How do you move 1500 people from their ancestral homes, across more than 86km (53.4 miles) of ocean, to another place, with little funding and few resources?
With dedication and persistence.
Those two qualities are the driving force behind Papua New Guinea’s Ursula Rakova who has been gradually moving clans from the Carteret Island atolls (Tulun) to nearby Bougainville Island, PNG’s most eastern province in the Pacific Ocean.
The Green Herald recently met her during a visit to Australia.
It all started in 2006 when storm surges and king tides were becoming much more frequent for the islands that sit approximately 1.2 metres (3.9 feet) above sea level.
“I look at it more as an obligation to my people,” Ursula says.
“I just feel that I have this obligation to help my people because if I don’t, who is going to help these people?
“Who is going to get them organised and advocate for them?”
Rapidly-changing tides in the Carteret Islands
To paint a critical picture: in 1984 it would have taken you 20 minutes to walk from one end of Ursula’s island to the other.
Today that walk takes one minute.
“We love to swim in the sea, but now it’s turning against us. It’s no longer the happy sea that we want to swim in.”
“It’s really really sad and like a matriarchal society like ours, we will not be able to pass on any land to our daughters.
“Where is justice when it comes to things like that?
In the latest global assessment of climate science – the Climate Science Special Report from the US Global Change Research Program – the current rate of sea-level rise (about 3 inches since 1993) is faster than the rate during any preceding century in the past 28,000 years.
Called on by her people
Ursula, who has always worked in the environmental movement, says she never set out to become the leader and campaigner for the plight of her people.
In 2005, when she was working for Oxfam in Bougainville, elders from the Carteret Islands approached her about problems stemming from increasing shoreline erosion, storm surges and intrusion of seawater into homes and food-growing yards.
The elders made that trip twice more before she eventually agreed to take on their cause.
Tulele Peisa was born. Ursula set up the not-for-profit organisation to manage the relocation program, which is voluntary.
Four other staff assist her in running the relocation program.
A slowly-emptying atoll
So far Ursula says she has moved 150 families – equivalent to around 1500 of the 3000 islanders who call the Carteret Island atolls their home.
They have relocated to new islander villages near the coast of Bougainville; close enough to the sea so they can still pay their homelands a visit; far enough from the shore so the sea water keeps away.
But not all families, or clans, have adapted to their new location, Ursula says.
“Just last year one family had to return to their island, because they couldn’t cope with the physical hardship of growing their own food, making sure their plantation is kept clean and tidy, and so on,” she says.
“They were faced with a lot of criticism from their relatives because they told them ‘why did you have to move back? There is no food here’.”
Two members of the family had since developed illnesses and were in a health centre, Ursula says.
But some elders aren’t ever planning to leave the Carterets
For the remaining Carteret islanders – who need to move by 2030 at the latest – more land needs to be found for their new homes on Bougainville.
Elders aren’t planning to move from their homelands at all but rather live out their remaining years before the sea completely swallows up their atolls, Ursula adds.
The Catholic Church in Germany, the US and Australia have been funding the relocation program.
Climate Investment Funds, through the Asian Development Bank and World Bank, could not be used for relocation costs, Ursula says, but only for “strategic resilience” of the atolls. Australia has pledged $200 million over four years to the Green Climate Fund (GCF) especially for the Pacific region.
More funding and donations needed
The current church funding represents one third of the total cost of relocating families, she says, and neighbouring governments – including Australia – should be doing more to fill the gap.
“The Bougainville Government has really slackened down in appreciating the fact that an organisation like Tulele Peisa has taken on the role of moving displaced peoples due to climate change,” Ursula says.
“And the Australian Government is a big brother in the Pacific, it really needs to be committed to funding climate change solutions.”
Ursula also called on corporate Australia to exercise their social responsibility and invest in new, clean energy infrastructure in poorer communities such as Papua New Guinea.
“We have talked so much about climate change, so we are still talking policies,” she says.
“It’s okay for maybe other communities but it’s not okay for communities that are already facing the real situation, so we need to start acting.”
The role of ‘big brother’ Australia
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) says the PNG Government and Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) have primary responsibility for the resettlement of PNG residents.
“The Australian Government has supported the ABG to facilitate the resettlement of Carteret Islanders on Bougainville Island,” the spokesperson says.
Australian and PNG government authorities are in discussions about what additional assistance Australia might provide to PNG’s responses to climate change.
The DFAT spokesperson adds the Australian Government is also spending $300 million from 2016 to 2020, on climate change resilience activities in the Pacific, including $75 million for disaster preparedness, under the Australia-Pacific Climate Change Action initiative.
“Australia believes that the best response to the impacts of climate change is preparedness through effective adaptation and mitigation in the first instance, followed by well-supported and planned internal relocation,” the spokesperson says.
Pacific to meet the Arctic
Ursula says she is involved in efforts to bring together displaced communities from the opposite side of the world.
In October this year, she says more than 56 Pacific and Alaskan communities will come together in Anchorage, Alaska, to forge an alliance to garner support and funding for climate-forced displacement, organised by the US-based Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.