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Climate Change and the Imagining of Migration: Emerging Discourses on Kiribati's Land Purchase in Fiji

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In this article we concentrate on the discursive links between climate change, migration, land, and imagined futures. We argue that the large tract of freehold land purchased by Kiribati’s government in Fiji has led citizens in both countries to develop imaginings of migration, which we interpret as building blocks for a cultural construct of the future, in anticipation of projected hazards resulting from climate change and sea level rise. We show that, contrary to official pronouncements that the land had been acquired for reasons of food security, many citizens of Kiribati and Fiji associated the purchase with the option of a future relocation. Thus I-Kiribati have taken to perceiving this property in terms of their concept of land, hoping that, in the event of an existential threat, this new land will allow them to preserve culture, nation, and identity over the long term. Citizens of Fiji, too, rely on their concept of land, as when they see that survival for I-Kiribati will only be possible if they can ground it in a territory of their own. Moreover, the governments of Kiribati and Fiji both engage in a politics of hope that contributed to imaginings of migration. We conclude that the emerging discourses on migration related to the land purchase were fostered by cultural conceptions of land as well as the climate policies of the two Pacific Island states.
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The Contemporary Pacic, Volume 29, Number 2, 231–263
© 2017 by University of Hawai‘i Press
Climate Change and the Imagining
of Migration: Emerging Discourses
on Kiribati’s Land Purchase in Fiji
Elfriede Hermann and Wolfgang Kempf
Scientific estimates suggest that the low-lying coral atolls of the Pacific
will be especially affected by climate change. The vulnerability of atoll
islands and atoll states results from a specific constellation of physical,
ecological, social, and economic conditions, including the lopsided rela-
tionship between small land area and lengthy coastlines, and the problems
of coastal erosion, limited drinking water, high population density, pau-
city of economic resources, and low incomes (Barnett and Adger 2003,
322–323; Nurse and others 2014, 1623, 1634; Connell 2015, 1). Recent
studies of the changing morphology of atolls in the western and central
Pacific stress the stability that these islands have so far demonstrated in
the face of rising sea levels (McLean and Kench 2015, 456, 458; compare
Connell 2015, 9–11). Still, the projected consequences of climate change—
sea level rise, altered precipitation regimes, an increase in extreme weather
events, ocean acidification, and coral bleaching—carry considerable risks
for low-lying islands, since in combination with existing environmental
challenges they will exert long-term negative effects on ecosystems, coastal
regions, land surfaces, settlements, freshwater supply, and food security
(see, eg, Barnett 2005; Lazrus 2012; Campbell 2014; Nurse and others
2014; Connell 2015). Therefore, experts do not rule out the possibility
that climate-related changes to the environment and living conditions on
atoll islands will be such as to render their continued habitation impos-
sible for the majority of those living there and, consequently, threaten the
national sovereignty of atoll states (see Barnett and Adger 2003; Mimura
and others 2007; Barnett and Campbell 2010; Lazrus 2012; Nurse and
others 2014).
232 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
For Kiribati, an atoll state of the central Pacific, the scientific, politi-
cal, and media discourses conducted over the previous two decades on
the likely effects of climate change have been formative (see, eg, Teuatabo
2002; MacKenzie 2004). In this context, Kiribati’s government under
President Anote Tong (2003–2015) undertook a series of political mea-
sures that included urgent appeals to the global community to cut green-
house gas emission, the implementation of numerous and diverse adap-
tive activities, and a future-oriented migration policy. One recent step has
been the acquisition of a large freehold property—an estate on Vanua
Levu—in Fiji. While the government announced that the land would be
used for purposes of economic development and to provide food secu-
rity for Kiribati, many of the atoll state’s citizens associated the purchase
with the possibility of future migration to Fiji. We suggest that this future
perspective points to a change in the attitudes that the I-Kiribati—the citi-
zens of Kiribati—have long manifested toward collective migration. The
previously dominant discourse had spoken of remaining on their land and
in their land. That remains as true as ever. I-Kiribati continue to empha-
size their strong ties to the land and their willingness to do whatever is
possible to protect the land from the inroads of climate change (Kempf
and Hermann 2014, 206; Hermann 2017). Nevertheless, with their gov-
ernment’s purchase of land in Fiji, a new discourse seems now to have
emerged, a discourse we attempt to capture in this article as the imagining
of migration.
Scenarios of large-scale collective resettlement and recognition of Pacific
Islanders’ longing to remain are the opposite poles in today’s scientific
debate on climate change and migration in Oceania (Barnett and O’Neill
2012, 9; Lazrus 2012, 293; Campbell and Bedford 2014, 198). In these
discussions, forced collective resettlements are seen as especially maladap-
tive in their end results when resettled people become landless, impov-
erished, and marginalized (Barnett and O’Neill 2012, 9). This has led
some researchers to favor voluntary labor migration, reasoning that this
will strengthen the Islanders’ long-term adaptability (Barnett and Webber
2010, 42; Barnett and O’Neill 2012, 10). Others are less willing to rule
out careful planning for the eventuality of relocation (Campbell and Bed-
ford 2014, 198). Central to this debate has been the argument of giving
greater weight to indigenous cultural understandings of climate change
impacts, adaption, contemporary mobility practices, and future migration
(Farbotko and Lazrus 2012, 382, 388). In our view, the acquisition of
land negotiated between the political representatives of two neighboring
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 233
Pacific states furnishes an ideal analytic lens through which to study indig-
enous discourses on remaining, belonging, and relocation.
The decision by Kiribati’s government to purchase freehold land in Fiji
has received some attention in the academic literature on climate change
and migration. However, critical voices, such as that of a commentator
from Kiribati who saw the land purchase as an instance of poorly con-
ceived planning of development projects by the government (Korauaba
2015, 233–234, 236), have been rare in that quarter. In any case, official
announcements that the rationale was purely economic were of secondary
importance in the literature. Rather, the general thrust of these studies was
the eventuality of I-Kiribati being relocated to Fiji, the more so as Fijian
politicians held out the prospect of granting refuge to the inhabitants of
neighboring atoll states like Kiribati and Tuvalu, should their islands ever
be rendered uninhabitable (see Bedford and Bedford 2010, 90–92; Camp-
bell and Bedford 2014, 180–181; McAdam 2014, 302; Klepp and Her-
beck 2016, 70–71). Writing in this connection, a team of authors—Carol
Farbotko, Elaine Stratford, and Heather Lazrus (2016, 537)—saw a direct
link between the land purchase and the migration policy espoused by Kiri-
bati’s government under Anote Tong, even though the entry on Kiribati’s
official website, which they cite as evidence thereof, does not point to such
an unequivocal association. Several other authors construed the vision of
a future relocation as parallel to earlier resettlement projects, mostly dat-
ing from the colonial era (Campbell and Bedford 2014; McAdam 2014).
Yet others felt they had to interpret Kiribati’s land purchase as a sign of
a political gravitation toward recognition of resettlement as a solution
to climate-induced displacement (Leckie 2014, 34)—or even as proof of
the undisputable presence of climate change impacts (Fiske and others
2014, 13–14). However, despite the academic interest the land purchase
has attracted, there is still a scarcity of empirical data on the views of citi-
zens in Kiribati and Fiji.
