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An overview of climate change related displacement, relocation and migration challenges in the Pacific

By Volker Boege

Below is a transcript of Volker Boege's presentation to the 'Where do we go?' forum, Brisbane, 25-26 May 2018. Originally from Germany, and with a background of peace research, Volker is an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, and Co-director of the Peace & Conflict Studies Institute Australia. He is a member of FoE Brisbane's Climate Frontlines group.

Some videos from the 25-26 May forum are posted at

If the small island states of the Pacific are on the radar of politics and the wider public in my home country Germany or elsewhere outside of the region at all, then it is in the context of climate change. The sinking islands of the Pacific have become a symbol for the consequences of man-made global warming. German colleagues of mine have presented them as the "canary in the coalmine", foreshadowing climate change-related environmental and social developments that will affect other parts of the world sooner rather than later. And Manasa Katonivualiku earlier today said that Pacific Island Countries (PIC) are "at the frontline of climate change", and the Reverend Tafue Lusama in his keynote address rightly stated that the people(s) in the Pacific are "the most vulnerable" when it comes to the effects of climate change. The high vulnerability of many islands is due to their extreme exposure and their constrained options for adaptation. This holds particularly true for small atoll islands.

Due to the environmental effects of climate change, PICs are confronted with challenges to land security, livelihood security and habitat security, which includes water security and food security as well as health. Land security is compromised by coastal erosion and inundation, livelihood and habitat security by reduced quantity and quality of water supplies and loss of food production. Atoll communities are particularly affected, but coastal locations, river delta communities and inland river communities are also suffering.

Options for on-site technical adaptation – such as planting mangroves in order to reduce coastal erosion, building seawalls in order to contain storm surges, setting up rainwater tanks for fresh water supply – are limited. They are often technically not feasible or too costly, and effective mostly as interim measures only. Movement to locations that are less exposed might be the better – or even the only – option in certain cases.

In this context, migration can be seen as an alternative to on-site adaptation. Some see migration as one adaptation measure among others (Manasa), others as adaptation of last resort (Genevieve Jiva, Martin de Jong, John Rainbird). In extreme cases resettlement may be the only option left, for example, when entire islands become uninhabitable or even totally inundated. Then migration becomes forced, and whole communities will have to relocate.

I think it is important to come back to the differentiation Rev Tafue made in his keynote address between individual or family migration on the one hand and mass migration – relocation of whole communities – on the other hand. Planned relocation of entire communities is but one form of migration in the Pacific today. In fact, it is still of minor significance in the overall picture, mostly individual or family/household migration, induced by a combination of various economic, political, social, demographic and environmental factors. People move from rural areas to the (few) urban centres or from outer islands to the main islands, or from the coast further inland, in search of employment opportunities, but also because they want better access to public services, particularly in education and health. This type of migration can also be seen as (partly) induced by climate change. It can cause problems, for example, overcrowding in so-called informal or squatter settlements in the urban centres where all sorts of problems emerge. These squatter settlements often are situated on marginal lands (in riverbeds, on slopes, close to the water) so that people there are – again ‒ particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

There is also considerable international individual/family migration to the big industrialised countries of the Pacific Rim ‒ the USA, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As far as I know climate change is rarely specifically mentioned as a major driver of such migration. People usually do not cite 'climate change' as a reason to migrate; sometimes, however, they refer to environmental factors which today are seen as linked to climate change, such as problems in agriculture due to water shortages or coastal erosion; or they refer to the increase in extreme weather events that make life in their home communities more insecure.

Positive effects

This type of migration can also have positive effects, for example, the remittances sent home can contribute to climate change adaptation measures back home. The rather large diaspora communities of Pacific Islanders in Australia, New Zealand, USA, and Canada maintain close relationships to their home islands and countries. Migration is usually temporary and circular, and people go back home to visit regularly. And that is an important point: people can still go back home today. But you cannot go back home to a sunken island.

