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6 Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”: Living Climate Change in Oceania

John Connell
6 Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands
6.1 Introduction
The Carterets are a portent of catastrophe to come—not only for the other low lying atolls of
the South Pacific, but for low-lying coastal communities across the world, from Bangladesh to
New Orleans … These are the Carterets, the islands at the beginning of the end of the world …
Some time next year the islanders will become the world’s first climate-change refugees; within
a few years, barring a dramatic reversal, their home will literally go down in history as the first
inhabited territory in the world to be swallowed up by global warming (Parry, 2006).
A small number of Pacific islands, notably Tuvalu and the Carteret Islands (henceforth
“CI”), have become iconic sites in contemporary chronicles of global warming and
sea level rise: the “canaries in the coal mine” and synecdoches for future change.
The most anticipated physical impacts of sea level rise (SLR) on islands are coastal
erosion, flooding and salinity intrusion, reducing the resilience and viability of
small island ecosystems, so stimulating migration. By far the most popular image
with regard to climate change is that of disappearing islands and populations forced
against their will to become environmental or “climate refugees” (Farbotko, 2010). In
the media, but also in various academic accounts, the CI have been widely depicted
as the first islands whose population must be relocated owing to climate change
and thus the first “climate change refugees” (Connell, 1990; Edwards, 2013; Luetz,
2008; Morton, 2009). So strong has this linkage between the CI and disappearance
become that when “Carteret Islands” is put into Google, the automatic categories
offered in response are “Carteret Islands Sinking,” followed by “Climate Refugees”
and “Relocation.” In 2010 Papua New Guinea issued a set of four “climate change”
stamps all featuring the CI. There is an extraordinary national and global fascination
with a few tiny islands disappearing beneath the waves (Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012).
The Carteret Islands in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (Papua New Guinea)
consists of a single coral atoll, with five populated islets, none more than three metres
above sea level (Figure One). That may already suggest a difficult future, but can there
then be no other way of thinking about these islands—so frequently doomed to disappear
as sea level rises? This chapter examines this perception, seeks to account for the iconic
status of the CI—far beyond what might be expected of a tiny island with fewer than two
thousand people on the extreme fringes of an already globally marginal Pacific state—
and analyses the way in which Western and Carteret Islander activists alike have applied
John Connell, University of Sydney
74  Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”
scientific discourses of climate change to the CI. In short, the chapter queries how the
complex history and multiple stressors at work in the CI have become a monocausal,
monolithic narrative based on “climate change,” and then offers alternative perspectives.
Figure 6.1: The Carteret Islands, Papua New Guinea.
6.2 (Mis)representing the Islands?
In several reports, from sources distant from the western Pacific, the CI—a single coral
atoll 85 kilometres north-east of Buka (Bougainville, Papua New Guinea) (Figure One)
—have already been abandoned. In a fairly typical example, the UK Minister of State,
while visiting Papua New Guinea in April 2013, stated: “In 2007 the Carteret Islanders,
in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, became some of the first in the world to be
forced from their homes by rising sea levels and extreme weather. Similar emotive
and inaccurate statements have been made many times about Tuvalu, rather more
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(Mis)representing the Islands?   75
iconic in constituting an entire nation (Barnett and Campbell, 2010; Connell 2003;
2013). Since only a handful of households have been formally relocated from the CI,
and the problems and complexities of resettlement have become longstanding issues,
more informed statements about the CI simply focus on problems caused by sea level
rise and the urgent need for resettlement.
A suite of quotations follows somewhat similar lines to those of the opening
quotation. For the western Pacific, an Australian academic writes:
The people of Tuvalu and Kiribati in the north Pacific, Takuu (Mortlock Islands) and the Carteret
Islands in Papua New Guinea, and Australia’s Torres Strait Islanders, are now voyaging towards
an uncertain future. Rapidly rising sea-levels and massive king tides are encroaching on their
villages and salt is affecting arable land. The mass migration of entire island communities is
imminent (Cochrane, 2010: 93).
A British academic describes CI as follows: more than 60% of the territory has fallen
below sea level; two uninhabited islands disappeared in 1999 and the island has
been cut into two by the sea (Blitz, 2011: 441). In this way, the CI have repeatedly
been singled out, with islanders typically being described, here from the Australian
Climate Institute think-tank, as “the first direct climate change refugees with islands
inundated and damaged, gardens and water supplies destroyed by salt water
intrusion and evacuation announced in 2005” (Roper, 2009). A decade ago a British
journalist reported:
For more than 30 years the 980 people living on the six minute horseshoe-shaped Carteret atolls
have battled the Pacific to stop salt water destroying their coconut palms and waves crashing
over their houses. They failed. Yesterday a decision was made that will make their group of low-
lying islands literally go down in history […] the Carterets’ people became the first to be officially
evacuated because of climate change. Starting as soon as money is available to the Papua New
Guinean regional government, 10 families at a time will be moved to Bougainville, a larger island
100km away. Within two years the six Carterets […] will be uninhabited and undefended. By 2015
they are likely to be completely submerged (Vidal, 2005: n.p.).