In this article, we choose to focus on the indigenous discourses and
practices in the two countries. We argue that the land purchase by Kiri-
bati’s government has lent considerable impetus to the imagining of
migration, not only in Kiribati but also in Fiji. As we show, these imagin-
ings have been fostered by the climate change policies of the two Pacific
states as well as by concepts of land on which their citizens rely. Tsunami
warnings and flooding caused by extreme weather events have also con-
tributed to many I-Kiribati taking projections of climate change impacts
more seriously, including weighing the available options for staying on
234 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
the land or moving elsewhere. Focusing on imaginings of migration we
align ourselves with a perspective that—by reconceptualizing the idea of
culture via the lens of mobility, travel, migration, and diaspora (see, eg,
Clifford 1997)—attempts to incorporate not only physical but also imag-
ined movement as a constitutive element of place, culture, and identity
(see Rapport and Dawson 1998; Dawson and Johnson 2001). The social
relevance of imagination has been accorded an even broader reception in
the field of migration studies. Accordingly, imagination—or more exactly,
acts of imagination or imaginings—was said to characterize the agency
of actors in a framework of mobility, migration, and transnational links.
Moreover, while imaginings of movement, migration, and global spaces
were seen to impact on locality, place, and dwelling, visions of homeland
and permanence were also enlisted as shaping factors behind mobility,
migration, and diaspora (see Appadurai 1996, 31, 55–56; 2001, 6–7; Pes-
sar and Mahler 2003, 817–818; Salazar 2011, 577, 586–587).
Arjun Appadurai has emphasized the influence wielded by mass media
images and narratives on the life choices of ordinary people. Initially
he focused on the role played by imaginings in such matters as locality,
social praxis, and individual agency (see Appadurai 1996, 2001). In a
further step, Appadurai combined the idea of imagination with those of
aspiration and anticipation (2013). On the basis of this triangulation he
advanced his concept of the future as a cultural configuration. He sought
this process of culturally constructing the future in the contrasting terrain
of everyday practices and a politics of imagination, hope, and risk assess-
ment on the one hand, and a modern regime of numbers, calculation, and
probability endemic to capitalist speculation and profit generation on the
other (Appadurai 2013, 286–298).
In what follows, the focus is on imagination in relation to aspiration
and anticipation. We place this configuration in direct connection with
the idea of potential threats posed by human-induced climate change. We
speak of anticipation (in the sense of Appadurai’s regime of numbers and
probabilities) especially when referring to climate sciences that draw on
mathematical models, computer simulations, and scenarios to generate
and communicate power-knowledge of the possible inroads and risks of
climate change. The land purchase made by Kiribati’s government in Fiji
and the related imaginings of migration on the part of citizens in both
countries are influenced by this science of anticipation, whose projections
of inundation and displacement call into question the future existence of
the atoll state of Kiribati and its population. In this context, the acquisition
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 235
of land is due to the aspiration of Kiribati’s government, mindful of such
future risks, to open up new perspectives on and prospects of survival for
its people. The official goal of ensuring Kiribati’s future food security may
be seen as pursuing a politics of hope, promising I-Kiribati that they can
remain in their country for at least the medium term. At the same time, the
concrete nature of this step—buying land outside the country—lends par-
ticular weight to the discourse concerning the threat posed by the impact
of climate change. This anticipation of future risks, in combination with
the government’s aspiration to open up new, previously uncharted possi-
bilities, paves the way for the imagining of migration as social praxis and
resource. This orientation may underlie the readiness of not just I-Kiribati
but also the citizens of Fiji to interpret this step as providential—as pro-
viding land for the Kiribati nation and the survival of its culture. It is the
cultural understanding of land as a basis for social cohesion and cultural
identification that moves collective migration or relocation into the realm
of the possible. For I-Kiribati themselves, the fact that their government
bought land in Fiji therefore stands for hope and the aspiration to preserve
the integrity of place, culture, nation, and identity over the long term.
The following account of the imagining of migration is based on long-
term and multi-sited anthropological research that we have been con-
ducting with citizens of Kiribati and Fiji.1 We wish to stress that the link
between this purchase of land and the option of migrating from Kiribati to
Fiji is to be seen as less a dominant than an emergent discourse in the two
Pacific states. This assessment rests on the fact that almost all our interloc-
utors volunteered the opinion that the land had been acquired because of
the migration option it provided, despite our being careful not to prompt
them with questions on the purchase or migration. In ethnographic inter-
views, we asked them for their views on whether climate change would
affect Kiribati (and if so, then in what ways). Expressing their thoughts and
emotions on this topic, they eventually communicated what they thought
of Kiribati’s newly acquired land in Fiji and the possibility of migration. It
was only in interviews with representatives of Kiribati’s government that
we asked about the land purchase. In the case of one indigenous Fijian and
his relative, who were showing us around the estate in Vanua Levu, we
had merely to ask about its location; they then automatically connected
the purchase with the prospect of I-Kiribati resettling there. Our interview
findings were complemented by questionnaire responses (I-Kiribati were
asked to answer open-ended questions designed to elicit their views on cli-
mate change) as well as by the many insights we gained in both countries
236 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
via participant observation. In addition, we analyzed sources produced by
the Kiribati government and the media.
As to emergent discourses, we refer to statements that people made to
us while we were doing field research from 2012 through 2015 in both
Kiribati and Fiji. Statements testifying to imaginings of migration were
expressed clearly during that time frame, as news about the consequences
of climate change and Kiribati’s land purchase in Fiji consolidated in both
Pacific states. Since then the political context in Kiribati has changed, as
when the newly elected government under President Taneti Maamau took
office in March 2016. While this new government has replaced the earlier
focus on climate change policies with an emphasis on improving people’s
living conditions in the atoll state, it has also maintained many previ-
ous measures designed to reduce Kiribati’s vulnerability vis-à-vis climate
change. With respect to the purchased land, President Maamau soon took
the step of conferring with Fiji’s Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama,
while Kiribati’s vice president, Kourabi Nenem, led a delegation to visit
the Vanua Levu land tract as early as June 2016. The new government’s
plan for the land in Fiji is to carry on where the previous one left off,
namely to develop the land and so provide food security for the atoll
inhabitants, countering future problems with food supply that might arise
due to climate change.2
Land Purchase in Fiji: Kiribati Policies
In the process leading up to the purchase of the large tract of land in Fiji,
Kiribati’s government of the time explicitly linked the decision to its cli-
mate change policy and de-emphasized any possible links to its migration
policy. Former President Tong had long made climate change the central
focus of his time in office. Speaking at many international forums, he
pointed out the existential threat facing atoll states from climate change
and called for mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. Under his leader-
ship, the government also tapped into foreign revenue streams and wel-
comed international projects to implement adaptive measures. One of
these projects, the Kiribati Adaptation Program, seeks to reduce national
vulnerability on a variety of fronts, namely, consolidating key infrastruc-
ture; ensuring that the population has adequate access to drinking water;
raising national awareness of climate change impacts; and planting man-
groves to fend off erosion of the coastline. Mindful of the projections dis-
seminated by the climate sciences—which make it seem all too likely that,
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 237
as the twenty-first century advances, atolls will no longer be able to sustain
anything like their present population levels—President Tong developed a
concept that he called “Migration with Dignity.” This concept aimed at
education and upskilling, particularly amid the younger generations, in
order to provide them with the necessary professional qualifications to
find work in their new host countries. They would be able to migrate on
a voluntary basis, that is, with “dignity,” and once established abroad
they would help others follow suit. The idea was to prevent I-Kiribati
from becoming refugees and second-class citizens in someone else’s coun-
try. President Tong notably stressed that migration would not be the total
answer to the inroads of climate change and that relocation was only the
option of last resort. At the same time, he pointed out that his government
had a responsibility to plot a course for the future, to the extent that this
lay within its power—and that this was best done by providing a variety
of options for its people.3
When land became available in Fiji, the government seized the oppor-
tunity. In 2011, Kiribati’s high commissioner, Reteta Rimon, learned from
a real estate developer she knew that a rural property of more than 5,000
acres on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, was being offered for
sale by the Anglican Church for approximately nine million Australian
dollars. After inspecting Natoavatu Estate—the name of this sizeable tract
of land—with other representatives of Kiribati and a church trustee, she
explained in a position paper for the cabinet how such a property, stretch-
ing from the mountains to the ocean, could benefit Kiribati. As she told us
in an interview (18 Sept 2015), her main point in this paper was: “This is
freehold and it’ll be good for Kiribati long term in the context of climate
change, even for food security.” She saw the land as ideally suited for agri-
culture, since food crops could be grown there and a dairy farming sector
created, with all the produce being exported to Kiribati by a direct ship-
ping link. Copra production was another option, in view of existing coco-
nut plantations on the estate. Forestry too was worth investigating—pines
already grew there; mahogany could be planted and the wood exported
back to Kiribati. Even rock could be extracted to consolidate exposed sec-
tions of Kiribati’s coastline. Finally, this tract of land could be purchased as
a long-term security, just in case Kiribati’s atolls became uninhabitable. As
a more immediate goal, the land lent itself to investment and development.
