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