The phrase “literally go down in history” by then had become repetitive (Connell,
2013)—as had other similar phrases—while 2015 was soon to become a familiar date
for reports on the CI, despite no known scientific or other rationale for this date.
Typically “scientists expect the islands to sink back into the sea by 2015” (Anon
2008), while “the 1,700 or so Carteret islanders may be among the first people to
move. That’s because scientists estimate the islands will be drowned by 2015.”¹ Who
the mysterious scientists were has never been revealed.
41Keith Jackson. http: //
76  Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”
In 2009 the prominent British journalist, George Monbiot, in a report entitled
“Climate change displacement has begun but hardly anyone has noticed” claimed
that, two weeks earlier, “a momentous event occurred: the beginning of the world’s
first evacuation of an entire people as a result of manmade global warming” (2009:
n.p.). As stated in a report from the NGO World Vision International:
There has been reluctance to leave, especially among older islanders, but after fighting a losing
battle against the ocean for more than twenty years (building sea walls and planting mangroves)
it appears the islanders have given up hope, resigned to be among the world’s first “climate
change refugees” (Luetz, 2008)
This and similar reports and comments copied, built on and cross-referenced each
other, in the absence of formal studies of socio-economic and physical changes in
CI, or alternative perspectives. Though such reports have a veneer of accuracy, few
indicate that their authors had travelled within a hundred kilometres of the CI, let
alone visited the islands themselves. With internet search engines rendering these
comments immediately accessible to anyone seeking to make statements on the CI, it
is inevitable that the “imminent end” narrative was rehashed many times over. These
sources include seemingly reputable (e.g. UN) sources, academics, journalists, film
makers and NGOs.
Yet “[t]he vulnerability of the [Pacific] islands is a symbol used by researchers
who need problems to investigate, journalists who need problems to sell and NGOs
who need problems to solve” (Barnett and Campbell, 2010). For NGOs especially,
small islands are sites and sources of refugees, and places that demonstrate the
harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions and overconsumption in the developed
world: frontline victims of the excesses of capitalism. Media reports, building on each
other and without real local understanding, not unexpectedly invariably attributed
environmental problems to climate change and sea level, as they did elsewhere
(Connell, 2003; Farkbotko, 2005). Yet only the CI were going down in history at a fixed
time, so ensuring their unique iconic status.
The drama of disappearance depicted in media reports is accentuated in pictures
and films. Typical photographs from a variety of sources are shown with their original
captions in Figures 6.2 to 6.6, all emphasising the fragility and vulnerability of small
islands and their populations. Photographs highlight sites of devastation, where
islanders wade through what was once dry land, where coconut trees are eroded or
fallen, and where water has cut in two the island of Huene in the CI: apparent visible
proof of an atoll whose end is near. Documentary films have similarly lingered on
disruption, attaching particular significance to high tides and flooding and eschewing
residual normality.
(Mis)representing the Islands?   77
Figure 6.2: The View of Han (Huene) Island from Yolasa Island, both part of the Carteret Atoll. Han
used to be one island but has now been bisected by rising sea levels. Fallen coconut trees in the
foreground were caused by the erosion of the coastline (IRIN Asia 8 June 2008). Photo Credit: Pip
Figure 6.3: A mother takes her young family to drier ground.” Proto Credit: BBC World Service,
“AWorld Underwater,” 2009.
78  Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”
Figure 6.4: “Rising sea levels have eroded much of the coastlines of the low-lying Carteret Islands
situated 50 miles from Bougainville Island, in the South Pacific.” Photo credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
Figure 6.5: “The two halves of what was once Huene Island, which was cut in two in the 1980s. Its
twin, Iolasa, is going the same way. When the tides rise stingrays and sharks swim around. Then
when the water goes down, the place is wet and stinking. Then the mosquitoes breed and the
children get malaria and diarrhoea.” Photo credit: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert.
Thinking About Sinking  79
Photographs, their captions, and films are dramatic depictions of a disappearing island
and people and a graphic visual substitute for the absent science: “simultaneously
scientific denotations of global warming and cultural connotations of danger and
vulnerability” mirroring wider apocalyptic scenarios of catastrophe, hopelessness,
misery and doom (Manzo, 2010). Moreover, disappearing islands seem idyllic. PNG’s
own study records: “islands, which, from space, look like the beads of a necklace
lying on a turquoise background” (Memafu, 2011). The Times depicts “the Carteret
Islands—among the smallest, most beautiful and most remote inhabited islands in
the world” (Parry, 2006: n.p.).
