“Once upon a time my island was a tropical paradise. It is a tropical paradise no more.”
That is how Ursula Rakova described the state of her homeland during a recent panel discussion during Climate Week in New York City. She has been a vocal and tireless activist to raise awareness and attract support to lead the relocation of the residents of the Cataret Islands in Papua New Guinea. These islands are gradually being flooded due to the rising sea levels attributed to climate change, and it is predicted that the islands will be completely submerged by the year 2015.
Higher levels of seawater have destroyed crops and harmed supplies of drinking water. As a result, as seen in this video produced by the United Nations University, the residents on the islands have been going hungry.
As a result, the residents, which are being considered the first climate refugees, must be relocated to the larger Bougainville Island. This complex task is being led by Rakova, who was given this enormous responsibility by the elders and the rest of her community. She has been spanning the globe to raise awareness, but more importantly, raise funds to physically relocate the approximately 120 families.
Some of the relocation has already taken place, but not without difficulties. Journalist Dan Box has been documenting the process and has been in touch with Rakova and other groups on the island, who provide updates on the situation. Box writes on his blog Journey to the Sinking Lands:
The initial evacuation (of five men, who were the fathers of five families) to the mainland has hit understandable troubles: Of the five who formed the first wave of migrants leaving the islands to build new homes on the mainland, three have returned to the islands. Apparently, they were finding it too hard living in a new place and being apart from their families. Three men have been chosen to replace them and are expected to make the journey soon. The gardens that have been planted by the original five men, however, have begun to bear fruit and veg and with this food available, the remaining two men can send for their families to join them.
In this video, Rakova describes why this campaign is necessary:
I want to make sure that my people have a future life for the generations to come. I would say to people that believe climate change is not happening, if you have the heart to feel that you are flesh and blood? To you it is a choice of lifestyle. For us, who are already suffering the impact of climate change and rising sea levels, it is a choice of life and death, because if we do not move, we are going to be drowned. And we are already losing our homelands. I think you do not need to question whether this is climate change or not. You should be able to put yourself in our shoes, and maybe travel to our islands; we invite you to travel to our islands and see it for yourself.
if they do not come up with a good solution in the Copenhagen meeting, my people will drown. Islands in the Pacific and elsewhere in the world will disappear, within the next twenty years. We will all lose our homeland, and this is my fear, that we are going to lose our ancestral homes and this is human rights, it is abusing our right to live in our ancestral homeland.
The money needed to evacuate the residents has not been coming in as had been hoped writes Rakova in an email to Box. These funds are important to help purchase land and to build homes for the residents. She will continue her campaign, when she will participate in activities during the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark from December 7-18.
[Thumbnail by Oxfam International]