek a less
hazardous site led by the village chief. He identified a small hill, named Koroinalagi, as a suitable site.
He engaged a logging company which was extracting timber further inland from Biausevu to use a
bulldozer to flatten the top of the hill and place the removed material on its flanks, thereby widening the
surface area. The flat surface lies about 20-30 metres above the flood plain. When Cyclone Oscar
caused very heavy flooding in 1983, the site was already prepared and for the community to move yet
It took over a hundred years from the initial settlement of Teagane to the final move to Koroinalagi.
Several of the relocations were unsuccessful with the community moving from one flood prone area to
another. One might ask why did they not simply move uphill rather than upstream in the first place? One
possible explanation is that the community needed to have access to fresh water and also needed a flat
site upon which to rebuild. Cheaper PVC piping, which enabled the community to bring in water from a
head some distance away, and heavy earthmoving equipment, did not become available until the latter
part of the 20th Century. Today, the village is spilling onto lower land as its population grows. It is likely
that, while for some of the population the relocation has finally succeeded, it is not a solution for the full
Figure 2: Map showing the four village sites occupied over the past 130 years in the Biausevu area. Note
the original movement was from Tilivaira, the actual location of which is beyond the borders of this map.
3.2 Proximate relocation beyond customary lands
A number of the case studies reported on communities that had moved relatively short distances, but to
sites that were under the tenure of other communities. Many Pacific societies have procedures by which
such relocations can take place but they are subject to considerable negotiation and application of
traditional protocols. Despite this there is often resentment in the community whose land has been
resettled upon. Cagilaba (2005) reports on conflict between relocatees belonging to Solodamu village on
the island of Kadavu and members of the matagali (clan) that had conferred land to them. Some younger
members of communities do not accept the traditional arrangements arguing that there needs to be a
legally binding written contract for such moves to be accepted. Cagilaba also noted that not all
community members wish to relocate to other lands. Their ties to their own lands are too strong.
Accordingly communities can become divided between the relocatees and those who stay.
3.3 Relocation within national boundaries but at some distance from traditional lands.
There are a number of case studies where communities have relocated and established new
communities on other islands, often near the capital or main urban centre, within their own country.
Examples include the community of Polynesians from Kapingamairangi on the Micronesian island of
Pohnpei, and the Tikopia (Polynesian community) on Russell Island in Solomon Islands and Sikaiana and
Anuta communities in Honiara are examples. Such relocations often establish minority communities and
interethnic tensions may result. The issue of land (to be discussed later) remains, with „host‟ communities
loath to give up their birthright. Where communities have related in urban areas in Pacific Island
countries other social processes emerge. Modell (2002: 5) edited a special issue of Pacific Studies on
Pacific Island migrant communities in urban settings. She captures some of the issues confronting
migrants from rural areas into such settings:
In the following essays, community creation goes on in settings of complexity, heterogeneity,
and diversity characteristic of the “city.” These are settings in which class replaces kinship
and distance replaces closeness as the basis for interaction, where clues to personal
behaviours are puzzling and anonymity the mode of self preservation.
Modell was referring to communities of migrants, not relocatees or people who were subject to enforced
displacement. Nevertheless, she provides insights into the likely problems facing communities relocated
within countries but well away from their original lands.
3.4 “International” relocation
The term environmental refugee is evocative of people forced not just from their lands but from their
country. Much of the media discourse about climate refugees infers that millions of people from
developing countries will find their way to the developed countries. None of this discourse seems to
consider the possibility of entire communities relocating, let alone maintaining their social, political, legal
and cultural structures. Indeed we have very few examples to draw from of such international relocation.
There are only three cases of relocation beyond what we might call national boundaries in the Pacific
region (see Figure 3). The first of these is a Micronesian community from Banaba (now part of Kiribati),
which was devastated by phosphate mining which now lives on Rabi island in northern Fiji. The first
group arrived on December 15, 1945 (Silverman, 1977b). Fraenkel (2003: 12) reports that the „Banabans
remain one of Fiji‟s most disadvantaged and politically marginalised communities. Affirmative action
programmes for indigenous Fijian and Rotuman communities in the aftermath of the 1987 and 2000
coups have not been targeted at Banaban peoples.‟ Moreover, the original inhabitants of Rabi, who were
displaced to the nearby island of Fiji, are seeking to reclaim their island (Pacific Island Report, 2007).
Figure 3. The “international” type relocations that took place during the colonial period under the colonial
governance of the United Kingdom. The map shows the broad „cultural regions‟ of Oceania and indicates
that the three communities were relocated to quite distinct cultural milieux from their own.
The second example is a Polynesian community from Vaitupu (now part of Tuvalu) on Kioa island in
northern Fiji. The island was purchased in 1946 and settlement began 26 October, 1947 (Koch, 1978).