Trustees of Fiji’s Anglican Church and the developer then went to Kiri-
bati to discuss the terms of purchase with the cabinet. After the cabinet
had been won over, the next step was for Kiribati’s government to negoti-
238 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
ate with its Fijian counterpart. Purchase of freehold land on the scale of
the Natoavatu Estate could not proceed without official consent. Then
Interim Prime Minister Bainimarama approved the request. The actual
purchasing process was a drawn-out affair, since there were several squat-
ters on the Natoavatu Estate for whom the Anglican Church first had to
find accommodation somewhere in the vicinity; also, Kiribati’s govern-
ment had to consent to a small parcel of land on the periphery of the
estate being excluded from the purchase, since it housed a settlement of
descendants of Solomon Islanders. But by the end of May 2014, Kiribati’s
president was able to report the acquisition of 5,460 acres of prime Fijian
land for the sum of a$9.3 million: “I wish to officially announce that gov-
ernment has come to a final resolve and has made the full purchase of the
piece of land in Fiji” (Office of the President, Republic of Kiribati 2014).
Right from the start of negotiations, Kiribati’s government had viewed
the land purchase as an economic investment, meaningful in the context
of its climate change policy. Given the growing population numbers on
Kiribati’s atolls and the scientific projections of extreme weather events,
members of the government were careful to stress that the new land would
be chiefly used to grow food for Kiribati. As President Tong stated: “My
Government has also purchased land in Fiji using our meagre resources to
assist in our efforts to address the issue of food security and to promote
long term development goals” (Tong 2014; see also Office of the Presi-
dent, Republic of Kiribati 2014).
Since the international media had published misleading reports of the
land being bought for purposes of relocation, government spokespersons
repeatedly stressed that it would be used only to produce food, not to
resettle those threatened by climate change. The message was scripted not
only for an international audience but also for Kiribati’s own people. We
find it, for example, in an interview Anote Tong gave to the US news
channel cnn at the end of June 2014 (cnn 2014), an abridged Kiribati
version of which was published in the Kiribati Newstar, headlined: “Ai tii
30 te ririki ao ti a inako!?” (“Only 30 years left till we’re submerged!?”).
I-Kiribati could now read what their president had to say of their atolls’
vulnerability to climate change and what the government was doing about
it. Here is an excerpt:
Teuana naba te iango are e a tia ni koro bukina, bon kabooan te aba teuana
i Biitii ae e nakon 6,000 te eeka buburana. “Anne bon te aba ae e bubura, te
aba ae e rangi n tamaroa.” Ma, e katuruturua te beretitenti bwa bon tiaki te
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 239
aba ibukin te maekanaki ma bon te aba ibukin te karikirake ibukin unikan ma
karekean te amwarake. (Kiribati Newstar, 4 July 2014, 3)
(Also, one of the plans that was realized is the purchase of a piece of land in
Fiji that is almost 6,000 acres in size. “This is really a big piece of land, a land
that is very good.” However, the president emphasized that the land was not
intended for relocation but for development, cultivation, and growing food).
Whereas official government statements ruled out relocating all (or most)
of Kiribati’s population, they were silent on whether the migration of
small numbers of I-Kiribati might be countenanced in order to work the
new landholdings in Fiji. Sometime after the sale, however, confidential
sources told us that while thoughts along those lines had been expressed
internally, it had always been emphasized that migration for purposes of
working the estate was just one of many options available to Kiribati’s cit-
izens. But there were no plans to that effect that could have been discussed
with representatives of the Fijian state. Indeed, the reluctance of Kiribati’s
government to be drawn into a public debate of the issue had much to do
with political consideration for Fiji. Kiribati’s official representatives were
aware of Fijians’ specific cultural and political sensitivities over issues con-
cerning land. In addition, Kiribati’s government respected Fiji’s sovereign
status; only Fiji could clarify issues relating to immigration to its shores.
The land purchase was facilitated by a network in which the principal
actors possessed knowledge of current discourses circulating in the neigh-
boring states as well as a political history of earlier migrations and reloca-
tions between Kiribati and Fiji—for example, in 1945, the Banaban com-
munity had been resettled in Fiji from Banaba, now part of Kiribati.4 The
2011 purchase could only go ahead because these well-informed actors
maintained social connections with people from partner countries and cul-
tivated very good political relations. Since the estate had been presented
as a rare opportunity, the imperative was for both partners to complete
the sale. As for the medium- and long-term perspectives of having some
I-Kiribati work the estate, the public on both sides had only been briefly
informed that no such negotiations were ongoing. What was brought to
public attention was an announcement—made during a February 2014
state visit to Kiribati by Fiji’s president, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau—that Fiji
would help I-Kiribati in the event of an emergency. It was in this broader
context that the Kiribati government’s acquisition of the large tract of
land in Fiji caught the attention of many I-Kiribati. Even though it was
not publicized as part of the atoll state’s migration policy, the fact that it
240 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
was associated with its climate change policy led citizens to understand
it through what we may call, with Appadurai (2013, 289–293), a “poli-
tics of hope” designed to transform prospects of climate changeinduced
disaster into prospects of future survival.
I-Kiribati Attachment to Land and Attitudes
toward Migration
The people of Kiribati received the news of the purchase of the Natoavatu
Estate in Fiji within the context of their local and historically rooted con-
ceptualizations regarding land and its relationships to persons, communi-
ties, the past, and the present. Indeed, land has always been of existential
importance (compare Tito and others 1984, 21), unfolding its significance
on various levels: domestic-local, island-regional, and national. Land is
the platform around which kinship groups, island communities, and the
national community are constituted. Land is what enables Islanders to
engage in economic activity, even as it confers on owners and the nation
at large a specific political status. In addition, myths on the creation of the
islands (see Beiabure, Teraku, and Uriam 1984; Uriam 1995) and Christian
discourses, according to which God gave the land to the people, legitimize
the nation’s territory in sometimes complementary and sometimes diver-
gent manners (compare Autio 2010; Camus 2014). I-Kiribati are proud of
their nation and celebrate each year the attainment of sovereignty on 12
July 1979. In the course of subsequent nation building, they have inten-
sified the discourse of Kiribati possessing a unique and distinct culture.
Precisely because land is of such fundamental significance, I-Kiribati fre-
quently stress their attachment to it. This interweaving finds expression
in the Kiribati term “aba” with its dual meaning of “land/people.” Con-
fronted with discourses on the likely consequences of climate change for
Kiribati, its citizens emphasize their love for the land and the worries they
entertain about its fate (Hermann 2017). In addition, they articulate a will
to do their best for more environmental and coastal protection.
