Land’s End

By Kenneth E. Barden

BONRIKI, Kiribati—Approaching Bonriki airport for a landing, the triangular coral atoll of Tarawa looks very much like the sails of the traditional boats used to travel between the islands of this South Pacific archipelago, roughly halfway between Australia and Hawaii. The long, narrow islets connected by a series of man-made causeways look especially small from the air, reinforcing the sense of fragility that defines this island nation. Composed of some 32 atolls and one raised island, spread over 1.3 million square miles, it is the only nation that straddles both sides of the equator, as well as both sides of the International Date Line. Until local law unified the time zone for the nation, it was the first to see the start of a new day as well as the last to see the end of that same day. Now, however, Kiribati’s days may be numbered, as it faces an extraordinary existential crisis.

The location of Kiribati lends credence to the locally held belief that this country is literally at the center of the world. Yet its remoteness kept it isolated for many years—until recently, when Kiribati (pronounced “Kir-e-bas”) emerged as focal point in the climate change debate. Like a handful of other island nations, Kiribati is at risk of disappearing, as rising seas threaten to engulf it. For Kiribati, the question of sustainability is not a matter of lifestyle—it’s a matter of life and death.

Losing a homeland is a sadly common experience in human history. Many groups of displaced, dispossessed people—nations, tribes, ethnic groups—have struggled to maintain their collective identity in exile. Often, they draw strength from the shared dream of one day returning to the place they call home. But what happens if that place no longer exists—not in a metaphoric sense, but in a literal one? If Kiribati ceases to be a place, will it also cease to be a nation?

Beginning in November 2010, I spent three months in Kiribati as a technical advisor to the Ministry of Finance. Every policy and decision—even routine functions like budgeting and financial planning—are shaped by the existential crisis. Given this very immediate problem, the government needs to make some very difficult decisions, and make them quickly. Such decisions must protect not only the land, but the very identity and culture of the I-Kiribati, as the island’s citizens are called. This race for survival poses questions that go to the very heart of what constitutes a nation.

“It seems as if everything is happening all at once,” says Mariana, a woman in her 40s, who operates a small store in Bairiki, selling canned goods, cigarettes, and bottled water. “We are very fortunate to have our independence, but we face so many problems. We are so far from the rest of the world that trade is difficult and expensive. If someone comes down sick, we pray for their recovery, as our hospital can only do so much for them. And now it seems that the sea is rising to take us back.”

Atanteora Beiatau, an official with the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, admits that the country is facing a daunting set of challenges. But he echoes the determined optimism I heard from many I-Kiribati. “We are a strong people and we will manage—somehow,” he tells me.


Kiribati is one of the world’s most ecologically fragile states. The vast majority of its islands are coral atolls, whose population of barely 100,000 subsisted on fishing and local plant life long before the arrival of the British in the 18th and 19th centuries. The atolls developed around an ancient volcanic island that eventually sank back into the sea, leaving behind a water-filled lagoon ringed by the atolls, which are either slightly above or below the water line, constantly at risk from erosion.

Despite the building of sea walls, the water that surrounds the island is rising at a pace climatologists find alarming. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), sea levels around the world rose between four and eight inches over the course of the 20th century, and many scientists predict a rise of seven inches to two feet by the year 2100. In Kiribati, the sea level has risen 4 inches in the last 20 years. The highest point on Tarawa, Kiribati’s main population center, is not much more than nine feet above sea level, and the lowest is right at sea level. With 715 miles of coastline among its various islands, even a small rise in sea level poses serious threats. Of the 313 square miles of land area that make up the Kiribati islands, rising sea levels, storm surges and erosion will claim 55 percent by 2050 and 80 percent by the beginning of the next century, according to Terieta Mwemwenikeaki of the Ministry of Finance. And that is an optimistic scenario.

The government of Kiribati, with the assistance of donor funds provided by the World Bank and other foreign donors, has embarked on a number of aggressive projects to adapt to the changes caused by this rapid land loss. These projects include the construction and repair of sea walls to prevent further erosion of the shore, as well as relocating homes and businesses further inland. Strict regulations now govern construction activities that could jeopardize the integrity of the land. But all these measures are simply a form of staving off the inevitable.

“Our options are extremely limited due to the islands’ geographical make-up,” Mwemwenikeaki points out. He is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of urgency in the international response to Kiribati’s pleas for assistance. “We have continuously appealed to the international community to start taking necessary steps to address climate change, but actions are being taken at a relaxed pace,” he complains.

One reason for the slow pace may be that the precise cause of Kiribati’s erosion is subject to debate, and has become part of the highly politicized dispute about climate change. According to several IPCC studies, the rise in the sea level is a direct result of glacial melting caused by global warming. But other studies suggest some of the loss may be attributed to natural erosion caused by wave action, or the degradation of coral reef structures by micro-organisms. Several projects have been undertaken to monitor sea level changes, but none has been conclusive. Whatever the cause, the residents in Kiribati know that their time on the islands is limited and that even building sea walls is only a temporary solution.