6.3 Thinking About Sinking
The Carteret Islands group consists of an oval-shaped atoll, ranging from
approximately 10 to 20 kilometres in diameter, with six main named small islands
and an entire surface area of about 0.7 sq. kms (70 hectares). Sea level rise in the
western Pacific is faster than in most parts of the world, but the highest recorded rate
in the region—close to Tuvalu—is 5.1 mm per year, and that rate has only occurred
in recent years. No good records of sea level rise exist for CI, or nearby islands; it is
unlikely to be more than that of Tuvalu but probably in excess of the average 3.1 mm
per year recorded for the Western Pacific, and almost certainly increasing (Connell,
2015). While that is significant for the CI, in itself and for the time being sea level rise
creates few problems.
Short term cyclical events have had a much greater local impact on environmental
change than sea level rise. The CI are outside the normal cyclone belt but occasional
storms produce storm surges (sometimes called king tides) that create overwash, as
waves traverse the islands. More significant for short-term climatic events is the El Niño
Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a quasi-periodic climatic pattern that occurs across the
Pacific roughly every five years, and has occurred for centuries (well before significant
greenhouse gas-induced global warming), changing sea surface temperatures and air
surface pressures. At the peaks of ENSO cycles more extreme weather occurs. During
these periods sea levels are unusually high, storm surges more frequent and overwash
more common. Overwash can reduce potable lens water to a brackish water supply
unsuitable for drinking for more than six months, and destroy fresh food supplies (in
taro beds) for at least as long. That was the situation during 1989 and in mid-2008,
when La Niña was in place, partly accounting for problems that brought in the media
at critical times of obvious disruption.
Distant source wind-waves, emanating from the eastern Pacific and not associated
with regional circumstances, have been an occasional source of inundation of low-
lying areas; late in 2008 swell created considerable damage in the CI at a time when
regional sea level, due to La Niña conditions, was unusually elevated (Hoeke et al,
80  Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”
2013). The impact would have been greater had it arrived during a peak of spring tides
or in stronger La Niña conditions.
Relative sea level rise, both cyclical and irregular, is considerably influenced
by tectonic change, and particularly strong vertical movements around the nearby
convergence of the Australian and Pacific plates. Geophysical data on movements on
the plate boundary are extremely scarce, other than in the Torres Islands (Vanuatu),
where between 1997 and 2009 the islands subsided by about 117 mm—one of the
highest recorded subsidence rates in the world, effectively quadrupling more gradual
sea level rise, resulting in considerable flooding and local resettlement (Ballu et al,
2011; Siméoni and Ballu, 2012). Similar explanations account for parallel changes in
other parts of the Solomon Islands and PNG, all close to the plate boundary, and for
changes in CI (Duguman, 2009; Connell, 2015).
Human impacts from the construction of seawalls, removal of mangroves, and
sand mining have also had significant impacts on erosion and coastal change (Connell
2003, 2013, 2015). There is little information on such factors in CI, though they are likely
to have made some contribution to localised coastal erosion. Monbiot (2009) did note
that there were “compounding factors—the removal of mangrove forests and some local
volcanic activity—but the main problems appear to be rising sea levels.” Parry also stated
“there is no doubt that the islanders have unwittingly made their own contribution
to the problem. Unlike many tropical reefs, the Carteret atoll seems little damaged
by bomb fishing—but the mangroves that once formed a natural sea wall around the
islands were stripped away for firewood a generation ago” (Parry, 2006). Dynamiting
of reefs occurred when the population grew during the Bougainville crisis of the 1990s
(Regan, 2010). Various sea walls have been constructed at least as early as the 1960s
and a survey team in 1964 reported that, already, “erosion is a constant menace in these
islands” (quoted in O’Collins, 1990). Erosion has been greatest and most visible in the
more modified parts of atolls, especially where people lived at high densities. On many
Pacific atolls, islanders are conscious that erosion is part of a “normal process”—more
of the same—and have long taken steps to modify and defend eroded areas and secure
land elsewhere, at least as early as the 1970s (Bridges and McClatchey 2009; Connell
2015; Pam and Henry, 2012; Rubow, 2013). While Carteret Islanders have not apparently
commented on past changes, and present changes may be substantially greater than at
any time in the recent past, some contemporary changes are the outcome of cyclical and
recurrent environmental changes.
6.4 The Carteret Islands: A Recent History
Carteret Islanders reportedly fled from Buka in pre-contact times to settle the island
and displace a previous Polynesian outlier population (Mueller, 1972). Difficulties in
maintaining livelihoods were frequent in other nearby atolls in the nineteenth and
early twentieth century (Bayliss-Smith, 1975), and it is highly likely that this was also
The Carteret Islands: A Recent History   81
true of CI. In post-war years the island periodically experienced food shortages of
varying severity, at least since the 1960s, associated with a steadily growing human
and pig population, and the increased conversion of coconuts into copra to generate
income, so reducing local food supplies. Between the 1960s and 1980s administration
patrol reports regularly remarked on food and timber shortages, and occasionally
made reference to malnutrition, while CI were often singled out as the Bougainvillean
atoll with the most severe development problems (e.g Kukang et al, 1987). Some
islanders worked away and when the Bougainville Company no longer took crew from
the Carterets for their ships “they cut the people short of everything” (Mueller, 1972).