Attachment to land has long been stressed by the citizens of Kiribati
in connection with their own internal or international mobility (com-
pare K Teaiwa 2015). Countless Islanders have experiences of migration,
whether for educational purposes or in search of work. Migrants have
frequently articulated their connectedness with Kiribati and previously
seemed to view the option of return as self-evident. But one result of cli-
mate change discourses has been that migration-minded I-Kiribati are no
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 241
longer sure they will have this option in the future. In this new context,
attachment to land matters even more for a majority of I-Kiribati. Not
infrequently, a discourse on the intention of remaining on the land can be
encountered. This attitude is prevalent in various quarters, as witnessed in
this statement by an elderly man from the island of Nonouti: “Ngkana e
rotaki Kiribati ni bibitakin kanoan bong ao na mate iaon abau” (If Kiribati
is affected by climate change, I will die on my land) (14 Sept 2011). The
perspective of staying put and refusing to leave is often associated with
the persuasion that the Christian God holds the fate of humans and land
alike in His hands. Until recently, international migration in response to
climate change represented for many I-Kiribati an “unthinkable option,”
as I-Kiribati author Linda Uan and John Anderson wrote (2014, 247).
Referring to a national survey they conducted in 2011, these authors went
on to say: “The majority of I-Kiribati (65 per cent) have no wish to live in
another country, . . . even though mounting evidence suggests that we may
soon have little choice in the matter. Migration may unavoidably soon
become the major element of adaptation” (Uan and Anderson 2014, 247).
In connection with migration, the citizens of Kiribati are well aware of
the restrictions imposed by their scant economic resources. Since discourse
on rising sea levels has exerted an unsettling effect on many atoll dwellers,
a recent trend—observed across all generations—has been toward a spec-
trum of discourses on migration. These include a constellation of state-
ments voicing the intention to do whatever it takes to preserve the land
and, only as a final resort, to seek to migrate. A variant of this discourse
was enunciated by a young man (aged seventeen) from the island of Niku-
nau, who mentioned the possibility of Kiribati acquiring a piece of land
in another state:
When my mother country (Kiribati) is affected by the climate change now-
adays, I have many methods to [protect] our country from this dangerous
problem, such as planting more mangroves for saving our land from the ero-
sion, telling people to [protect] the life of plants and stop deforestation, and
especially telling powerful countries to stop testing their nuclear weapons in
the Pacific region and requesting them to give a piece of land for the Kiribati
people to live in their countries. (14 Sept 2010)5
Migration for some I-Kiribati is associated with the option of moving to
Fiji. As one pastor, who identified as both I-Kiribati and Fiji Banaban,
reported, that country was being mentioned by the parish youth as a pos-
sible destination in the worst-case scenario: “And sometimes they might
242 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
say: ‘Oh maybe we’ll have to move to a country that is high enough for
us to stay—like Fiji’” (16 July 2014). The pastor himself thought that, if
migration were ever to become unavoidable, Fiji would be preferable to
Australia or New Zealand “because you are moving from one place in the
Pacific to another. And you can connect a little bit easier to people and to
the place. There is an understanding, you know, between Pacific Island-
ers.” Thus, to more than a few atoll dwellers, Fiji seemed a feasible desti-
nation in the event of climate-induced migration. So when the government
of the atoll state acquired a tract of land there, Fiji loomed ever larger in
I-Kiribati imaginings of migration.
This emerging shift in attitudes toward migration is connected to a
growing fear of loss of land (aba) among I-Kiribati. As land has always
been contested between competing groups and is, in any case, subject to
environmental change, there has been concern over its partial loss to an
extent in the past. But this sense of loss is aggravated nowadays since
changes in the environment such as erosion and inundation are being
reinterpreted in the context of climate change. What we now find is that
the concept of the land (te aba)—referring to Kiribati’s atolls—is in the
process of changing from something that protects people to something
that is in need of protection and may even be doomed. Confronted with
statements like the one published in the Kiribati Newstar of 4 July 2014
(cited above), implying that the atolls could be submerged thirty years
from now, many I-Kiribati say, sadly: “E na bua abara ae Kiribati” (Our
land of Kiribati will be lost). Thus the probability of the climate change
projections mediated by the media and government campaigns lead quite
a number I-Kiribati to anticipate the near total loss of their national terri-
tory in the future.
An Emerging Kiribati Discourse on Migration
with the Prospect of Land in Fiji
After their government announced in 2012 that it would purchase Natoa-
vatu Estate in Fiji, an increasing number of Kiribati’s citizens began
expressing views on the matter. Some I-Kiribati understood that their
government intended to use the land primarily for agricultural purposes.
Among these were climate change skeptics, who saw the whole matter in
an economic or commercial light, but there were others who were con-
vinced that Kiribati was at risk from the consequences of climate change
and therefore had to do something to ensure food security. Other I-Kiribati
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 243
who had heard what their government was up to even before the purchase
made no mention of the government’s stated goals; instead, they instantly
associated this vast tract of real estate with climate-induced migration to
Fiji. In their entirety, these statements make up a discursive formation
initially triggered by the news about the land acquisition in Fiji. Yet this
discourse, in which land in Fiji is tentatively linked to migration, is not
incompatible with the deep attachment I-Kiribati have to their lands, to
their home islands, to Kiribati itself. Rather, the new discourse is taking
shape in association with the existing one. Thus, while our interlocutors
typically stressed their close ties with their Kiribati homeland, they were
careful to note that, in the worst-case scenario, they could not rule out
migration to this newly acquired estate; after all, there might be no other
alternative.
The tendency to articulate attachment to the land while simultaneously
imagining migration as an option in the face of climate change was evi-
denced in what we were told by a retired teacher now living on Nonouti
Atoll in southern Kiribati. She had in younger years gone to Britain to
complete her studies; on returning, she had taught on a number of islands
before finally settling down on her home island of Nonouti. Whether dur-
ing trips we made with her along the atoll or in the course of our many
conversations, she repeatedly dwelled on her strong feeling of belonging—
not only to her home atoll but also to Kiribati as a nation. In one inter-
view, after telling us she greatly appreciated Nonouti’s peaceful lifestyle,
she began to reflect on what rising sea levels might mean for that island,
as well as for the rest of Kiribati. She confessed to a sense of fear. Admit-
tedly, her own advanced age made it unlikely that she would herself be
affected, but younger and future generations might be. And she hoped that
if worse came to worst, they might be able to relocate to a better place.
She speculated as to whether rising seas were the reason why, as she put it,
“some people have started to evacuate to New Zealand.” She then added
that perhaps her compatriots could also resettle on the higher island of
Banaba or even go to Rabi, the Fijian island home of the Banabans. On
the subject of Fiji, she commented tellingly: “The government is buying a
piece of land in Fiji, our government! So maybe it is thinking of evacuating
the people there” (22 Sept 2012). Thus she alluded to two kinds of pos-
sible migration (in the sense of evacuation): one was individual, the other
collective. The first of these meant that some people had already moved
to New Zealand, but as individuals. She mentioned this option, since her
own son (with his family) was attempting to emigrate there, where he had
244 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
affinal relatives. On the other hand, she implied—referring to the estate
purchased by her government—that, if the worst ever happened, collective
relocation was the only answer. By talking of “our government,” she was
signaling that the latter would act on behalf of a nation under threat.
Also living on Nonouti was a middle-aged man who, after retiring from
working as a seaman, had held a responsible post with the local council.
He related that when the news came through of the planned purchase,
some had thought of leaving their island. In our interview about local
environmental changes, he mentioned hearing a radio broadcast on rising
sea levels. He also heard on the radio of an I-Kiribati who had justified
staying in New Zealand by claiming that Kiribati was threatened by rising
waters. Many of his fellow countrymen, he added, would reject emigrat-
ing for such a reason, preferring to place their trust in God. He concluded,
“Now when they heard that the Kiribati Government had land in Fiji,
some people said: ‘So it’s better we go and live there!’ But not all agreed.