As the islands slowly slip into the sea, the entire I-Kiribati way of life may be in jeopardy. Since the islands’ geological makeup cannot support the methods of land reclamation that has been effective elsewhere, the I-Kiribati must confront the possibility of a massive relocation of its people. The question is whether a nation can exist, effectively, as a virtual nation—its population housed within the territory of other states, but retaining some kind of autonomy or even sovereignty.

This discussion is already beginning. In June 2008, the president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, proclaimed that the country had reached the “point of no return,” and that its leaders must face the reality of planning “for the day when you no longer have a country.” Since then, the Kiribati government, primarily through personal appeals by Tong, has made requests to the international community, and specifically Australia and New Zealand, to accept citizens from the Kiribati islands as permanent refugees. (Formal refugee status is generally reserved for those fleeing persecution, not an environmental crisis.)

New Zealand and Australia have offered a number of special programs that qualify Kiribati citizens with employment opportunities. Generally, these have been on a seasonal basis, primarily relating to employment in agricultural industries. Only a few I-Kiribati have been able to participate. Another is a program offered by the Kiribati Australia Nurses Initiative, which provides nursing training to I-Kiribati in accordance with Australian standards. While the aim of that program is to enable trainees to return to Kiribati to work in its health system, there is a general recognition that many will stay to work in Australia.

No country has agreed to relocate I-Kiribati on a large scale. The most favorable response came from the former president of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa, who suggested there was “plenty of room” in his country for I-Kiribati migrants. Unfortunately, Mwanawasa died in August 2008, before taking any formal action, and no further effort has been made.

Even if an offer of resettlement was forthcoming, unresolved is the matter of whether the I-Kiribati people could establish a new home with anything resembling a recognition of “virtual” sovereignty. While many countries, including Australia and New Zealand, offer special permits for those who would like to study or work overseas, such permits fail to resolve the issue of retaining some national sovereignty, let alone identity, as persons relocating under those permits become subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the host country, and not Kiribati. In short, they become economic migrants, just like millions of others all over the world.

President Tong describes his people as victims of climate change, and has called upon the international community to make a commitment to finding a solution for his nation, as well as those of other islands facing a similar dilemma, such as the Maldives. Tong has proposed that an international fund be provided to compensate countries willing to provide land to his people. Failing that, he has floated the idea of purchasing land from another country for relocation—though it’s not clear where they money would come from, since Kiribati hardly has sufficient financial resources.


According to many historians, Kiribati was first settled prior to the 1st century AD, perhaps as early as 3000 BC, by Micronesian peoples. In the late 18th century, a British captain, Thomas Gilbert, led an exploration of this area of the Pacific. He was followed a century later by commercial expeditions seeking coconuts and fish, both valuable trading commodities for trade. The islands became a port of call for a variety of ships, including whalers, slave traders and general merchant vessels. Missionaries followed, bringing with them alternatives to traditional belief systems, and making the first attempts to transpose the oral language of the people into a written form.

To protect its own commercial interests in the islands’ resources, the British declared the archipelago a protectorate in 1892 and forced a measure of rule on the islanders, who were mostly reduced to a second-class status. Around the start of the 20th century, British mining companies began extracting phosphate, initially for use as fertilizer and later as a key material for weapons production. The mining certainly did nothing to slow erosion. During World War II, the Japanese occupied the islands. In November 1943, Allied forces invaded the Japanese stronghold, resulting in some of the bloodiest fighting of the Pacific campaign. After the war, the British resumed full control. But phosphate production began a long slide. In 1979, the mines were shuttered. Without any profitable phosphate production, the administrative costs of maintaining the islands became too much of a burden on the British economy, and they essentially packed up and walked away. Kiribati declared independence on July 12, 1979.

British colonial influence is still apparent in Kiribati society and its institutions. The Kiribati Protestant Church is an outgrowth of the Anglican Church. Laws and regulations adopted during the British administration are still in force, though there are numerous efforts to tailor laws allowing Kiribati to function as a truly sovereign nation in the international economy. The departure of the British administration did not leave the I-Kiribati well prepared to govern themselves, much less tackle the exquisitely difficult dilemma posed by the islands’ long-term unsustainability.


The most pressing problem at the moment is shrinking land area, which is already forcing many families to move their homes further inland to the main population centers of Tarawa. What’s more, with an annual growth rate at 2.34 percent, the population in 2010 reached an estimated 109,315. The movement of inhabitants and the population growth are contributing to a level of population density—over 4,000 people per square mile in some places—that the islands’ infrastructure and economy cannot support. Moreover, with the government as the largest employer, the large number of public employees requires a tax and revenue base that is not sustainable.

