Fiji land deal could help save a nation

By Dev Nadkarni

“Every time the plane comes in to land on one of our Pacific Island countries, as it flies low over so many beautiful green islands, I think to myself – how nice it would have been if our people had an option to live on them,” Kiribati President Anote Tong told me in the course of an interview in his office in Tarawa in October 2008. “There are hundreds of uninhabited but habitable islands in the South Pacific Ocean.”

Last month’s announcement that Kiribati was considering purchasing one of the islands in Fijian territorial waters has the potential to fulfill the recently re-elected President’s longing. The announcement received wide coverage in the media worldwide. The President’s office then issued a hurried rejoinder stressing that the idea of acquisition of a Fijian island was solely from an investment point of view.

The clarification is understandable, given the sensitivity around the issue. Kiribati has been in the spotlight in recent years as being one of the island nations that is most threatened by sea level rise. President Tong has campaigned tirelessly at all sorts of world forums, especially at the climate change mega jamborees from Bali to Cancun. Though it has been designated as one of the most “vulnerable” islands threatened by climate change and sea level rise, the funds promised at successive climate meets for adaptation and mitigation projects have come in a mere trickle for Kiribati.

And the biggest question of all – of what to do when push comes to shove has remained unanswered. Mass migration – and the big issues and problems that come with it – has been discussed many times but there is far from a consensus in the world community about what to do with rising sea level related climate change refugees. Climate scientists would have us believe that such an eventuality is a question of when, not if, but world organisations have left the issue in the too hard basket and it has never formed part of serious public discourse at least thus far.

This is despite dozens of television programmes and hundreds of media reports that have portrayed Kiribati as one of the first nations to potentially sink along with another neighbouring atoll nation, Tuvalu, as sea levels rise because of climate change.

Kiribati though has a host of other problems that the issues related to sea level rise have overshadowed. One of the most isolated island nations in the Pacific Ocean, its slender atolls straddle three time zones giving it one of the highest land to territorial waters ratio anywhere. Given this sprawl and poor air and sea connectivity, logistics and administration are challenging, to say the least.

Tarawa and many other atolls have no freshwater sources as there are no permanent rivers or streams and people depend almost exclusively on rainwater or small desalination plants. Donor countries have helped build large rainwater storage tanks and changing weather patterns tend to keep residents perpetually on the edge when rainfall fails over several weeks at a time. Being flat atolls, king tides often ravage the country, especially the causeways that link atolls, submerging the only single linking road for hours at a time.

Ever rising tides are battering the nation’s coastline with making saltwater flood coastal farmlands and destroying the semblance of agriculture that the islands have. It is not unusual to see hectares of coconut groves shorn of their fronds sticking out mournfully out of the salt-ridden, fallow ground. Worryingly, the influx of people into Tarawa from the outer atolls has made it one of the densest places anywhere in the Pacific, mimicking problems caused by overcrowding in developing world metros.

There is little industry in the island nation and Tarawa gets only a few tourists each year even though it has some interesting World War-II gun sites (Christmas Island, which lies two time zones away to the East and is closer to the West Coast of the United States, gets far more tourists to visit its WW-II heritage sites). Also, last month’s announcement that Kiribati would help in yet another search mission for legendary pioneering woman aviator Amelia Earhart may help boost tourist numbers, if the mission shows promise of discovery.

President Tong’s clarification that the idea to buy the Fijian island is for investment purposes does have a basis. Wealthy individuals, Hollywood celebrities like Mel Gibson and businesses have been known to own islands in the Pacific. So for a country to buy an island is hardly out of character.

But clearly, possible future mass migration in the face of continual sea level rise would definitely have been a major driver in the decision. After all, low lying islands like the Maldives in the Indian Ocean have also been considering investing in tracts of land in far off continents, obviously with a view to resettling their populations in the event of an impending oceanic cataclysm. But the fact that the President and the Kiribati government have sought to relegate this possibility to the background is understandable, given the sensitivities around the issue.

Fortunately for Kiribati, though, it has a small fund of a few hundred million dollars sitting in Australia, which it accumulated years ago out of royalty proceeds for mining phosphates on Banaba, one of its outer atolls. Successive Kiribati governments have dipped into this nest egg time and again and it has diminished somewhat – but is still quite considerable, running into the hundreds of millions. In that sense, it has played its cards better than Nauru, which went from being one of the wealthiest countries in terms of per capita income (thanks again to phosphate) to zilch in the space of a decade. It is this small pile of cash that might ultimately bail out the people of Kiribati.

Curiously, if the deal goes through and the Republic of Kiribati ends up acquiring a Fijian island, it would be the second time that Fiji would play a role in resettling displaced iKiribati people. Following the savaging of Banaba by colonial phosphate companies in the last century, Banabans were shipped en masse to the island of Rabi in Fiji. The Banaban community is now integrated into mainstream Fijian life and as the older generation passes on, life on the distant atoll, now all but abandoned, will only be a distant memory and will live on in folk songs and stories (compiled in a well-produced book in New Zealand a couple of years ago).

Given the multiple implications of the proposed island deal, Fiji deserves praise for welcoming this move, as its government has done publicly.  If the deal goes through according to plan and the people on some of Kiribati’s atolls do end up resettling on their new island home in Fijian waters some time in the future, it would be the first ever incidence of climate change related migration in the world and may well open the door to other such humanitarian migration elsewhere.

The deal could help save an entire nation.

First appeared in Islands Business, April 2012