Some [said]: ‘Ah! We can’t go, we must stay!’” (23 Sept 2012). When asked
whether he thought more people would want to stay than leave, he said
he did not know; he could only speak for himself: “But as for me: okay,
I want to leave. I want to leave here. I don’t want to die here. It’s better
for me to [take] my family [and] go and live somewhere [else].” In answer
to the question where that might be, he said simply: “Fiji.” In the further
course of our interview, he added that he would be staying put for the time
being, since life on Nonouti was so peaceful. For him, relocation would
only be an option if the threat from higher waters became acute: “When I
listen to the radio—the sea rising and what not—for me: okay, it’s better
to leave. But how can you leave? Okay, no problem if there is transport to
Fiji for those who want to go there, like free of charge. Okay!”
Our interlocutor understood—and he insisted this was an understand-
ing shared by some of his fellow Islanders—the efforts of Kiribati’s govern-
ment to acquire land in Fiji solely in terms of finding a suitable place for
resettlement. He was worried about the expense of relocating there, but
he was certain this problem could be solved with economic assistance—
which, he implied, would be provided by his government.
Nor was talk of the government’s intention to purchase land in Fiji lost
on the younger generations; rather, it became factored into their thinking
about the best course of action in the worst-case scenario. Thus a female
high school student, age sixteen, alluded to the purchase in a question-
naire. Answering the question, “If Kiribati is affected by climate change,
what will you do?” she said that she intended to get more education, so
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 245
that one day she could hold down a responsible position, “maybe [even
that] of a president.” Then she imagined being president and gave a list
of possibilities “for saving my people.” Her third option was “I will pur-
chase one big tract of land in a big country, so that when the time comes
I can move my people there” (8 Oct 2013). In an interview a year later,
she let us know that her adoptive father had informed her that President
Tong was going to acquire a large estate in Fiji. She was even precise: a
year earlier the purchase had not yet gone ahead, she said, but now it had.
And she added: “I have already seen the picture of the land in one of the
newspapers, maybe in Te Uekera [the national weekly] or the Newstar
(21 July 2014). This girl, whose place of birth was the island of Abemama,
had grown up in Tarawa and, through her adoptive father, who had once
been a member of Parliament, she had an insider’s access to Kiribati gov-
ernmental politics. Her vision confirms impressively the association now
being made by I-Kiribati with this land purchase, namely, that the goal is
to create a new home for them should catastrophe strike.
Moreover, representatives of the Catholic Church, Kiribati’s largest
denomination, associated climate change and its likely aftermath with the
land purchase in Fiji and the option of migrating. One elderly member of
the Catholic ruling circle had this to say in an interview:
There are certain things we can do to protect ourselves. And there are certain
things we can’t do anything about. So the government is encouraging building
seawalls. To stop the erosion. But if the sea rises a lot, if it’s very high, you
know, very high, then you can’t do anything about it.
Question: What then?
Answer: Well, that’s it. That’s why the government bought the land in Fiji.
As a kind of preparation, I mean if we have to leave the islands. And I think
we will have to. There is no question about it. Because of the sea rising. (12
July 2014)
So this Catholic churchman understood the purchase primarily as a pre-
cautionary measure, if rising seas ever compelled emigration.
Among those Kiribati citizens who, in the period since 2012, have taken
to imagining that the purchase might eventually serve as a relocation point
are a number of Banabans. Most of them are from Rabi Island in Fiji
and have lived on Tarawa for decades—often after first spending many
years on Banaba (Kempf forthcoming). Some are well informed about
the government’s plans. Still, most Rabi Banabans imagine that this Fiji
land could, in the final resort, serve as a new home for the I-Kiribati.
246 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
A respected Banaban elder, a man with no lack of political experience,
explained it thus:
They [the government of Kiribati] bought the land on Vanua Levu. I don’t
know, maybe this is another solution. They think of development, but for me
personally, I think it’s better to get more Gilbertese over there, marry the Fiji-
ans, marry the Banabans. That’s how they can improve the future of Kiribati.
(28 Sept 2013)
In fact, Rabi Banabans have no intention of availing themselves of this
option, since they consider Rabi a safe haven (compare Kempf and Her-
mann 2014, 205); however, many of them consider relocation an option
for the atoll inhabitants of the Gilbert Islands, the I-Kiribati.
A related discourse can also be heard from Banabans living on Banaba
but who periodically come to Tarawa. One Banaban man in his thirties
had attended (presumably in 2012) a workshop on Tarawa organized by
the Office of the President on the topic of climate change. Talking to us
two years later, he recalled that the possibility of emigration to Fiji had
been discussed at the time. The message had been that in ten or twenty
years Kiribati would disappear below the waves. When asked what would
then become of its people, he again referred to the Fijian land purchase.
One Banaban woman in her early forties, who had also been participating
in our conversations, explained: “But you know, our government bought
an island [sic] over there in Fiji, so the Kiribati people could go and live
there” (22 July 2014). When we inquired of these two Banabans what
they felt about migrating, they explained that if they continued to live on
Banaba, they would want to stay put. Because Banaba is a raised lime-
stone island, they feel perfectly safe there. But, they continued, if they were
living on Tarawa and climate change made it impossible to remain, they
would want to relocate to Fiji.
As it happened, word of the purchase also reached I-Kiribati already
living in Fiji. They found themselves confronted with the belief of some
Fijians that the new land on Vanua Levu was acquired solely for an
impending relocation of Kiribati’s population. A middle-aged man, who
had long worked on Tarawa as a pastor with the Kiribati Protestant
Church and who was now enrolled at the University of the South Pacific
in Suva, explained:
Most of the Fijians say that Kiribati is now under the water, because [our]
government has already purchased land here in Fiji. . . . And most of them say:
“Hey, are you from Kiribati?”—“Yes.”—“What happened to your island? Is
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 247
[it] under water now?”—“No.” Sometimes they [seem] annoyed to hear that,
and say: “But we heard that your government had already purchased land here
in Fiji for your people to migrate to.” Just like that. (15 Aug 2014)
During our interview, it emerged that this generalizing version of the dia-
logue with Fijians was based on a true incident. Our interlocutor from
Kiribati was in a Vodafone store when an unknown Fijian started talk-
ing to him. The Fijian’s sudden and (we may assume) provocative man-
ner—calling him out in public as a foreigner and confronting him on the
issue of land and resettlement—only underlined the tensions surrounding
the topic. Not without reason, the man from Kiribati supposed that the
purchase of such a large property by a foreign government had caused
some irritation among indigenous Fijians. Whereas, in the encounter with
Fijians, the use of the property as settlement land appeared as an acknowl-
edged given, from our I-Kiribati interlocutor’s perspective the matter was
still shrouded in uncertainty:
I am not sure about the land. Is it land for migration or is it for a government
development project or something like that? If for migration I think the [plan
is unworkable]—the land cannot [accommodate] them. I think the population
of Kiribati is now almost 100,000. . . . It’s confusing. . . . But that’s another
issue. . . . I-Kiribati talk about it: “What’s the land for? Who are the people
that are going to benefit from the land? Who will be the first to go and live
there, to work there? And if the land is for a project—for development, when
is it going to start?” . . . Maybe the government is thinking ahead to the next
generation. That could be it. Anyway, most people are now talking about the
land purchase here in Fiji. (15 Aug 2014)
In the opinion of this migrant, the purchase and its future use by Kiribati’s
government raised more questions than answers. True, the government’s
postulated preference for development projects seemed a more likely
explanation than resettling the entire Kiribati population, and yet even a
commercial utilization of the property would pose some difficulties.
