The Last of the Children of the Tide

Date Publish: 
Monday, May 23, 2016

Many moons ago, in a faraway world, there lived a creature named Bonono, a giant eel larger than a coconut tree that would roam the ocean, hunting sharks and swallowing fishermen who had the misfortune to cross his path. This is a legend of the people of Tulun Islands, situated at the top of an underwater volcano in the Solomon Sea, known to the Western world as the vanishing Carteret atolls of the Pacific Ocean.

These people are said to have come here with the tide, many centuries ago, and have attached themselves to the land, merged with it. No one has seen Bonono here for many decades but the Islanders are now plagued by a different beast, creeping, relentless and much more powerful, it is devouring whole islands and its name is climate change.

We start our journey in Buka, the capital of the Autonomous region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the only three that didn’t achieve a single Millennium Development Goal (MDG). We are about to embark on a dangerous four hour boat ride into the Pacific that will take us to one of the most remote part of the country (and perhaps the world). I am here to inspect the results of an IOM project on the Carterets that helps island communities to adapt to climate change and improve livelihoods, which is part of our larger national programme linking disaster management to development.

We move all the bags, test the sat phone, check the food supplies, radio, GPS tracker and coordinates, all seems to be in order but the crew still looks anxious. Two weeks ago a fishing boat with 10 people onboard went missing never making back – tragically, many people have vanished on this journey. I look over at the skipper, a weathered man with a mouth red from chewing beetle nut and skin so black that it shimmers bluish, he looks relaxed. I guess I shouldn’t worry then.  

The engine is started and with a slight jerk forward, we’re off. After bouncing on the waves for over an hour, our convoy leaves the Buka passage and hits a calm stretch of the ocean, the water is of such a shade of azure it looks like we are gliding on an icy desert. The giant white clouds are hanging so low, it feels like you can touch them, and their reflection on the water looks like submersed icebergs. Visibility is superb and in great distance we see pillars of rain that seem to conjoin some clouds with the water, making them appear as trees growing out of the sea.    

My transfixion is suddenly interrupted by the flying fish around the boat and a little later the skipper frantically points to our right … a huge splash and we catch a glimpse of a whale diving back under, as he exhales a fountain into the air. I look away from the sunlight glaring off the water’s surface and glance around, realizing that water extends into the horizon in every direction with no landmass in sight. An eerie feeling sets in as I soak in this other-worldly scenery. As a kid, I remember reading about ancient cultures that viewed the earth as a flat plate propped up by three giant elephants standing on a colossal tortoise, and at the frontiers of this world the seas just cascaded off the land’s edge into the cosmos. That’s where it feels we are venturing into …

By noon, at last, we are on the approach to the Han atoll, one of four Carteret Islands, and the boat stops about a third of a mile out – it can’t get closer without damaging the hull. So, we disembark plunging waist-deep into the water and make our way towards the beach carrying our equipment above our heads. We are meandering between reef formations and clam shells of Jurassic proportions, trying to follow the submarine path and eventually, exhausted, aching and sunburnt with cracked lips, we step on terra firma.  

We are welcomed by Melanesian greeting songs and women splashing our feet with water, a ritual that will protect us from the evil spirits. After consultations with the elders we get to work, talking to the villagers and inspecting the fruits of the project. IOM has been working here for over a year on climate change adaptation through a community-based approach, a grass-roots methodology we tailored for PNG. It’s a people-driven and cost-effective development model that enfranchises all members of the village, gives voice to every group, and produces a pathway for social and economic growth. If done right it works, it really works. 

We see the newly built early leaning classrooms (the first in ten years), seas walls, ‘key hole’ (disaster resilient) gardens, improved seaweed and clam shell farming, new boats, water tanks, ongoing sawing and agricultural trainings. The catch is that all these ideas came from the community and, aside from seed funding and guidance from IOM, largely designed and constructed by people themselves. Not bad for a remote island with no electricity, telecommunications or even a stable water supply.

More importantly though, the village is empowered and transformed, a certain sense of collective energy and momentum is distinctly felt. This is what we call building of psychological resilience. ‘We’ve had many organizations, photographers, researchers come and go, but you guys left us with something real’, says Tony the Executive Officer of the local administration, as he’s opening a coconut for me. It feels as though we’ve created a good Frankenstein, what started off as an adaptation and mitigation initiative has taken on a life of its own and evolved into a full-blown development programme.    

Despite all this progress however, the hard hitting reality of climate change and sea level rise is painfully evident. We drive through a strait between two islands that were once one, not so long ago, we see depleting sandbanks, tree stumps rising from the water, we speak to families who point to the open sea to show where their gardens used to be. Whether you believe that the islets are sinking or the sea level rising, ultimately resettlement is the only viable long-term solution for these people, but they don’t like to hear that. This is their land, it always has been.     

As we are sailing from one island to another we encounter a frenzy of seagulls swooping down at the jumping tuna fish. Without giving it a second thought, our Field Officer Julius throws out a fishing line and within minutes we have our dinner flopping at our feet, even if it means fighting off birds that have taken a liking to our spoils. I begin to understand the relationship that the locals have with their surroundings, their fabrics are interwoven, if forced to migrate a part of them will be left behind.

As we prepare to depart, the village elder explains to us how to stomp our feet on the ground and make grunting noises to ask the spirits for a safe passage back to the mainland. The light drizzle that begins to shower on us apparently is the Island saying good bye. The whole community is here to see us off and as I’m waving emotionally I try not to think about their future. But the reality is harsh and imminent, eventually the waves will engulf these atolls and the land will succumb to the ocean. The people waving back at me could be the last generation that treads these shores, the last of the children of the tide.

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I’d like to say a special thank you to the people of Carterets, the Bougainville Women’s Association and the local level government officials.   

By George Gigauri, IOM Chief of Mission in Papua New Guinea.