In the 1950s and 1960s the islands were known to be subject to occasional inundation
during storm surges, especially during strong wind conditions.² Resettlement was
considered by the colonial administration at least as early as the 1960s (Mueller, 1972).
By the 1990s very little land was cultivated and the main foods eaten were fish and
coconuts, alongside imported foods such as rice and flour. People were dependent on
driftwood and timber brought from Buka for construction. An agricultural survey in
2002 recorded at a time when the population was still increasing:
There are clear indications of stress in the Carteret Islands. There are serious and chronic food
supply problems. … so severe that it is possible that inadequate nutrition is inhibiting children’s
mental development. There are also clear signs of environmental stress. The area on Han Island
which was previously devoted to swamp taro production was flooded by sea water several years
ago. The small areas of swamp taro pits were then abandoned. These problems are not new and
have been reported for up to 40 years (Bourke and Betitis, 2003)
Breadfruit, swamp taro, sugar cane and bananas were all produced in the recent past
but bananas died during the late 2000s. Stress has been recurrent.
Adequate demographic data for the CI are absent. The resident population is
likely to be around 1,200 and the number of Carteret Islanders living elsewhere is
likely to be about 300, but there is no means of being sure. The Admiralty Handbook
recorded the CI as having a population of 440 in 1940; after the war that had grown to
574 in 1954 and 864 in 1970 (Mueller, 1972). The resident population at the time of the
2000 census was 979 people giving a population density of 1224 people per sq. km,
the highest of any Bougainvillean atoll and the highest density in PNG (Bourke and
Betitis, 2003). To remain at home in the islands as conditions worsened was regarded
as relative deprivation, and by then roughly a third of all Carteret Islanders lived on
Bougainville. The closure of the mine and a decade long period of civil war, violence
and deprivation across Bougainville resulted in return migration to the CI and
increased pressure on local resources, particularly as opportunities for trade were
especially limited during this time. By chance that coincided with the initiation of
global and regional concerns over climate change and sea level rise (Connell, 1990).
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82  Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”
The following two decades were unusually difficult. In the 1980s cash incomes were
erratic and unreliable since the sale of copra, shells, bêche-de-mer and other marine
products was dependent on fluctuating prices and irregular transport to Bougainville
(O’Collins, 1990). During the Bougainville crisis transport worsened considerably, and
remained difficult thereafter as Bougainville only slowly returned to normality and
“outer islanders” (a neologism) were further marginalised. Various Carteret Islanders
live off-island, mainly in Buka (Bougainville).
Formal resettlement from CI has had two phases. The first resettlement began in
1984, with a plan to relocate Carteret Islanders to an area north of Arawa in Bougainville
(adjoining a similar settlement for migrants from the other Bougainville atolls), but
this scheme ended in 1989 with the outbreak of conflict. Several households had been
established, and garden food was being been sent back to the CI, but the resettled
households returned to the CI during the crisis. In the twenty-first century, after the
resolution of the crisis, a second attempt at resettlement began. That phase sought to
relocate 50% of the island’s population by 2020. Neither the government of PNG nor
that of the now Autonomous Province of Bougainville gave this priority or purchased
land for resettlement, leaving the task to a local CI organisation, Tulele Peisa (“Sailing
the waves on our own”) with some support from the Catholic church in Bougainville.
Tulele Peisa regularly reported relocation being needed because of “rising sea levels.”
The lack of state-provided land meant that an “ideal opportunity for securing land for
some of the world’s first climate change displaced persons was lost” (Displacement
Solutions, 2012: 18). Obtaining any land beyond the 81 hectares donated by the church,
let alone suitable land for successful relocation, was extremely difficult, and Tulele
Peisa had no financial resources to secure land or develop a settlement (Edwards,
2013). By 2011 no more than ten households had relocated to Bougainville, and there
were frequent disputes with nearby landowners. Resettlement was unusually difficult
because of the unwillingness of Bougainvilleans to relinquish or lease land, the
tensions of a post-conflict period in which employment opportunities were scarce,
and the absence of kin to facilitate the kind of migration that has occurred in other
atoll contexts. Despite frequent stresses, and several attempts, Carteret Islanders
have been unable to establish multi-sited livelihoods.
Making a livelihood on atolls has always been regarded as precarious: “coral
reefs with their low sandy islets provide the most limited range of resources for
human existence and are the most tenuous of habitats for man [sic] in the Pacific…
Maintaining a livelihood is a considerable task” (Thomas, 1963). In pre-colonial times
atolls achieved sustainable development partly through extended geographical ties,
typified by socio-economic linkages across atolls and between clusters of islands.