In sum, all these statements by citizens of Kiribati indicate the emergence
of a discourse linking the land purchase with migration to Fiji. Whether
our interlocutors came from atolls, from Banaba, from Rabi Island in Fiji
(albeit now living in the atoll state), or were I-Kiribati migrants living
in Fiji, all spontaneously associated climate change or sea level rise with
the purchase. In each case, a causal connection was operating: the lat-
ter was rendered inevitable by the former. Certainly, they argued, their
government had been mindful of the possible effects of climate change on
248 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
Kiribati when it bought this tract of foreign land for the national commu-
nity. Thus the purchase made the prospect of major inroads from climate
change seem more likely. Accordingly, most of our interlocutors associ-
ated the land purchase with migration—as a final measure if and when
all else failed. Some were personally thinking of migrating, and many
associated collective relocation with the estate in Fiji now owned by Kiri-
bati. Our interlocutors’ imaginings of migration can be traced back to
their agency—an agency manifested in the articulation of a will to make
plans and take the initiative, as Appadurai (1996, 2001) as well as Patricia
Pessar and Sarah Mahler (2003, 817) would have it.
Emerging Discourses on I-Kiribati Migration
amid Citizens of Fiji
During a state visit to Kiribati in February 2014, President Ratu Epeli
Nailatikau assured his hosts of Fiji’s unlimited solidarity in the worst-case
scenario. He was reiterating that Kiribati’s people could count on his gov-
ernment’s willingness to offer them refuge in such circumstances:
Today I repeat what our Prime Minister told the world at the recent Pacific
Islands conference on conservation and protected areas. If the sea level contin-
ues to rise because the international community won’t tackle global warming,
some or all of the people of Kiribati may have to come and live in Fiji. (Fijian
Government Online Portal 2014)
The land acquisition by Kiribati’s government was cited as a current
expression of the close historical ties linking the two countries. As to the
concrete utilization of the estate, the president of Fiji had this to say:
You have already purchased 6000 acres of land on Fiji’s second biggest island,
Vanua Levu, to ensure your food security as the sea encroaches on your arable
land. What the future holds we cannot say. But I want to assure you that if all
else fails, you have true friends in Fiji who will not let you down. (Fijian Gov-
ernment Online Portal 2014)
With these assurances, President Nailatikau was continuing the political
line of the interim government of Fiji, which had held out especially to the
neighboring atoll states of Tuvalu and Kiribati the prospect of support in
connection with climate change–induced displacement (Radio New Zea-
land 2009; Bainimarama 2013; compare Bedford and Bedford 2010, 90).
The fact that representatives of the government of Fiji took to pro-
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 249
moting the imagining of migration as part of their climate change policy
was, in our view, politically motivated. Fiji was demonstrating that it too
belonged among the vulnerable Pacific Island states, the better to position
itself against all those industrial states that had been identified as respon-
sible for the dangerous consequences of climate change. On the regional
level, Fiji’s interim government was demonstrating solidarity with the
neighboring atoll states, in contrast to Australia and New Zealand, which
had rejected admitting so-called climate refugees (compare Korauaba
2015, 234). Agreeing to sell freehold land to a neighboring atoll state fit-
ted in with the profile Fiji’s government was seeking to project under its
regional foreign policy. This is all the more remarkable given that freehold
land had been generally of political significance (and contested) in the
past. Some ethnonationalist Fijians, especially, had persistently demanded
the return of all freehold land, and some talked of freehold land “alienated
before cession [to the British],” which they saw as having been unlawfully
taken from the original owners (see Lal 2006, 42, 136–137, 194–195).
The decision taken by the military government under Bainimarama to
combine this international transaction with their regional climate change
policy was driven by a determination to draw attention to Fiji’s claim to
political leadership in the region.6
News of the purchase encountered, in Fiji itself, a specific terrain of cli-
mate change discourses and awareness campaigns; national programs on
disaster risk management, mitigation, adaptation, and relocation; efforts
to integrate indigenous Fijian interests; and media representations of the
hazards facing Fiji’s islands, villages, and urban centers, as well as neigh-
boring atoll states. In 2012 the cabinet of the Fijian government, headed
by Prime Minister Bainimarama, adopted a national climate change pol-
icy (Government of the Republic of Fiji 2012). The task of coordinat-
ing, overseeing, and implementing it was handed to the Climate Change
Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Coopera-
tion. Government representatives estimate that there are some 600–800
communities in Fiji who, in one way or another, are affected by the con-
sequences of climate change. In this connection, the government attaches
great importance to internal relocation as an adaptive measure. According
to official plans, some forty-two villages are to be relocated over a period
of five to ten years. Between 2014 and 2015 the first relocations of Fijian
village communities took place: Vunidogoloa on Vanua Levu, Narikoso
on Kadavu, and Denimanu on Yadua Island in Bua. The government bod-
ies in charge were endeavoring to draw on the lessons learned from these
250 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
pilot projects in order to revise existing relocation guidelines with future
relocations in mind (Fijian Government Online Portal 2015).
It is likely no accident that Fiji’s interim government celebrated at the
start of 2014 the successful realization of the first climate-induced reloca-
tion of a Fijian village (Vunidogoloa), in Cakaudrove, that is, the same
province on Vanua Levu where the government of Kiribati would only a
few months later officially purchase the Natoavatu Estate. The relocation
of this village was meant to serve as a model. The point for Fiji’s gov-
ernment was to present the country’s “first” climate-induced resettlement
project as a template for all planned resettlements to come (Bainimarama
2014; Rawalai 2014). Since the relocation of Fijian villages draws con-
siderably on indigenous Fijian (iTaukei) concepts of land, the driving idea
behind this pilot project was to demonstrate the government’s ability to
act and its competency, openness to dialogue, and cultural sensitivity in
implementing such measures. Moreover, the timing can be seen as sig-
naling governmental resolve to prioritize the aspirations and demands of
ethnic Fijians vis-à-vis climate change and sea level rise, even if an allied
atoll state like Kiribati should likewise be in need of solidarity from the
Fijian state.
Land (vanua) is of fundamental importance for iTaukei. During the
colonial era, in order to protect ethnic Fijians from dispossession and
exploitation, much of the land was linked to social groups and hierarchi-
cal structures and codified as inalienable, communal property (France
1969; Lal 1992, 28–33, 97–102, 224–227; Kaplan 2004, 73, 76). Based
on these historical developments, today’s iTaukei see themselves as the
lawful owners and guardians of the land of their forebears. Land and
landownership are for them central planks of Fijian belonging, commu-
nity, culture, and ethnic identity. The concept vakavanua (the way of the
land) points to this reticulation between land, people, traditions, and
socioeconomic structures. And yet iTaukei see this established privilege—
that they are the rightful owners of the land—as repeatedly threatened.
Matt Tomlinson has, in this connection, analyzed how historical rivalries
and contradictions between the Methodist church and the Fijian chiefs
promote and perpetuate indigenous notions of decline and loss of former
supremacy, ancestral strength, and powerful traditions, but also a ritual
and political praxis of recuperation, reclamation, and hope (2009, 5–6).
The discourse of a vanua at threat from the outside is, according to Tom-
linson, a historical constant, primarily manifested in recent decades by
the conviction that Fijian land must be protected from takeover by Indo-
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 251
Fijians, who form the second largest of Fiji’s ethnic groups (see Tomlin-
son 2009, 132–141).
