Young boys stand in front of the seawall at Han Island, which was built from clam shells recovered from a sunken poacher.
Young boys stand in front of the seawall at Han Island, which was built from clam shells recovered from a sunken poacher.

PNG losing island homes

Every year Han Island is eaten away a little further as the sea level rises, leading to loss of land.

In the remote atolls of eastern Papua New Guinea, former ABC journalist and North Coast resident Andrew Kilvert leaves his wife’s home village on Nissan Island to visit the first of our region’s climate change refugees on the neighbouring Carteret Islands.

The boat ride to the Carteret Islands, 85 nautical miles north of the Bougainville capital of Buka, is a dangerous ocean crossing in a small open boat. As a precaution, we’ve found a skipper from the Carteret atolls to navigate. Also reassuring is the fact our new skipper has a GPS with the Carterets’ co-ordinates already fixed.

Because my in-laws from Nissan Island who are crewing our boat speak a different language to the Carteret people, visiting there is like going to another country, so as an extra precaution they’ve employed the services of several sorcerers to make the ocean calm for the trip.

With 300 litres of 2-stroke fuel, sugar, tea, rice and sweet potatoes we head out the Buka passage into the open ocean escorted by a pod of dolphins and the occasional flying fish skimming along beside the boat.

The PNG atolls off Bougainville are home to approximately 7000 people and are comprised of the Nissan Island group (by far the largest with approximately 90% of the atoll’s population) the Carterets, and the Polynesian atolls of Fead, Mortlock and Tasman.

These atolls are not sandy islands in a shallow sea, but coral encrusted crater mouths of vast underwater volcanoes, part of the Pacific ‘ring of fire’. From their reef-capped calderas they plummet steeply down to the seabed several kilometres below, with the southwestern slope of the volcano underpinning the Nissan atoll sliding all the way down into the Bougainville trench 8.5 kilometres deep.

After five hours of travelling over this underwater landscape and well into our fifth tank of precious fuel, it becomes apparent that, while the sorcerers have come through with a smooth ocean, the technology has let us down with low batteries giving a false reading on the GPS and causing us to miss the islands.

After a bit of guess-timation on tide and distance we take a compass reading and an hour later, to the relief of all aboard, we come up on the first of the Carteret Islands shimmering in a mirage above the water.

Since one island was recently cut in half by the sea the Carterets are now comprised of six tiny islands sitting on a huge circular reef, the islands barely visible to each other across the vast caldera. Immediately upon coming ashore on Han Island, the largest of the group, it is obvious these islands are in trouble.

On the lagoon side giant clamshells from generations of feasts are stacked as sea walls against the ocean. More recently these clamshell walls have been bolstered with the stolen clamshells of Japanese poachers who’ve run foul of the reef.

On the seaward side smashed wired cages once full of coral limestone lie strewn across the beach as overrun battlements against the ocean.

Walking around the insides of these tiny islands the problem for the local people becomes clear: areas that were once rich in the staples of taro, breadfruit and yam have become unusable because of salt and beach deposits from the now annual inundation of the islands. Han Island abandoned the last of its taro in the late 1990s.

Dead skeletons of the key staple food, the breadfruit tree, stand among the more salt-tolerant coconuts with their trunks now being converted into the last of the islands canoes.

The only staple left for the islanders to grow is banana and even these now throw small bunches and require careful rehabilitation after each flooding event.

In a sago palm thatch hut, our skipper Graham describes what it’s like when the seas run on a king tide.

“This year we had two weeks underwater. Nobody sleeps, they stand in water for days,” he says. “People stand in their houses waist deep in the water holding babies throughout the night while the waves batter our walls. Because the ocean is rough we are cut off from town so there is no food. Even if we had rice it is impossible to light a fire to cook. The ocean is too rough for fishing and so we only have green coconuts. When the sea recedes the old gardens are covered in dead fish, sharks and stingrays caught in the trees. When it dries they stink and the mosquito swarms come. After two weeks all of the trees brown off and lose their leaves from the salt.”

Prior to WWII the islands were known to occasionally flood during extreme weather events on a king tide, however this flooding has become an annual and prolonged event. The flood in April 2009 shrunk all of the remaining islands.

“Now that there are no gardens there is nothing to do here, people just go fishing and then come back and sleep,” Graham says.

That night we sit in front of the hut in the tidy and beautiful village and talk with Stephen Taki, the Paramount Chief of the Carteret Islands. Each island has a chief. These positions are political because like Bougainville Island (which people from the atolls refer to as the mainland), the Carterets

are a matrilineal society. Land ownership is passed through women and, more importantly, the complicated kinship structures and spiritual systems are traced through the woman’s line.