And this is where the issue of mass migration arises: forced relocation of entire communities. Such planned community relocation, in the course of which significant parts of communities or even entire communities are moved from one location to another and resettled there permanently, is much more directly linked to climate change than individual/family migration. These relocations are driven by the insight that there are no other viable options left – at least not long-term – and there is no return option. Hence they can be seen as 'forced'. Climate change-induced migrants have a choice between staying and leaving; by contrast, climate change-forced migrants are those who have to migrate because their land at home is no longer habitable.

As I see it, today there is a lot of talk in the Pacific today about the need to relocate, often quite alarmist and sensationalist. But there is much less planning for relocation and even less actual relocation happening. There are many ideas and scenarios floating around, often imagining the relocation of whole island nations. At the moment, however, planning for, and actual, permanent community resettlement is an internal affair. The only potential exception to date is the Kiribati-Fiji case. In September 2014, the Kiribati government bought around 2300 ha of freehold land on the Fiji island of Vanua Levu from the Anglican Church. This is one of the largest free-hold land areas in Fiji (and it equals approximately 10% of Kiribati land area). As I understand it, currently, however, there are no plans to relocate people from Kiribati to Fiji, but to use the land for food production, forestry and fisheries. However, resettlement from Kiribati to Fiji remains an option for the future.

Apart from this case, planned relocation today in PIC is all in-country. Some governments have commenced planning for relocation in the context of national climate adaptation plans, and some have begun with the actual relocation of vulnerable communities. Today we have heard quite a lot about relocation planning and actual relocations in Fiji. The village of Vunidogoloa on the island of Vanua Levu has been mentioned several times today already. It was shifted two kilometres inland after years of coastal erosion and flooding had made the original site inhospitable. As I understand it, the Fiji government has identified 45 coastal, river bank or offshore island villages affected by climate change which have to be relocated in the future. There are cases in other countries too.

In Choiseul province of Solomon Islands, the provincial capital Taro will be relocated from Taro island to the adjacent mainland because of its vulnerability to storm surges and other coastal hazards. And Ursula Rakova talked to us earlier today in much detail and in a very moving way about the resettlement of the Carteret Islanders from their atoll to the main island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the most advanced climate-related relocation program in the Pacific to date.

To summarise this point: planned community relocation as a response to the effects of climate change so far is in-country rural-rural – from the coast inland, from outer islands to main islands. By contrast, individual and family migration induced by climate change is mostly rural-urban migration, both in-country and international.

Three challenges

I can see three main challenges with regard to relocation:

  • the land-people connection
  • relations between settlers and recipient communities
  • relations between governments/the state and communities

The land-people connection is of utmost importance for communities in the Pacific. There is hardly any private ownership of land; land usually is held under various forms of communal customary title, and is at the heart of the entire social, cultural and spiritual order of communities. Hence loss or scarcity of land does not only pose economic problems, but has far-reaching effects on the social structure, the spiritual life and the psychic conditions of the affected groups and their members. This holistic notion of land and the intimate relatedness of people and land can be found everywhere in the Pacific.

The second challenge: relations between relocated communities and recipient communities can become a problem. Resettlement does not only affect those people who have to leave their homes, but also those who have to accommodate them in their midst. There are no empty spaces left in the Pacific. To the contrary: land is scarce all over the region. And as most land is customary land it cannot just be bought and sold, there have to be negotiations over access to land and agreements over traditional forms of land exchange. This can be extremely difficult.

Ursula Rakova gave the example of the relocation of Carteret Islanders to Tinputz on mainland Bougainville. Getting access to land and maintaining good relationships requires more than legal title. Above all, it requires customary forms of link-building. This is why, as Ursula explained to us, Tulele Peisa deliberately promotes intermarriages between relocating Carteret Islanders and members of host communities. Such marriages can create bonds and social cohesion and provide newcomers with access to much needed land. While some settlers agree with this approach, others might not like it. In the long run, intermarriages perhaps might lead to new problems, for example disputes between relocatees who gained access to land because of marrying into the host community, and those without access because they did not.