Elaborate exchange systems and reciprocal regional and local socio-economic-political
ties contributed to sustainability (Alkire, 1978; Bayliss-Smith, 1982), though sometimes
involving feuds, warfare and violent conflicts over land, resources and fishing grounds
(D’Arcy, 2006, 2009). Survival necessitated external ties. Small islands could not
afford to be insular. Without mobility and migration life could be particularly difficult.
Inside the Garbage Can  83
Nearby Nukumanu atoll experienced a considerable population reduction in the 1870s
following overpopulation and famine, though overpopulation was unlikely to be the
sole explanation, and adjoining Takuu experienced a similar decline, prompting
administration interest in resettlement (Bayliss-Smith, 1975; Moyle, 2007). Migration
became a widespread household strategy, for diversifying sources of income to
minimise risks, resulting in the establishment of a culture of migration and dependence
on remittances (Connell, 2008, 2013, 2015). Pacific atoll islanders established their own
settlements on central high islands, such as Guadalcanal, Pohnpei and Chuuk and
Guam, or moved to central urbanized atolls such as Funafuti, Tarawa and Majuro, in
search of superior incomes, education and health services. Unlike so many other atolls
the CI were unusually disadvantaged, particularly evident after the Bougainville crisis
and the dual failure of resettlement schemes.
6.5 Inside the Garbage Can
Small islands offer sites where the great global narratives of climate change can be
comprehended, interpreted and made tangible and visible, and where “proof” of the
reality of climate change can supposedly be constructed from indigenous testimonials
(Farbotko, 2010). Environmental knowledge in the CI is a product of history and
culture, influenced by scientific analysis, but mediated through the media and local
transformation. Carteret Islanders, like Tuvaluans (Connell, 2003), are not passive in
the face of science but actively construct their own environmental knowledge based
on both observation and knowledge transmission. The science to which they have
been exposed, limited as it is, confirms exactly what they have observed. Local fears
and distant perceptions confirm, enhance and emphasise each other, so eclipsing the
space for local causalities and explanations.
With the exceptions of Monbiot’s reference to “compounding factors” and Parry’s
reference to islanders’ own contribution to the problem, in both cases seen as secondary
to sea level rise, no reference to recent environmental changes in the CI has suggested
an origin in anything other than climate change. Climate change and sea level rise
embrace the totality of observed changes and scientific explanations. Nothing else is
possible, resulting in a “garbage can logic” where unusual, seemingly inexplicable,
changes have occurred, and a confluence of factors have been condensed and
simplified into a narrative of monocausality. With scientific studies quite absent in the
CI, “climate change” (or “sea level rise”) has become the sole source of environmental
change: a “garbage can anarchy” where once separate and complex phenomena have
become systematically interrelated (e.g. Connell, 2003; Corlett, 2008; Hulme, 2010). It
would be almost impossible to imagine any environmental phenomenon less directly
observable, more remote from daily experience and more dependent on science for its
“truth” than climate change. The science and data of climate change are constantly
contested and its effects can neither be accurately predicted nor spatially or temporally
84  Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”
determined. Any influences on climate change occur far from the island Pacific, and
cannot be attributed to local activities, hence perceived physical changes that may
have alternative explanations can still be attributed to climate change and sea level
rise: instances of “promiscuous corroboration” (cf. Rudiak-Gould, 2012a, 2013a).
Media and occasional NGO accounts are replete with romanticised statements
such as “Island chief John Kela doesn’t understand the science of climate change.
But he sees that the ocean surrounding his island is rising” and “Even as the last
veneers of organic matter are pushed out to the ocean, Tobasi [in Han] prays daily
for his island. He knows that life on the atoll is coming to an end” (Luetz, 2008:
17, 20). Science is constantly given short shrift. Ursula Rakova, the CEO of Tulele
Peisa, frequently returns to this theme. While noting that she has heard alternative
explanations for local problems, from volcanic activity to tectonic change: “We
don’t know much about science; all we know it’s happening all over the world”
(quoted in Oxfam, 2008). Later: “We do not know much about science but we watch
helplessly as the tides wash away our shores year in and year out” (Rakova, 2012).
Distant causes absolve local people from responsibility. Among Carteret Islanders
there is only a single recorded dissenting voice to the monocausal climate change
narrative, and this dissenter appears to have been quashed: “I used to think that it’s
because of unreligious activities of the people. They seem not to be following the Ten
Commandments” (Dreiling, 2009). Climate change is the sole culprit.
