27 January 2017
Aware that climate change scientists have given their island approximately 50 years before much of it is uninhabitable, the residents of Kiribati are still looking for any way possible to preserve their sinking island nation and their way of life.
Local children have their run of the village and served as Tara tour guides on Abaiang Island, Kiribati © Sarah Fretwell / Tara Expeditions Foundation
As the Tara dinghy coasted to the white beach, a local fishing family sauntered down to greet it. A young boy scaled a coconut tree to harvest fresh young coconuts for the Tara crew.
As Tara’s scientists took in the surroundings of this lost paradise, a lump formed in the back of some of their throats. This island, this community and this family will not be here in 50 years.
Tara scientist, Martin Desmalades from CRIOBE Lab in Perpignan, France summed up the feeling, “You know the science and hear the different opinions about where and how (impacts of climate change) will happen here. Then when you stand on the island with the people and see their life, it is a feeling of disbelief. You hope they can find a way.”
Where the green plants and palm trees meet the beach marks the backyard of most residents of Abaiang Island, Kiribati © Sarah Fretwell / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Located between Fiji and the Marshall Islands. the young island nation of Kiribati (pronounced Kir-ee-bahs) is slated for the dubious honor of being one of the first nations in the world to lose its way of life to the ravages of climate change.
To get a local perspective, Tara’s team sought the opinion of Choi Yeeting, National Climate Change Coordinator to the President for Kiribati. Yeeting tells us a common saying instilled in Kiribati youth, “Nangoa Wagm Nte Tauraoi” – Be ready at all costs.
He says, “Now with the ice sheets melting, it may give us less time to build our adaptive capacity and resilience relative to when Kiribati may disappear. It is a big question mark. We may not have enough time to do that fully.”
Fishermen from Tabontebike village in Kiribati © Sarah Fretwell / Tara Expeditions Foundation
The inhabitants of Kiribati – I-Kiribati in Gilbertese – are already feeling the pressures of climate change. More severe storms lead to land disputes, as more and more people move inland after storms, encroaching on other people’s land.
Still, Yeeting says people are hopeful. “We have that fighting nature to stay in our country. You can kind of look at it like being the captain of the ship – you go down with your ship. It is about pride. It is about being who we are. Where would we go? Would we still be I-Kiribati after this? Personally speaking, that is how I see it for my country. I guess my first instinct would be I’m going to go down with it.”
Tara crew pose with the local children in Tabontebike village, Kiribati © Sarah Fretwell / Tara Expeditions Foundation
Yeeting is not in denial about the stark reality of having to leave the land that his people and heritage are so closely tied to, to go live in another country, “Who are we if we move away from our country? Are we still I-Kiribati? Do our traditional values still count when we move to another country? Personally, I would like to remain I-Kiribati and still have my own traditions and cultural values. Aside from the science. Besides the scientific fact that we do have 50 years.”
When we asked best case scenario what his future will look like he replied, “I will have kids by then, I will be married, I will live here in Kiribati all my life. That is something that I envision for myself. That is the best-case scenario at this point. The worst-case scenario? The worst-case scenario would be having to evacuate Kiribati. I don’t see a good future for our people if that day really comes.”
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