The next day we take a tour of the islands. After dropping a group of women and boys on the far side of the reef to find octopus, lobster and giant clam, we arrive at Yangan Island across the huge crater mouth, where we are met by the island elders, Kosmas Kasi and Raphael Hakis accompanied by Peter Rebin, the government employed doctor for the island.

On these islands there is a general languor, a torpor that is not common to other parts of PNG. I ask the doctor, Peter, who comes from Nissan Island, about this.

“See how they are sitting around?” he asks. “That is malnutrition. There are no greens on the islands. Often there is no food at all except for fish and coconuts. People have money from selling bislama (trepang/sea cucumber) but there is no regular transport so there are no shops to buy food. That is why there is a big problem with tuberculosis here.”

Having arrived with Nissan Islanders, the malnutrition problem is clear. The Nissan Islanders, although slender and devoid of fat, are noticeably larger and more muscular than the Carteret men of equivalent age.

Coastal Papua New Guineans have traditionally had a very healthy diet of fruit, nuts, greens, vitamin rich taro and sweet potato tubers and leaves, as well as seafood, however, with the collapse of the gardens, the Carteret Islanders have been reduced to National Emergency Service relief from the PNG Government. This arrives in the form of quarterly (depending on the ocean) deliveries of 20 to 30 tonnes of rice that is distributed on a per capita basis among the island group’s 600 residents. This is then redistributed according to custom, a process that would take a PhD to describe.

Walking around Yangan Island with Kosmas and Raphael, I’m taken to see the bits of village and land that have been recently reclaimed by the sea; we then walk to the centre of the island, where the last four clumps of the food staple taro survive among stunted bananas.

Kosmas is contemplating the most recent Bougainville Autonomous Government plan to resettle the Carteret Islanders at Tinputz on the Bougainville mainland.

“I think it’s alright for the young people to go,” he says. “But for us it is very difficult. All of our stories and our ancestors are here. It is very hard for us to leave. At Tinputz we have an agreement with the landowners and chiefs but we are worried about the youths there.”

For the islanders, being forced to leave their home means being forced to abandon their spiritual system. These islands are where the spirits of the ancestors live. It is where their souls return to when they die, it is home to their ancestral stories and creation myths from the fist man Matanatchil, whose giant footsteps are marked in the stone reef, now covered by sand, to the present day.

At the next island, Yesla, the chief Thomas Kanai also expresses concerns about the Tinputz resettlement plan, which has so far seen five families moved from the Carterets.

“At Tinputz the people are settled right near the local village there,” he says. “We have been told by the landowners there that we will never have any tenure over the land there but remain as their guests. This is not a good way for us to live.”

Three of those families resettled have since returned.

That night around the fire in the village on Han Island, Chief Steven reminisces about an earlier resettlement plan at Kuberia, inland from the Bougainville port town of Kieta.

“Kuberia was a very good site for us,” he says. “It was well away from any other settlements, there we were free. When the crisis came (Bougainville war) everybody fled back to the islands.”

Kuberia was established in the 1980s to resettle Carteret and Nissan Islanders, not because of rising oceans but because of rising populations. Since World War II, improved access to anti malarial drugs and other medicine has seen the population in the atolls increase at least four-fold. In earlier times as many as three out of five infants died from malaria and this malaise continues as a debilitating and sometimes fatal disease amongst the adult population.

Traditional custom here is still very strong. Carterets society is divided into two halves, or moieties. Here these are symbolised as eagle and chicken moiety. On each side these groups are broken up into clans. Here on one side there are two clans, on the other side three. Marriage is only possible between moieties and sex within a moiety is considered incest. Sex within a clan is an extreme form of incest and, while under this system it is still technically possible in some circumstances to marry a first cousin, there are further cultural mechanisms to prevent this.

Using this cultural system humans have been able to survive in small isolated groups without inbreeding for tens of thousands of years before several European royal families reduced themselves to oblivion through inbreeding and western science discovered gene theory.

Some western liberals may find the arranged marriage side of this custom offensive but in a collective society like the Carterets the well-being of the group trumps the rights of the individual.

Scientific debate continues as to the extent and rate of ocean level rise, however, there is evidence that in some places it has risen as much as 14 centimetres in the past century and that the rate of rise is increasing. For marginal islands like the Carterets, whatever the rise, it has been the tipping point for the viability of their atolls. The next off the rank in the PNG atolls group is Fead (pronounced fit) Island, where food cultivation is now restricted to one of the islands in the group.

With the sun setting on Han Island, the village is settling in to the evening routines. Scarce firewood is being used to light cooking fires and smoke and cooking smells drift through the village in the still twilight. Silhouetted outrigger canoes are making their way back to shore and children are playing in the shallows.

Our generous and gracious hosts are sorry that we must leave in the morning, but we are promising to return.

“Come straight back tomorrow with rice,” jokes one of the women. “We’re out.”

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