Physical changes are considerable and eminently visible. The leader of Piul
observed: “‘When I was a small boy this shore began out there” Mr Tubin [sic] says,
pointing to a spot 150 metres out to sea. “One year ago it was five metres out from
here. There were houses here, and fruit trees’” (quoted in Parry, 2006). Some sites
are particularly striking. “Chief Bernard Tunim of Piul Island points to a decaying
coconut stump nearly 200 metres offshore … ‘That used to be our shoreline only ten
or 15 years ago. Look how the sea is eating us away. We are only a small island, the
king tides have already swamped our gardens and soon we will have to leave. The
future of my island is now only for fish, not people” (Bohane, 2009). Various films of
the CI, and other atolls such as Takuu, and the numerous films of Tuvalu, are replete
with local people demonstrating the disappearance of their land, usually by wading
where it was. “We are right where my grandfather’s house was … out there were
coconut trees and some other fruit gardens” (CNN, 2007). Little can be more dramatic
than food gardens and coconut palms—the basis of livelihoods—awash in the ocean.
Nothing more is needed for the media to apply the “refugee” label. Small islands are
thus marginalized through the creation and reiteration of emotional geographies
tied to particular named sites, such as burial areas, to remembered places that have
disappeared, to the particular island and the atoll as a whole.
Before erosion life was good, and vestiges of that remain, especially to those
people who have no wish to migrate. On Huene, where only two families still remain,
Selina Netoi pointed out: “I may not go. You can sleep outside and no one comes to
disturb you. I like to watch the wind blowing in the palm trees. I don’t have to pay
Inside the Garbage Can  85
anything, everything is free” (Tweedie, 2009). By contrast “On the mainland you can’t
get something for nothing” (Redfearn and Metzger, 2010). Selina also observed “You
do not get lonely here … There is the sky and the sea and the trees, all changing. And
there are people over there [nearby Iolassa]” (Redfearn and Metzger, 2010).
For a fifty-year-old man:
Here we are simple fishermen. We love fishing. If you go fishing and catch many fish, you would
come and share what you have with me, and I would do the same. We look after each other, here
on these islands (Tweedie, 2009).
Figure 6.6: Climate change refugees.
For a younger man in Han:
It’s a holiday island, paradise. When you wake up you think about fishing. You can just sit and
relax. Check if your coconuts are growing. You don’t have a hefty workload (in UNU, 2009)
Since the cause is evidently climate change, as the ‘chief‘ of Piul has stated:
We are frustrated and we are angry at the same time. We are victims of something we are not
responsible for. We believe that these islands are ours, and that our future generations should
not go away from these islands. I think it’s about time these industrialized countries realized
that these island countries in the Pacific are taking the toll. We are bearing the brunt of these
[greenhouse] emissions (quoted in Westwood, 2008: 37)
86  Nothing There Atoll? “Farewell to the Carteret Islands”
This theme is repeated in almost every account: local people, with no capacity to
influence climate change, victimised by distant forces. An anonymous Islander said:
“We have mixed feelings of anger and sorrow at the same time. We don’t want to lose
our ground. Losing our island is losing our lives, losing our identity, losing our custom
and whatever we have” (Dreiling, 2009). Living on Bougainville would necessitate
abandoning some aspects of culture (notably material culture) and adapting to new
livelihoods in a different physical, cultural and linguistic environment. Despite the
threats to livelihoods in the CI, only some of the Islanders, mainly younger families,
wish to go. Becoming part of a wider world is not without emotional costs: “home”
remains on the atoll.
6.6 Conclusion: 2015 and All That
Contrary to recent journalistic and local commentary, the CI face multiple problems,
only one of which is climate change. Sustainable livelihoods have been under
extreme pressure for more than half a century while expectations for development
have increased. Sea level rise, though posing a serious problem in the future, is yet to
have a significant influence on environmental change in the CI. Flooding and coastal
erosion have been the result not of climate change-induced sea level rise but of tectonic
changes, seismic events, ENSO-related tidal and storm surges, cyclones, wind-driven
waves, and local actions. Indeed, significant physical changes were occurring on
coral atolls long before the late 1980s when the first news of the “greenhouse effect,”
climate change and global sea level rise reached the Pacific region.
But once this scientific concept did arrive, both on the CI and in Western
newsrooms, it became possible for a complex historical, ecological, and social
situation to be brushed aside in favour of the “grand narrative” of climate change (see
Farbotko and Lazrus, 2012; Kuruppu and Liverman, 2011; Rudiak-Gould, 2011, 2012a).
Disappearing islands and people—climate refugees—are emotional matters, drawn
on by NGOs, journalists, and islanders themselves to encourage global mitigation and
adaptation and to draw attention to the excesses of capitalism. While catastrophic
narratives of inundation, flight and loss may be unhelpful for Tuvaluans and Marshall
Islanders, who largely favour in situ adaptation over relocation (Farbotko and Lazrus,
2012; Rudiak-Gould, 2013a), in the CI, where environmental degradation is unusually
severe and migration opportunities few, this rhetorical gambit provides a moral
context that might shape a desired diasporic future. Not surprisingly Islanders have
no wish to be “tectonic refugees,” where no human influences exist, and morality
is absent. Likewise, whereas in most atoll contexts climate change is a distraction
(Gaillard, 2012) from the necessity of achieving daily livelihoods, and climate change
induces a sense of powerlessness, what might otherwise be powerlessness has been
transformed in the CI into a potential means of gaining new livelihoods.