The lagoon, which has been a central part of Tarawa life, is suffering as well. Prior to the advent of modern transportation, water in the lagoon mixed with circulating ocean water as the tides ebbed and flowed. The arrival of cars and buses led to the construction of causeways between the islets to let workers commute from their villages to the centers of government and business. The causeways have stifled the flow of water into and out of the lagoon. As a result, pollution levels in some areas have reached poisonous levels, making swimming and fishing in those areas quite dangerous.

Conditions like this serve as a daily reminder to the I-Kiribati of the fundamental fragility of their homeland. Yet the concept of moving to live elsewhere is hardly new. Historical evidence suggests that some villages moved from one island to another over the centuries in response to water shortages, intertribal warfare and other catastrophic events. There are even some very recent precedents. Banaba Island, located toward the western stretch of the country, is one of the very few raised islands in Kiribati. Banaba has a high point of 266 feet, the highest among the Kiribati island group. Once rich in phosphate deposits, Banaba became a prized possession of the British during the colonial era. For 80 years, until 1979, phosphate mining stripped away 90 percent of the island’s surface, rendering the land virtually uninhabitable. During the period when mining was at its peak, the British embarked on a program of relocating the residents of Banaba to another former British colony, Fiji. Between 1945 and 1983, several hundred Banabans were shipped to Rabi Island, displacing the indigenous population.

The political situation of Banaba and its former inhabitants is unique—an overlay of one jurisdiction upon another. While the island itself remains a part of Kiribati, its people and municipal administration are based on Rabi Island, which is now part of Fiji. While they are considered by the Kiribati government to be its citizens and have the right to vote and be represented in the Kiribati parliament, many of them regard themselves as distinctly apart from those residents of the Kiribati “mainland.” The status of the Banabans living on Rabi Island has been a contentious issue for the Fijian government, as well as for the relocated Banaban should give pause to anyone considering the implications of an en masse migration of I-Kiribati to another country.


While the drowning of Kiribati may someday require all its inhabitants to move elsewhere, for the moment economic imperatives are already setting the stage, as growing numbers of young people seek work overseas. A German shipping company has established a training center for young I-Kiribati men and women to learn the maritime trades and find work in shipping and cruise lines around the world. Those who successfully complete the training and find work abroad send vital remittances back home to support their families—part of the $11 million added annually to the Kiribati economy via remittances.

Tetoa, a waitress at the Chatterbox Café, a restaurant in Bikenibieu, South Tarawa, worked on a cruise line along the western coast of North America for a few years after completing the maritime course. In her late 20s, she is typical of many of young people who work abroad and then return, finding themselves torn between wanting a more modern life and trying to stay loyal to their families and their way of life.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” explains Tetoa. “Although the money is good and I enjoyed the lifestyle, I missed my family in Kiribati. We in Kiribati have obligations to take care of our family and our parents. While I wish there were some of the modern conveniences here that I found in the States, Kiribati is still my home and I find my place here. If I don’t take care of my parents in their time of need, I will regret it for the rest of my life.”

Educational opportunities are also moving offshore. Several programs provide funding for higher education at foreign institutions. But this, too, comes at a high social price. In the case of Eriati, a young auditor with the Ministry of Finance, an opportunity to obtain a master’s degree from an Australian university means two years away from his wife and young son. Eriati has the potential of becoming a rising star in the Kiribati government. Dedicated to his work and the future of his nation, he is committed to returning to Kiribati to apply his newly acquired skills to modernizing the financial system of his native land. But he is realistic about the challenges facing the nation.

His parents worked abroad during his youth, so moving from one land to another is not new to him. “I do it because I have to, for the future of my family,” Eriati explains, showing me a photo of his young son. “Our tradition is the sea. This is what we have dealt with over the centuries. Challenges from the environment are not new to us, so we must adapt and be ready to confront them.”

A major concern of Kiribati’s leaders is the fear that modernity may come too quickly and at the expense of Kiribati’s heritage and culture—which would be placed in even greater jeopardy should mass emigration prove necessary. Several times each week, ancestral dances and other events celebrating the islands’ uniqueness are held at the park in the center of Bairiki, opposite the national library, which contains the archives of Kiribati government and society. Concerned that the traditions of these islands may otherwise be lost to future generations, international organizations like UNESCO have funded and supported programs to record, document and preserve the country’s cultural heritage. Special legislation has been enacted to protect the interests of the I-Kiribati, including the recognition of intellectual rights for their unique dance, music and folklore.

Among the many traditions of the I-Kiribati people, one in particular captures the contours of their current dilemma. The number three has a special significance in local folklore. Every traditional dance is composed of three distinct sections. Persons speaking before the meneaba, or village meeting, are expected to make their presentations in three parts. When the audience expresses its appreciation for a dancer or presenter, it is always done with a series of three claps. There are several explanations for why this number is so special. The one I find most compelling is that the number three represents the elements central to Kiribati, its people and their way of life—land, people, and culture. Without all three, there can be no balance—and no sustainable future for this nation, trying to hold onto its very place in the world.



Kenneth E. Barden is a lawyer and international development consultant.

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