The final example is the Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) community in Wagani and Gizo, Western Province,
Solomon Islands (Knudson, 1977). This relocation, encouraged by the colonial administration of the
Gilbert and Ellice Islands which considered some of the atolls in the Gilberts group of islands to be
overpopulated initially began with relocation to islands in the Phoenix group in the central Pacific. But
these islands lacked sufficient fresh water and people were then relocated to Solomon Islands beginning
in 1955 and continuing through to 1971. The relocatees were placed in areas where land quality was poor
and in many cases they did not have security of land tenure (Fraenkel, 2003). Despite these
disadvantages the relocation has been a source of tension, and „while saying they were not hostile to the
Gilbertese as such, Western [Province] leaders resented the fact that their province took all the burden of
Gilbertese resettlement‟ (Premdas et al., 1984: 45).
4. DISCUSSION: IS RELOCATION ADAPTIVE FAILURE?
In nearly every case community relocation incurs costs. Even proximate relocation within one‟s own
lands raises issues. Climate change relocation often involves moving to a higher elevation and getting
water, food and people to such sites on a daily basis is an additional cost that the community must bear.
Longer distance moves have even greater costs especially elating to land, loss of community identity and
structure and the problem of international boundaries.
4.1 The importance of land.
Communities that are forced to relocate (either as a result of government edict or environmental
degradation) often find themselves in a state of discontent wishing to return to their homeland. Given that
climate change is an external “force” it is likely that such discontent would be an outcome for communities
that are relocated as a result of climate change effects. The root of this discontent is the very strong
relationship or bond that exists between most Pacific Island Communities and their land – in most cases
they are inseparable. This is certainly the case in Fiji as Ravuvu (1988) notes in relation to villages
located in central Viti Levu:
The people of Nakorosule wherever they are and in whatever work they are involved are
often reminded by their elders not to forget the Vanua, meaning the land and the social
system and the dela ni yavu, one‟s house site back in the village. … The Vanua in terms of
the dela ni yavu is the physical embodiment of one‟s identity and belonging. (Ravuvu, 1988:
The people of Nakorosule cannot live without their physical embodiment in terms of their
land, upon which survival of individuals and groups depends. It provides nourishment,
shelter and protection, as well as a source of security and the material basis for identity and
belonging. Land in this sense is thus an extension of the self; and conversely the people are
an extension of the land. (Ravuvu, 1988: 7)
Given this inseparable nature of the society-land relationship it is clear that for many Pacific Island
communities either abandoning land (particularly ancestral home sites), or giving land to relocatees, is
likely to be extremely problematic. As Ravuvu implies migrants are secure knowing that their vanua
remains. Climatically forced relocatees, however, may no longer have such security. Ravuvu also refers
to the importance of the house site and Cagilaba (2005: 76) makes a similar observation when discussing
the village of Solodamu, Kadavu, Fiji.
A traditional Fijian house or bure is always built on a yavu, which is the foundation of a
house … These yavu remain in [the] family always for them and their offspring‟s use. …
These yavu become almost sacred over time, having become imbued with Fijian
metaphysical qualities and there are usually repercussions for those who choose to build on
a yavu that is not of their family. Over time these yavu come to hold mana.
As these descriptions of vanua and yavu indicate, there are extremely strong relationships between
people and their place. The act of relocation may be seen as a measure that can create a fissure in this
set of relations. This may be particularly so for those who leave their vanua and yavu, but also may apply
to those who may give up some of their vanua for relocatees. This disruption of the land-person bond is
not so significant for emigrants who may always have the option of returning, but where land is physically
lost or made uninhabitable the disruption is much greater. O‟Collins (1990: 259) describes the poignant
situation of people relocated from the Carteret islands. These atoll communities are faced with a growing
population and subsidence of their land and are being resettled on the large, high island of Bougainville,
in Papua New Guinea, some 200 km. to the south.
The problems of adapting to a new environment for which most members of the family had
little or no preparation meant that the timetable for building a new Carteret Village,
establishing food gardens and moving from the transit houses had to be considerably
extended. Many women sat for long periods of time thinking about their island homes. On
Sundays they would often risk the 20 minute walk through terrifying tall trees and bush to
reach the seashore and gaze for hours out to sea towards the atolls.
4.2 International relocation in the post-colonial era
As noted, Lieber‟s collection was of relocation that took place in the colonial era under a number of
regimes. Silverman (1977a) noted that there were a number of reasons why this is significant. Colonial
administrations could make decisions about land and community locations with fewer constraints than is
currently possible where land is enshrined in laws that were established to protect customary land rights
in the newly independent nations. Second, colonial administrations could easily move people across
what are now international boundaries, as long as the territories were colonised by the same metropolitan
power. This was the case for the three existing cases of „international relocation‟. They all took place
under British Colonial Rule where the Western Pacific High Commission oversaw the Gilbert and Ellice
islands as well as Solomon Islands, among others, and was headquartered in Suva, Fiji.