Conclusion: 2015 and All That   87
For centuries atoll islanders have diversified livelihoods by migration. Islanders
themselves and colonial and post-colonial authorities recognised migration and
resettlement elsewhere as a means of alleviating poverty and food insecurity, and
formal resettlement schemes were sometimes put in place. In many other islands,
islanders developed their own strategies for migration, colonisation or resettlement
elsewhere. Maintaining an adequate local livelihood and achieving sustainability
on the CI has always been difficult, and has worsened with increased population
pressure and detachment from Bougainville during and after the crisis. During both
the crisis years and the extreme weather condition of the late 2000s the CI needed
greater connectivity to diversify local livelihoods. A growing culture of migration and
significant environmental degradation increasingly emphasise each other.
As elsewhere migration and resettlement are entwined with ambivalence between
the desire for migration and possible superior living standards and a preference for
holding on to the security and certainty of home. Not all Carteret Islanders wish to
leave, anchor populations will remain, and, should depopulation occur, the islands
will become fishing grounds. Tulele Peisa hope to retain a small population in the
Carterets but not “most of those with income-earning potential” (Displacement
Solutions, 2012). Migration simply provides necessary flexible and productive
livelihoods. Islanders are not impotent but, because of land and political issues in
Bougainville, have limited migratory options. Local agency is not passive, but in
difficult circumstances has effectively moulded global forces (through the narrative
of climate change and disappearing islands and people) into external concern and
widespread acceptance of the necessity for resettlement. A negative climate change
discourse has been turned into both a romantic essentialism of place and a weapon
of the weak (Scott, 1995). Carteret Islanders face a difficult future in a troubled nation
but a “natural” hazard has provided one means of overcoming the challenges of
development on an unusually small, densely populated and resource-deficient
island: despite the “scientists”, most Islanders will still be there long after 2015.
... The most significant impacts of climate change for atolls are likely to be increased storminess and SLR, contributing to coastal erosion, flooding and salinity intrusion, reducing the resilience and viability of small island ecosystems, with populations unwillingly forced to become environmental refugees (Farbotko, 2010). In the media especially, the Carteret Islands have been widely depicted as one of the first disappearing islands whose population must be relocated so creating the first 'climate change refugees' (Connell, 1990(Connell, , 2016Luetz, 2008;Edwards, 2013). So strong has this linkage become that when Carteret Islands is put into Google, the first automatic additional category in response is Carteret Islands sinking, followed by evacuation. ...
... It is no longer easily possible to travel to Carteret Islands (CI), so limiting access to first hand evaluation of environmental change and livelihoods; hence, this analysis is primarily based on discussions and a close reading of existing texts on CI, ranging from post-war administration patrol reports to NGO studies and multiple media accounts (Connell, 2016). That is linked to an extended comparison of CI and other Pacific atolls, where data are more accurate and more readily available. ...
... Their islands are being swallowed by the sea and their crops of banana, taro and breadfruit destroyed by storm surges and king tides (Box, 2005) A more recent example, which, like many, assumes a final 2015 exodus, prefaces this paper. Multiple similar statements, largely resulting from journalists relying on previous accounts and not visiting the island, are reported and analysed elsewhere (Connell, 2016). Less than 10 households have been formally relocated from CI, although the problems and complexities of resettlement have become longstanding issues. ...
... Dans ce discours à la mécanique bien huilée, peu de place est laissé aux doutes, aux Media reports, building on each other and without real local understanding, not unexpectedly invariably attributed environmental problems to climate change and sea level, as they did elsewhere (Connell, 2018). ...
... On entre ici dans une autre prise de distance par rapport au « discours officiel ». Jusqu'à présent, son usage était présenté comme la conséquence d'une insulaires en proie à la submersion marine des symboles des dérives de l'économie capitaliste qu'ils dénonçaient par ailleurs (Connell, 2018). ...