If climate change gives rise to relocations, this could imply the loss of
land, as John Campbell has argued in general terms for the Pacific Islands
(2010, 64). In the case of Fiji, it is to be noted that the recent idea of a Fijian
vanua threatened by the consequences of climate change and sea level rise
adds yet another dimension to the existing discourses and practices of loss
and recuperation. Fiji’s interim government associated its national climate
change policy largely with the (potential) loss of habitable land and the
administrative option of restoration via relocation projects.7 Especially in
the areas deemed affected, ethnic Fijians have internalized the discourse
on climate change and relocation, the better to reconstitute, consolidate,
and perpetuate their identity as iTaukei. The headman of the relocated
village of Vunidogoloa, speaking in August 2014 at a workshop of the
Nansen Initiative, reflected this perspective:
I am a victim of climate change. All my life I was brought up in the climate
change zone. . . . What makes it easier for this relocation project is the com-
munity’s willingness to relocate. Even before they were being approached by
the government, they were ready to relocate because of the climate change
affecting the areas where we live. . . . When I talk as a victim of climate change
it really touches me, because I’ve been a victim of climate change all my life. I
thank the government—also the ngos—for helping my village and my com-
munity to relocate. (18 Aug 2014)
The headman went on to state that his parents’ generation had already
wanted to move their village inland, owing to changing coastal ecology;
what had ultimately deterred them, though, were economic constraints.
By depicting himself as a victim of climate change, he was vicariously
underlining—standing proxy for his fellow villagers—a decades-long
sense of vulnerability, of distress and neediness, which could finally be
overcome with external help, especially from the interim government. The
indigenous narrative of victimhood in the face of climate change, of living
in a zone of decline and loss, appeals to the economic solidarity and politi-
cal responsibility of the Fijian government, which is expected to assure
the survival of imperiled iTaukei communities by adaptive measures like
relocation and permanently strengthening their powers of resilience.
The local effects of, and indigenous experiences with, climate change in
the Fijian province of Cakaudrove, caused the then Roko Tui Cakaudrove,
representing the Fijian administration at the provincial level, to justify
252 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
the necessity and urgency of resettling five high-risk communities.8 Refer-
ring to the successful implementation of the climate-induced relocation
of Vunidogoloa that fell under his jurisdiction, he confirmed not only the
generally existing vulnerabilities and threats but also a general sense of
crisis facing parts of the province; he went on to announce that more
resettlements of iTaukei communities would follow:
There are increasing requests from villagers to relocate. This has even reached
the Prime Minister’s office. . . . We have one village relocated already and there
is another one ready for relocation through the usaid project. [We have] ero-
sion of the coastal fronts of villages. We have cases of dried-up streams, rivers
and drinking water running out. Not only that. In Cakaudrove, [we have had
the] first case of relocation and—then there is a piece of land being bought by
the Kiribati Government for development purposes. Because the rumor we first
heard was that [the land] was for them to be relocated there, but now we are
hearing something different. It is for food security and other developmental
business by Kiribati’s Government. So we are both the victim and the helper
[in the context] of climate change. (18 Aug 2014)
Thus, the successful relocation of the village of Vunidogoloa in Cakaudrove
served in the Roko Tui’s remarks as a model for how to save Fijian victims
of the impending decline and loss of vanua due to the inroads of climate
change. The presenter connected this example of a national politics of
hope on the part of the interim government with its international poli-
tics of hope. If the land purchase by Kiribati’s government was primarily
associated in people’s minds with settlement by the population of the atoll
state, this was due to dominant Fijian conceptions and politics of a linkage
between climate change and resettlement, between loss and restoration.
Although the help that Fiji has been willing to provide by approving the
transaction of freehold land to Kiribati was agreed to in terms of assist-
ing its neighbor with developmental opportunities and options for food
security, the possibility of migration had not been excluded over the longer
term. Here a crucial role is played by the vanua concept, which renders
it plausible to iTaukei that I-Kiribati need the new land to assure survival
as a community, culture, and nation. Against this background, we may
assume that Kiribati’s land purchase will permanently reshape local reali-
ties, constellations, and perspectives as well as impact future discourses
and practices of indigenous Fijians on climate change and sea level rise in
Cakaudrove (and beyond).
News of the sale of land to the Kiribati state was also closely followed
by citizens of Fiji living on Vanua Levu who are connected to Kiribati.
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 253
From conversations with persons from the Savusavu region, it became
clear that television coverage of the purchase had attracted notice and
concern. Swayed by alarmist representations of low-lying atolls, high
waves, and inundated areas, these persons expected settlers from Kiri-
bati to be landing on their shores at any moment. After a collective tour
of the Natoavatu Estate, a Fijian man in his mid-fifties who was related
to descendants of immigrants from the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati),
explained: “We were just waiting for one big ship to bring them across!”
(3 Aug 2014). And a younger relative of his added: “We were expecting
the town [Savusavu] to be full of Gilbertese!” Many of our interlocutors
were surprised when they heard our own account of Kiribati’s official
statement to the effect that the land was primarily intended for future food
security in the atoll state.
Banabans living in Fiji also followed the news of the Kiribati govern-
ment’s purchase with great interest. Via reports in Fijian newspapers and
a radio program in their own language, the Banaban community learned
that sea level rise was a major threat to low-lying Kiribati. Soon they
began to worry about their relatives on the atolls. In our conversations, Fiji
Banabans often drew a link between the threat and the land purchase. A
well-informed representative of the administration on Rabi Island, a man
who had closely followed the parliamentary debates in Kiribati, told us he
believed that the government there was pursuing two objectives: first, it
was for them “a food security issue”; second, the land was intended “for
migration”—so they would have a “place to stay” (5 Aug 2014). Apart
from this man, few of the other Rabi Banabans had heard of the first
objective. All that the majority had taken away from the media represen-
tations and local conversations was that the estate had been bought with
future migration in mind.
We cite here just one more of many other Banaban voices, that of a
woman who in recent years had twice visited members of her family living
on Tarawa, where she had learned about the effects of climate change in
Kiribati. She expressed her general concerns about the threat from a rising
ocean, before mentioning in connection with the I-Kiribati: “And I think
the land bought here was bought for them. . . . It was all in the news. . . .
But they don’t want to come, because they love their own land. . . . Their
President bought it [the land in Fiji] for them because of the sea [coming]
very near now to the land [the atolls]” (9 Aug 2014). This lady saw the
land acquired in Fiji as a way out for the atoll inhabitants, who had long
struggled with overpopulation and were now additionally having to con-
254 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
tend with an eroding coastline. Like the others, she wondered when the
I-Kiribati would be arriving. Asked why she thought the land in Vanua
Levu had been acquired, her answer was clear: “For them to move there”
(9 Aug 2014). Like other citizens of Fiji, she associated the purchase with
the collective migration of I-Kiribati.
Conclusion: Land and the Imagining of Migration
The land purchase in Fiji signaled for a broad spectrum of Kiribati’s people
a new phase in the debate over threats from climate change and sea level
rise. The systematic planning and implementation of an economic transac-
tion of this magnitude—subsequently approved by Fiji’s interim govern-
ment—had the effect of verifying the official discourse of an unavoidably
endangered Kiribati. Yet despite the Kiribati government focusing on the
economics underlying its purchase, especially the contribution it might
make to the country’s food security, many I-Kiribati instead associated it
with migration and resettlement. This indigenous imagining of migration
points to two intermeshed ways of constituting the future. First, the risk
to land and people anticipated by the government led to a situation where
I-Kiribati increasingly linked land, locality, and population to vulnerabil-
ity, crisis, and the prospect of displacement. Second, the Islanders viewed
their new land via the lens of a politics of hope, with their government
providing a safe place of refuge in case their home atolls ever became
uninhabitable.
