When your country goes under…literally

There’s an article in Nature this week about the Pacific Island Nation of Kiribati, which is slowly succumbing to sea level rise, and will eventually be inundated, leaving it’s population (currently just under 100,000 people) homeless. This is reminiscent of the fictional nation of Khembalung in the novel 40 Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I just read (thanks to ). In the book, the Khembalese are lobbying congress and working with other ‘drowning nations’ to try to get the U.S. to start doing something effective to stop global warming.

An issue that is not discussed in the book, which is finally being brought up in this Nature article, is what happens to all of these people who get flooded out of their countries. It’s going to be a complicated issue – do you give them land somewhere else to call their country? Do you force them to move to a different country with a new government, and dissolve the old government? Does the old president get to become a cabinet member or something, or is s/he SOL?

In 1946, the US Government forced the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll to leave their homes and resettle elsewhere, so the area could be used for nuclear testing. Robert C. Kiste wrote an ethnography about these people and their forced migration, published in 1974. In it he showed how many mistakes were made in this relocation; I presume because big government thought you could simply put people someplace else and life goes on. It’s a great starting point for considering how to deal with the relocation of the Kiribati People.

The first major mistake the US Government made when relocating the Bikinians was to assume that all pacific atolls are the same. The Bikinians were relocated to Rongerik Atoll, where there were virtually no food-producing plants, and a variety of other natural resource problems (if an island is habitable, people probably would be living on it already). After this near-disaster, they were relocated again. This time, cultural problems were more prevalent. The US government built a town for the Bikinians, but did not take into account the social organization of the communities on Bikini Atoll. People with status in the community at Bikini lived in very specific locations in the village. Because of the layout of the US Village, these locations simply did not exist, and power struggles ensued as new individuals tried to assert control over sections of the village, leading to all sorts of social challenges. Both physical and cultural landscapes can be extremely important to people, and you need to consider that when trying to develop a new settlement.

I hope that whomever gets involved with the current situation of disappearing islands reads Kiste’s ethnography and talks to the communities involved, so that the best solutions possible can be found. They really need to include some folks who’ve been working with refugees and resettlement in the past few decades. No one wants to leave their homeland under these kinds of scenarios, so its important to do the best we can to ease the transition, since our greenhouse gasses caused this mess in the first place.

Anyone interested in learning more about Bikini, the current process of resettling the atoll, and the stories of elders who participated in the earlier migrations should check out their website.

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