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Cette thèse se propose de comprendre la place qu’occupe le discours scientifique sur le changement climatique dans la vie des gens d’un territoire insulaire considéré comme particulièrement vulnérable à ce sujet: les îles Cook dans le Pacifique Sud. Trop souvent envisagé dans une perspective universelle, ce discours scientifique est tout sauf socialement neutre, puisqu’il s’appuie sur des concepts, des représentations du monde, du temps et de l’espace qui sont propres aux sociétés occidentales. Prenant pour base de réflexion une enquête ethnographique comparative de dix-huit mois menée à Ma’uke et à Manihiki entre 2014 et 2018, la présente étude interroge la perception et l’usage que les populations insulaires font de ce discours depuis son émergence au cours de la décennie 2010. L’un des principaux enseignements de cette thèse est que cet usage s’inscrit dans des stratégies individuelles et sociales qui dépassent le cadre de la problématique environnementale à proprement parler. L’interprétation de la théorie du changement climatique par les habitants des îles, ainsi que les pratiques et les discours qui lui sont associés, sont ainsi indépendants des caractéristiques du problème climatique, qui se voit subordonnée aux statuts sociaux des insulaires, définis selon les rôles et les fonctions qu’ils occupent au sein de la communauté. En l’espèce, à défaut de provoquer une rupture de l’ordre social, la problématique du changement climatique reproduit et même renforce les systèmes de valeurs et de hiérarchies qui préexistaient à son émergence chez les Ma’ukean et les Manihikian. Ce travail montre combien il est nécessaire, pour comprendre les multiples sens qu’une communauté donne au discours scientifique sur le changement climatique, de mettre au cœur de l’analyse les tensions et dynamiques sociales qui la structurent.
... From a scientific point of view, however, there are considerable doubts that the effects of climate change, particularly the rise in sea levels, are the main reason for the environmental changes on the Carteret Islands and the alleged 'climate flight' of their inhabitants. In such cases, not only the long history of environmental problems, food scarcity and mobility, but also tectonic changes in the region and the fundamental problem of the term 'climate refugee' are ignored (see Barnett and Campbell 2010;Connell 2016Connell , 2018Farbotko 2010;Kempf 2009Kempf , 2015. Against this background, the entire cinematic staging of 'the first climate refugees' is highly questionable. ...
This introduction takes a critical look at the heterogeneous corpus of social science research on climate change and Christian religion. The central concern is to present analytical alternatives to the universalist-essentialising approaches which, on the basis of a supposedly inherent contradiction between science and religion, exclude or devalue Christian contestation and modification of climate change discourse. With reference to the empirical-analytical richness of the contributions on Fiji, Vanuatu and Kiribati, this paper highlights the multiplicity, contrariness and processuality of the religious-political practice of Pacific Islanders in response to climate change as both a scientific narrative and a physical reality. The range of topics of the introduction includes the religious dimensions of blame, transnational networks of Christian actors and institutions as well as Christian framings of the nexus of climate change, mobility and resettlement. In addition, it outlines possible fields of future research such as the media politics of Christian institutions’ representations of climate change and a historical re-examination of missionary work in Oceania from the perspective of the entanglements of carbon and Christianity.
... It is understandable that when a location can no longer provide the necessities of life for its inhabitants, some kind of relocation will become necessary. Migrating however poses many other problems as has been witnessed in Papua New Guinea by people from the Carteret Islands in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (Connell, 2016(Connell, , 2018bLuetz and Havea, 2018), and Manam Islands in Madang Province Lutkehaus, 2016, 2017). ...
TThis thesis is both a contemporary and a longitudinal ethnographic case study of Brooker Islanders. Brooker Islanders are a sea-faring people that inhabit a large marine territory in the West Calvados Chain of the Louisiade Archipelago in Milne Bay Province of Papua New Guinea. In the late 19th Century, Brooker Islanders began to be incorporated into an emerging global economy through the production of various marine resources that were desired by mainly Australian capitalist interests. The most notable of these commodified marine resources was beche-de-mer. Beche-de-mer is the processed form of several sea cucumber species. The importance of the sea cucumber fishery for Brooker Islanders waned when World War I started. Following the rise of an increasingly affluent China in the early 1990s, the sea cucumber fishery and beche-de-mer trade once again became an important source of cash income for Brooker Islanders. With an increasing dependency on cash and a subsequent decline in sea cucumber stocks, a number of conflicts emerged across the Louisiade Archipelago due to competition to access areas that still held sea cucumbers stocks. In October 2009, the National Fisheries Authority imposed a moratorium on the sea cucumber fishery and beche-de-mer trade. This moratorium remained in place until April 2017. This moratorium caused major impacts on Brooker Islander livelihoods. Brooker Islanders have limited alternative income opportunities available and also have to contend with regular environmental shocks such as cyclones and El Nino associated droughts. An increasing population and projected impacts of climate change make for a very uncertain future for Brooker Islanders. This thesis is based on anthropological fieldwork, historical research and continued contact with Brooker Islanders that now spans a 22-year period from 1998 to the present. Using a historical political ecology approach, I argue that the incorporation of Brooker Islanders into the global economy and the unevenness of development has produced profound changes in their livelihoods, local marine tenureship arrangements and social relations with their island neighbours. This thesis provides a case study of the role that capitalism plays in changing livelihoods and institutions over time when market opportunities arise and consumer dependencies become essential to maintaining livelihoods. The contestation over commodified marine resources is also viewed in the context of changing political and legal domains. Issues of governability for the sustainability of sea cucumber stocks are also explored.
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