Rising seas create first climate refugees

Posted by admin on Sep 23rd, 2009

Sep 23, 2009 04:30 AM, Mitch Potter, Toronto Star

NEW YORK–When sharks started showing up in the garden, Ursula Rakova knew her home and native islands were doomed. And so the exodus is now underway for Rakova, 43, and the other 1,700 residents of the Carteret Islands, who are in the process of abandoning their ancestral coral atoll 86 kilometres off the coast of Papua New Guinea for higher ground before the sea takes everything. But they will not go quietly, says Rakova, who is in New York City this week forlornly staking a claim for her people as the world’s first climate-change refugees.

“The signs are clear: we used to have storms during the rainy season. Now we cannot predict it because they come more frequent and stronger,” she said. “We built seawalls and planted mangroves but it gets worse. Last Christmas the storms destroyed homes and the food gardens were devastated. Now we know the sea will wash over our islands. It is heartbreaking but we have to leave.”

Earlier this year five men from Carteret moved to establish a beachhead on the larger island of Bougainville, setting up homes and gardens. Next month their wives and children will follow. And over the span of the next several years the pattern will continue until the Carteret Islands – Rakova’s people call themselves the Tuluun, a matrilineal society with a 1,000-year history – will be empty.

“It is especially hard for the older people. Many of them are refusing to leave. We don’t want to force them. None of us want to go. But the saltwater is spoiling our ability to grow food. So there is no choice,” she said.

In New York with the support of Oxfam, Rakova said she was humbled by the towering Manhattan skyline and even more taken aback by the teeming hordes below.

“I am in shock. It is completely, totally different. So many people, different colours, different languages, living together peacefully. But I don’t think I could live here because I would lose my identity.”

She has the same worry about her people’s future home in Bougainville, where a new way of life awaits.

“The people of Bougainville, they speak another language. Our culture is about connectedness to the island. It makes us who we are. We love the sea but now it is destroying our lives,” Rakova said.

Her message to Canadians is to spare a thought for island dwellers as they think about the risks of a changing climate.

“In Canada, climate change probably will mean making a choice about lifestyle. For those of us on the islands, it is a choice of life and death,” Rakova said.

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