Kiribati: A nation facing catastrophe - Kiribati and the threat of mass migration

By Fumiya Nagai

While climate change is a global challenge, with wide- ranging social, cultural and economic implications across the world, its implications are especially severe in the Pacific. In this region of low-lying atolls and coastal settlements, rising sea levels are already having a devastating effect on many communities, forcing many to leave their homes and resettle elsewhere. The challenges facing the small state of Kiribati, however, are especially severe – and risk leaving its indigenous population without a home.

Comprising a series of 33 islands with an average height above sea level of just two metres, the state is already feeling the impacts of climate change in the form of saltwater intrusion and loss of coastal land. This has hit the island’s agricultural sector hard and undermined many essential food sources in Kiribati, from freshwater fish to local crops. As living conditions become more difficult, many islanders are now facing a difficult decision – whether or not a future in their homeland is still viable. While Kiribati’s environmental pressures are not new, with issues such as coastal erosion and soil contamination having been evident for decades, the onset of climate change has exacerbated these issues. As a result, some predictions suggest that by 2050 large areas of its territory may effectively be uninhabitable.

In response to these challenges, while international migration from Kiribati has historically been rare, it is now seen by many as the best available option as the nation’s environmental pressures intensify. Future migration flows out of the country are likely to be increasingly driven by climate change. In response, one of the strategies being pursued by the Kiribati government is ‘migration with dignity’, a cross-border labour migration scheme that aims to help establish Kiribati communities in other countries to support future migrants, while making Kiribati citizens more attractive by improving their educational and vocational qualifications through upskilling. However, it has been pointed out that the potential beneficiaries of this policy will only be those who would voluntarily migrate, and that many citizens – those with little education or dependent primarily on traditional subsistence activities that may not be transferrable outside Kiribati – will not be able to access these opportunities.

In the meantime, another strategy being pursued by the government is to secure space in another country for migration, with around 20 square kilometres of land purchased in Fiji in 2014. However, some have questioned whether the land – an isolated plot characterized by hills and swamps, with a community of displaced Solomon Islanders already settled there – will be adequate if resettlement is needed. Furthermore, as Kiribati will have no legal sovereignty over the land, there is no guarantee that in future I-Kiribati citizens would be allowed to move there. Authorities have also been considering the construction of artificial islands, with the support of the United Arab Emirates, to protect Kiribati’s future – though the likely costs of the project, which could be as high as US$100 million, may mean that without international support it will remain out of reach.

Alongside these activities, Kiribati has also played a leading role in the Coalition of Low-Lying Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CANCC), launched at the UN Small Islands Developing States Conference in Samoa in September 2014. The CANCC consists of the five low- lying atoll states – Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu – and has launched the ‘Pacific Rising’ initiative: this is a plan of action, described as a ‘climate change Marshall Plan’, tailored to the needs of each country and focusing on a range of solutions to preserve, in the words of its mission statement, ‘the lives, livelihoods and cultures of the Pacific’, with the latter including education, health and heritage. CANCC has also been working at the UN to create a legal framework to protect the rights of those displaced by climate change.

The emphasis on cultural and rights-based approaches is welcome as technical solutions alone, however ambitious, could still see the social fabric of Kiribati devastated. While traditional practices and livelihoods in the islands are already threatened by rising sea levels and the environmental toll of climate change, migration could effectively accelerate a process of cultural extinction in the years to come. One example is the maneaba, a community meeting space that historically has been central to Kiribati leadership and consensus- based decision-making. As the system needs to be structured around closely connected communities to function effectively, the migration of many villagers to larger urban settlements has already put it under pressure. Many fear that migration out of Kiribati could see maneaba vanish entirely.

Other forms of I-Kiribati heritage could also be badly affected, such as the traditional celebrations called botaki where each family shares food with the rest of the community, and te karekare, a customary system of work that promotes cooperation among families, not to mention Kiribati’s rich traditions of dancing and music. Similarly, its sacred spaces and traditions – already physically threatened by rising sea levels – face a further threat in the form of mass migration from the islands, while interest among the younger generation appears to be in decline.

The importance of Kiribati’s heritage of indigenous knowledge and practices highlights the need to adopt a more nuanced, rights-based approach to climate change adaptation and migration, extending beyond the technical and logistical aspects of resettlement to also incorporate ways to ensure the survival of the social fabric and cultural traditions of communities. This is especially the case when those forced to migrate by climate change and environmental disasters are indigenous peoples, such as I- Kiribati, with every aspect of their lives connected to the lands they have been uprooted from. These dilemmas now confront other small island states elsewhere in the Pacific, such as Tuvalu, where the long-established indigenous population faces a future of displacement. 

You can find this case study in MRG’s new report No escape from discrimination: Minorities, indigenous peoples and the crisis of displacement

Photo credit: DFAT

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Date: 13/12/2017




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