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The world’s first climate change refugees

Text by Fanou FILALI

Latest update : 2009-03-15

By 2015 the Carteret islands - off the coast of Papua New Guinea- could well be a mirage. The low lying atoll is sinking and sinking fast.

The ocean is rising. Salt water has eaten up the shoreline and invaded the gardens. For many, it’s time to pack up and go … but without help from the government, hundreds are stuck on this sinking atoll.

Paul Tsube is one of the few who managed to leave early. He didn’t wait for government assistance to migrate. He now lives in Buka, in North Bougainville, where he feels he finally has a future. But leaving his past behind wasn’t easy.

“it’s a saddening thing to do, he says with regret. It’s very very sad to leave my parent’s grave, my grandparents grave. it’s not easy to leave a place where you were born.

For years he’s watched his homeland go to waste and, at times, his people go hungry. “There are no longer bread fruit trees, banana trees, swampy taro there’s hardly anything that you would grow out there, he laments.”

Scientists are still debating why the atoll is sinking. Paul Tsube blames global warming and the developed world for what’s happened to his island. “i think the global warming, sea level rising, destroying our island is the whole cause of the industrialised countries and i think that something has to be done by the industrialised nations so we can get some sort of assistance from them.”

For now, the only assistance available to islanders in transit in Buka is provided by one man – Taihu Pais, member for the atolls at the Bougainville assembly. His generosity has no limit.

Until the official relocation progam kicks in, it’s in Taihu Pais’ house, that islanders will find shelter during high tides or when in need of hospital care. “if there’s no space then i give them my bed and i find a place somewhere, he says. this house only caters for only a family or two but at the moment we cater for more than two families on one house. at this present time, there are over 200 people here.”

Despite their good will, local authorities have been helpless. “the land ownership is bit difficult here, explains thenewly elected president of Bougainville, James Tanis. it is communally owned … you may reach an agreement with this chief, he sayas you settled them there and the next day you have his nephew who says no I don’t agree with this.”

Churches and NGOs have taken it upon themselves to find a solution. But money is scarce and progress is slow.

The plight of the Carteret has so far failed to make waves.

Date created : 2009-03-15