Even if the resettlement land is formally legally free (so called alienated freehold land) and thus in principle available for resettlement, in most cases there are people already there, dwelling and making a living on that land – 'illegally' perhaps according to state law, but referring to long-established customary rights of usage. An example is the land acquired by the Kiribati government in Fiji. The freehold land bought by the Kiribati government in Fiji from the rightful legal owner, the Anglican Church, had been occupied and used by local people for a long time. So you have a problem here. The only type of relocation that is not burdened with the issue of access to land and hence is conflict-free is short-distance resettlement within the boundaries of one's own ancestral customary land ‒ the case of the Fiji village of Vunidogoloa.

The third challenge: PIC generally have limited institutional capacities and thus have many more difficulties in dealing with the effects of climate change than states like Australia or Germany Lack of capacities and ensuing lack of effectiveness in dealing with those effects diminishes the legitimacy and trustworthiness of state institutions in the eyes of the people on the ground, and lack of legitimacy makes it more difficult for state institutions to effectively implement adaptive measures, including planned relocation.

In such situations non-state civil society actors can and do play important roles, as the example of Tulele Peisa shows. What I find particularly interesting about Tulele Peisa is that it is not just a civil society organisation in the Western understanding of the term, but is closely linked to non-state actors who do not neatly fit into the Western 'civil society' category: it was set up at the request of the local Carterets Council of Elders, that is, traditional authorities from the customary sphere of societal life. We must not underestimate the importance of traditional authorities like chiefs and elders. The resilience of communities and the adaptive capacity in PIC societies very much rest with densely knit customary societal networks, with customary authorities and institutions as effective and legitimate governance actors and mechanisms. Therefore relocation is not just an issue that can be dealt with in the framework of the state and according to the laws of the state, but it has to include local customary non-state as well as civil society institutions.

The same holds true for the churches as the most important civil society organisations in PIC. The vast majority of Pacific Islanders are devout Christians. State institutions in PIC might not reach far beyond the urban centres, but the churches are everywhere on the ground. They can provide valuable leadership in adaptation and resettlement governance as Rev Tafue and others reminded us here today. Engaging with the churches and with traditional authorities like chiefs and elders, however, requires respect for their ways of operating and their worldviews, and this first and foremost means acknowledging the cultural and spiritual dimensions of the resettlement issue. And it means taking local traditional knowledge seriously.

Communities and civil society organisations have the expertise and capacity to deal with the impacts of climate change. I very much liked what Patrick Nunn said about "autonomous adaptation", and I very much like the name Tulele Peisa, "Sailing the waves on our own", and "we are not victims, we are fighting" (Genevieve). We do not have to wait for the government or donors to fix the problem. On the other hand, however: do not let governments and donors off the hook either. They have a responsibility. As Rev Tafue reminded us, the people in the Pacific have not caused the problem of climate change, it was the industrialised countries of the Global North, their economic system, their way of life, their greed, their obsession with profit. Climate justice can only be achieved if this problem of the economic system is addressed.

Let me conclude by making the following points:

  • relocation and planning for relocation in the Pacific has to include all stakeholders, not only state institutions, but also civil society and traditional authorities and in particular the churches
  • it has to address not only technical and economic aspects, but also cultural and spiritual
  • it has to be conflict-sensitive and culturally sensitive
  • it has to include both resettling and recipient communities
  • it has to be from a long-term perspective.

In the future the people in PIC and their leaders will be caught between the desire to stay put and the recognition of the need for resettlement planning. Communities must have both the right to stay and the right to move. Those in the Global North responsible for the catastrophe of climate change have a responsibility to do everything possible so that people can stay on their home islands, and they have the responsibility to let them migrate in dignity (also to Australia or Germany) if they cannot stay.

Published in Chain Reaction #133, September 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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