Tonkinson (1977: 275) also points out another element of colonial relocation activities. Often they
encouraged or enforced relocation based on their colonial perceptions of particular sets of circumstances:
The 1951 relocation [of Ambrymese after the volcanic eruptions] differed from previous ones
in several important ways. First, the prolonged ash-falls that precipitated the decision to
evacuate the area were viewed as a crisis by the condominium government, not by the
Ambrymese, who were accustomed to such phenomena and regarded them as
inconveniences. Second, the decision to relocate was made by the administration, not the
Ambrymese. Third, the places selected for refuge were chosen because of their
convenience for the administration, not the preferences and needs of the Ambrymese. The
Ambrymese were reluctant to leave their homes, especially if this meant relocating on the
allegedly sorcery-ridden island of Epi. The misgivings of the Ambrymese were confirmed
when a hurricane struck Epi six weeks after the resettlement, killing forty-eight people and
levelling the shelters of the refugees.
While the majority of Pacific Island people are no longer administered by colonial governments, it is
important that Tonkinson‟s observations are observed by contemporary civil servants and others involved
in climate change adaptation work. Local environmental knowledge must be taken into account along
with local understanding of such events as extreme events.
Equally important are the implications for long-distance, international relocation. It is highly unlikely that it
would be possible to transplant a community from one cultural and environmental setting to another in the
contemporary Pacific. Where suitable land might become available (as in a freehold coconut plantation
being sold) the descendants of the original inhabitants would most likely have priority in most countries in
the region, if indeed the land was to be returned to customary ownership. Relocation outside the region
would most likely be to countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States where land is
held in fee simple and where the current political economy is capitalist and lifestyles are individualistic. In
this sense any form of population movement would be more likely to occur as migration with the
community characteristics of the origin being considerably transformed if not completely destroyed.
4.3 The costs of relocation as an adaptation to climate change and variability
Even moving a settlement to a new site within its own customary lands has costs. Most such moves are
to higher lands which require the costs of installing and maintaining water supply systems, carrying food,
firewood and other goods up hill. Relocating to proximate sites but beyond the traditional confines of a
community‟s own land often results in long term friction between the origin and „host‟ communities.
Rokocoko outlines some of these in her research on the relocated community of Solodamu in Kadavu,
Fiji. On the other hand the community retains access to its land and can carry on with its agricultural and
other activities (although the costs of distance would need to be accounted for). Moving away from an
island (or perhaps from one province to another in large countries such as Papua New Guinea) may
result in a disconnection between the community and their land. Some communities may return to
harvest copra, for example, but the regular use of land resources will decline. Lieber (1977) discusses
the social, cultural and economic divergence that has occurred between the Kapingamarangi community
on the atoll and that which has become established at Porakiet in Pohnpei.
The most problematic form of relocation is likely to be that involving international travel. It is possible that,
should the atoll environments of Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu (countries existing entirely
of atolls) become uninhabitable, such relocation may be rendered necessary. Given the difficulties of
making customary land available the options which were available under colonial rule are likely to be
more limited. There may be possibilities to buy freehold alienated land in other Pacific Island Countries
(such as plantations – as was the case in Kioa and Rabi) but it is equally likely that descendants of the
original land owners would be given preference in such instances. Relocation beyond the Pacific region
to countries such as Australia and New Zealand are likely to pose other types of problems. While
freehold land could be purchased there would be problems recreating community life in these places. It
would be much more likely that relocatees would be placed in urban areas and establishing themselves in
existing Pacific Island diaspora communities. Figure 4 represents schematically the nonlinear
characteristics of relocation, not simply associated with distance in a quantitative sense, but also, and
perhaps more importantly, with the qualitative nature of „boundaries‟ that must be crossed.
Beyond international border
Beyond island or province
Beyond land boundaries
Within customary lands
Distance from origin
Difficulty of relocation
Figure 4. The costs of relocation. The social, cultural and economic costs of relocation increase with
distance. They also increase when certain thresholds are exceeded such as crossing land tenure
boundaries, island boundaries or national boundaries.
Community relocation is not new to Pacific island communities. But it does not come without cost even
for the most proximate forms. At the extreme of international relocation the costs would appear to be
exceptional. Communities would most likely fall apart, the person-land attachment would be destroyed
and community members would be subject to, and dominated by economic, nutritional, legal, political,
social and political systems that are vastly different from what currently exists in their home settings.
Such relocation may accordingly be considered to be adaptive failure.
This report is partially based on research funded by the Asia Pacific Network for Global
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