THE CARTERET ISLANDS in Papua New Guinea are not on most maps of the Earth; they’re just too small to merit inclusion at one square kilometer of total land mass spread among a cluster of coral atolls.
But they just might make it big in the history books — as the former home of the world’s first true climate refugees.
“The Carterets lie in a circular reef infringed by many reefs in a lagoon, very beautiful but going down really fast through shorelines degradation,” reports Ursula Rakova, a local resident.
“Over the last 20 years, [the] Carterets have been experiencing rising sea levels, and our chiefs got together and initiated an organization which could fast-track our relocation.”
The islanders may have made a bad situation worse by fishing with dynamite, destroying protective reefs in the quest for food after refugees flooded the islands during Bougainville’s war to secede from PNG in the 1990s.
But sea levels could rise metres more by this century’s end as warmer ocean waters expand and the meltdown of vast ice sheets in Greenland continues. That would be the end of the Carterets — and many other small islands.
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.
A 19th century sea captain dubbed the Carterets “Massacre Islands.” The massacre now is of the traditional foodstuffs of the inhabitants: taro, breadfruit and the like, poisoned by intruding salt water that is also fouling drinking water.
Storm surges — and even waves at high tide — now routinely wash over entire islands in the group.
The PNG government has authorised Carteret residents to move, and at least five families already have permanently relocated to Bougainville as part of what the islanders are calling Tulele Peisa, or “sailing the waves on our own.”
The move is expected to take at least a decade to complete, according to Rakova, who is helping lead the relocation effort.
“The sea that was once a friend to us is basically now destroying the lives of my people,” she said. “When we move it means some parts of our culture will be destroyed, will be left behind because we need to adapt to the new situation.”
Source: Yale Climate Media Forum