The imagining of migration, propelled by Kiribati’s government’s land
purchase in Fiji, was fostered by the policies of the two Pacific states as
well as by concepts of land harbored by their citizens. Thus this imagin-
ing of migration has to be seen in the context of Kiribati’s climate change
policy but also its migration policy. Despite the fact that acquiring land
was never part of the government’s policy and scheme of “Migration
with Dignity,” many I-Kiribati saw the transaction rather differently—
as furnishing an additional option for future migration and settlement.
The official model of further education and training in the workplace,
intended to inculcate the very skills needed to find work in Australia and
New Zealand, connotes for many Islanders the stressful side of competi-
tion, not to say uncertainty, inferiority, and alienation. By contrast, the
newly acquired land in Fiji holds out the prospect of a concrete place, in
a neighboring Pacific state, combining the qualities of reachability, acces-
sibility, and economic viability with those of cultural, social, and political
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 255
compatibility. One core aspect that helps make migration imaginable is
the cultural significance of land. This prompts I-Kiribati to assume that
their government’s acquisition serves the purpose of collective settlement.
Land evokes community, inspiring the hope that cultural solidarity can
be maintained in the future. Land and collectivity guarantee, in turn, the
continuity of cultural practices and identifications as I-Kiribati. Hence,
land acquired by the state leads them to aspire to security and survival of
family, community, culture, and nation.
Comparable conceptions of land in combination with media represen-
tations of the vulnerability of neighboring atoll states, additionally com-
pounded by official declarations of solidarity from Fiji’s interim govern-
ment, cause even indigenous Fijians and Fiji Banabans to associate this
land acquisition by Kiribati’s government predominantly with migration
and resettlement. Kiribati’s new estate on Vanua Levu is situated within a
broader landscape of historical and present-day relocations. The northern
region within Fiji has recently seen the implementation of a future-ori-
ented national policy of climate-induced resettlement of iTaukei commu-
nities. Given this background, the purchase by Kiribati’s government will
influence and modify social and cultural relations, including the overall
balance of forces and the constituting of a regional future in Cakaudrove.
Hence, the confluence of international and national climate change poli-
cies in the country’s north is staking out a future terrain of competing
(imaginings of) relocations, aspirations, and belongings. Land in Fiji was,
and remains, a highly charged political issue. In the case of the Natoavatu
Estate on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s military-led interim government sanctioned
the acquisition of an extensive tract of freehold land by one of its Pacific
neighbors. This arrangement is part of the government’s policy to under-
score its own claim to leadership in the southwestern Pacific by promis-
ing to take in the inhabitants of the nearby atoll states, should they be
displaced by the consequences of climate change. This Fijian politics of
hope—coming at a time when Australia and New Zealand are refusing to
countenance climate-induced migration—is primarily intended to advance
alternative solutions, to organize specific alliances between Pacific Island
states, and to demonstrate their power to act.
Imaginings of migration by citizens of Kiribati and Fiji give evidence
of their agency. People in both Pacific states actively conceptualize ways
in which they might be affected collectively by possible impacts of cli-
mate change. But they do not see themselves solely as victims of these
threatening impacts. Instead, they imagine possible ways of acting, hop-
256 the contemporary pacific 29:2 (2017)
ing that their respective lands will lend themselves to linking past and
future.
***
We are deeply grateful to all who welcomed us on their islands, shared
their views on climate change, or cooperated in this research. Many thanks to all
our interlocutors, including representatives of national and local governments,
friends, and adopted relatives. We are greatly indebted to the anonymous review-
ers for their valuable suggestions. Our sincere thanks to Bruce Allen for correcting
our English version and to Steffen Herrmann for his help in preparing the manu-
script for publication.
Notes
1 Since 2009, we have spent roughly a month each year in Kiribati (mainly on
Tarawa, Nonouti, and Onotoa) researching the reception of climate change. In
Fiji, we have been engaging in research with resettled Banabans since 1996 (see,
eg, Hermann 2005; Kempf and Hermann 2005; Kempf 2012).
2 We owe this information to interviews with President Taneti Maamau
(7 Sept 2016); Vice President Kourabi Nenem (22 Aug 2016); Minister for Envi-
ronment, Lands and Agricultural Development Tebao Awerika (1 Sept 2016);
and Minister for Labour and Human Resources Ruateki Tekaiara (1 Sept 2016).
3 Information on Kiribati’s policies on migration between 2003 and 2015
derives from interviews with the former president of the Republic of Kiribati,
Anote Tong (14 Sept 2009); the deputy secretary of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs and Immigration (7 Sept 2009); a representative of the Ministry of Labour
(22 Sept 2010); the officer for Foreign Office and Public Relations (31 Aug 2015);
and the high commissioner of Kiribati in Fiji (18 Sept 2015).
4 On the relocation of the Banabans to Rabi Island in Fiji, see Silverman 1971;
T Teaiwa 1997; Hermann 2003; Kempf 2012; K Teaiwa 2015.
5 This and the following quotations (taken from statements made in English
by non-native speakers) were slightly edited in the interest of correct English.
6 Compare Fraenkel 2015, 516–517, regarding Fiji’s claim to leadership in
the region.
7 The Christian churches of Fiji, including the Methodist church, are an inte-
gral part of this process. Their task is to meet fear of climate change with the
promise of hope and healing. In this connection, climate-induced resettlement is
associated with departing for the Promised Land. Communities that are expected
to make land available for the relocation of others would have to accept the
responsibility on the basis of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Peter Emberson,
hermann & kempf climate change & imagining migration 257
pers comm, 20 July 2012). But to pursue this aspect here would take us too far
afield.
8 “Climate Change Impacts and Experiences in Vanua Levu: A Case Study of
Cakaudrove Province,” a presentation given by the Roko Tui Cakaudrove at the
Pacific Regional Civil Society Organisations Workshop, hosted by the Nansen
Initiative (August 2014).
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Abstract
In this article we concentrate on the discursive links between climate change,
migration, land, and imagined futures. We argue that the large tract of freehold
land purchased by Kiribati’s government in Fiji has led citizens in both countries
to develop imaginings of migration, which we interpret as building blocks for a
cultural construct of the future, in anticipation of projected hazards resulting from
climate change and sea level rise. We show that, contrary to official pronounce-
ments that the land had been acquired for reasons of food security, many citizens
of Kiribati and Fiji associated the purchase with the option of a future relocation.
Thus I-Kiribati have taken to perceiving this property in terms of their concept of
land, hoping that, in the event of an existential threat, this new land will allow
them to preserve culture, nation, and identity over the long term. Citizens of Fiji,
too, rely on their concept of land, as when they see that survival for I-Kiribati will
only be possible if they can ground it in a territory of their own. Moreover, the
governments of Kiribati and Fiji both engage in a politics of hope that contributed
to imaginings of migration. We conclude that the emerging discourses on migra-
tion related to the land purchase were fostered by cultural conceptions of land as
well as the climate policies of the two Pacific Island states.
keywords: climate change, migration, imagination, hope, future, relocation,
identity
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... The diversity of resources and the socially conducive conditions have sustained people without tourism income, providing them with a social and economic safety net to fall back on. Previous research indicates that people of the Pacific are aware of changes occurring within their islands and are not mere bystanders in the process of development (Gibson et al., 2013;Hermann and Kempf, 2017;Movono et al., 2018); our findings corroborate that. This paper highlights that people in many of our case study communities now engage more closely with their available support systems and rely more on their traditional techniques as a means of both survival, and cultural revival. ...
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... However, the results of some surveys indicate that the people would be likely to migrate abroad in case they had to leave their island (Kaiteie, Hogan, 2008). Other options include purchasing parts of Vanua Levu Island in Fiji for relocation when climate change impact becomes too severe or international migration to other countries (Hermann and Kempf, 2017). This situation, however, could put international migrants at risk of "becoming economically, politically, socially and culturally marginalised" (Oakes et al., 2016). ...
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