As Rising Seas Force Exile, Islanders Hold Fast to What Matters Most
Ontong Java is a disappearing atoll. Its inhabitants will be among the first of the many people of the Solomon Islands to be displaced by climate change in the next decade. As oceans rise, this ring of South Pacific coral islands—some only feet above sea level—is facing crop devastation, coastal erosion, and a rapidly decreasing ability to support its inhabitants. For Ontong Java and other atoll communities, the first challenges climate change presents are food and water scarcities, but with disappearing land and a growing population, the concern has turned to how to preserve its culture once its people are forced to relocate.
The concern has turned to how to preserve its culture once its people are forced to relocate.
Nigel Kelaepa, a priest native to Ontong Java, has been working to adapt to these challenges. Calm, pragmatic, and deeply passionate about his home and its people, he fills a leadership role on the atoll. Kelaepa explains that there are few others who are educated enough to advocate and raise awareness internationally, negotiate with governments, plan for relocation, or form initiatives to deal with the crisis.
The Ontong Javanese are rural, he says. “Our percentage of literacy and people who are educated is minimal. There’s not many people doing things except one or two like me.” And as a priest, he naturally fills that role.
Ontong Java is one of the world’s largest atoll groups and sits about 10 feet above sea level at its highest point. It is nearly 300 miles from Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands nation, and is only accessible by boats, which depart from the capital about once a month, taking close to two days to reach the island community.
The atoll is inhabited by roughly 5,000 indigenous Polynesian people who migrated there about 2,000 years ago. Life is simple: People rise with the sun, send their children to school, tend to their gardens, fish, partake in religious ceremony, and socialize in the evening. Most of this happens in three main villages that are lined with rows of huts and palm trees. One of the three was already devastated by rising sea levels, which are erasing feet of land every year.
Key to the Ontong Javanese people’s existence has been their resilience and ability to adapt to their environment. Their isolation has created a strong, independent lifestyle and a culture specific to this unique landscape. But the changes happening today, including droughts, severe and unpredictable storms, and sea invasion, are becoming insurmountable.
In the mid-1990s, Kelaepa recalls, the people of Ontong Java noticed abnormal weather patterns. At the same time their water sources and gardens appeared to be inexplicably rotting.
“We thought it was just freakish weather or some other kind of effect that was happening,” he says, “but we didn’t know it was climate change.” By the end of the century, the science behind climate change and global warming reached the island, and they knew they were experiencing what climate scientists were warning about.
For low-lying islands with gently sloping beaches, feet of land can disappear with just inches of sea rise.
For low-lying islands with gently sloping beaches, feet of land can disappear with just inches of sea rise. Oceanographer Eric Rehm explains that evidence of sea-level rise is almost nonexistent between the year 0 and 1900 AD, but since 1993 there has been an average rise of about 3 millimeters per year. This means that in 20 years, over 2 inches have been added to our global sea level.
Learning the reasons behind the changes in the atoll environment was upsetting for the people of Ontong Java, Kelaepa says, and at first it made them angry. Their homeland was being wrecked by the rest of the world. But anger eventually gave way to acceptance.
Keith Joseph, an environmental ally and priest from Darwin, Australia, has been working with Kelaepa and others living in the Solomon Islands for over 10 years. He thinks that this acceptance comes from the Ontong Javanese attitude toward nature. “Having always been an island exposed to the elements, at the mercy of the winds and storms,” he says, “the idea of life is not to control every circumstance, but the idea of life is to live with every circumstance.”
Once-fertile swamp gardens now overrun with saltwater 2015. Photo by Nigel Kelaepa.
The Ontong Javanese are not focused on how unfair this circumstance is; they are living with it and focusing on survival. Kelaepa and Joseph began to take official action in 2009. They started the first climate change project on the Solomon Islands in an effort to restore food and water security. This meant adapting to saltwater intrusion—where subsurface saltwater seeps into fresh water aquifers—that infects soil and wells, killing crops and polluting drinking water. “We thought we might bring in saltwater-resistant crops from other parts of the country,” Kelaepa says. “That helped to increase the number of staple crops that the people could depend on.”
They also set out to expand their global network and reach by partnering with the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) and the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP). These groups have connected Ontong Java with the larger community of small islands affected by climate change.
Their homeland was being wrecked by the way the rest of the world was living.
To raise awareness, Kelaepa and Joseph represented their community at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, making sure the voices of early victims of climate change were heard. They networked with activists and artists around the world, held their own presentations, and made connections that have continued well after the talks ended.
Kelaepa is also in the process of setting up his own organization to represent the atoll and help people worldwide support its development, preservation, and relocation. This would allow the direct flow of funds and other resources to the institutions most effectively aiding the Ontong Javanese, he says.
Even with all these efforts, though, they know it is too late to keep Ontong Java habitable for its entire population; climate change is too far along. Changing how they grow food bought a few years, but permaculture alone can’t solve the problem.
“Climate change is here to stay now,” Kelaepa says. “The effects are here. It is very real for us. We cannot run away from it. So we are saying let’s deal with it.” This means coming to terms with displacement. In a hopeful yet realistic outcome, half of their people would remain on the atoll, and the other half would be relocated within the Solomon Islands. By keeping visitation to Ontong Java feasible, they hope to keep their native culture alive. Kelaepa says older natives will likely stay on the island—even if it becomes completely submerged—and the majority of the youth will move to a new home. All of this will need to happen in the next five to 10 years, at which time, Kelaepa estimates, the island will be unstable for a majority of the people there.
Finding a new home presents a major obstacle. Right now, Kelaepa and about 10 percent of the atoll’s native people live in an urban settlement in Honiara, a space quickly becoming overcrowded. Allocating land safely in the Solomon Islands is difficult; the archipelago, which only won national independence 40 years ago, is still settling land rights issues from a decade-old civil war.
“Climate change is here to stay now.”
Kelaepa seems confident they will be able to negotiate new land for his people, but because land rights are customarily held by indigenous communities and regulated according to their customs, not state law, he is concerned that land they settle on today could be claimed by another group with ancestral ties to that place sometime in the future.
Kelaepa must deal with the bureaucracy while focusing on the fundamentals of survival. Although the Ontong Javanese have had time to strategize how they will handle displacement, thousands of years of cultural attachment to this place are at stake. As exile seems imminent, Kelaepa is trying to figure out how to save their collective identity.
He wants to start by recording his people’s dances, stories, chants, and songs so that they will never be lost. “Our old people are dying off. … We want to record these things so that [new generations] can know something about their original culture,” Kelaepa says. “We’re a minority. A small people. We can easily lose ourselves and be absorbed into the greater culture of the people around us.”