Carteret Islander Bernard Tunim’s face has a look of vulnerability as he talks of his island home threatened by rising seas that many scientists say are caused by global warming.
It’s a face that reflects the heavy load that must always bear on his mind as the ever threatening tides erode certainty on the little group of islands not far off the Papua New Guinean coast, not actually all that far from Australia.
“Scientists are saying in 10 to 15 years the island will be underwater.” Again that look of desperation.
“At high tide we’re almost unable to see land – we’re completely at the mercy of storm surges…let alone tsunamis.”
The community of about 3000 islanders had a close shave with the tsunami that devastated the Solomons earlier this year.
“Luckily it missed us…unfortunately though it hit Bougainville and caused quite a bit of damage,” he says.
The rising tides are causing other problems as well.
“We had three children die from eaten spoilt turtle meat. It’s against our customs for young ones to eat the meat, but what can you do when there’s so little food?
“Even a lot of the coconut trees are falling down, their roots rotted by the salt.
“And you can’t rely on food supplies from the mainland government.”
Mr Tunim’s cousin, Ursula Rakova, his companion on the Carteret Speaking Tour of Australia to raise awareness of the islanders’ plight, nods in agreement.
Mr Tunim is an island chief; Ms Rakova’s a member of the NGO Tulule Peisa, and they both know the score all too well.
When the signs were first there – yellowing leaves on crops like taro and bananas – the islanders at first thought was that their ancestors were angry with them, says Mr Tunim.
“We had never heard of this thing they call ‘climate change’, he sighs.
“We didn’t learn about that ’til much later.”
Now it’s Mr Tunim’s difficult task as one of the island chiefs to spread the word to his counterparts that the whole island must be evacuated – global warming is here to stay and the seas will continue to rise.
Ms Rakova says it was not until 1997 when she was working with an NGO in Papua New Guinea that she first started hearing specifically about climate change and its looming impact on low-lying Pacific islands.
It was, however, about 15 years earlier that erosion started to be noticed, she explains.
Under a resettlement program in 1984, about 15 Carteret Island families moved to Kaveria in central Bougainville.
They were forced to flee for their lives during the 1989 Bougainville Crisis. Their homes were burnt and the customary landowners returned.
“In 2001 the autonomous government in Bougainville started talking about relocating us all,” says Ms Rakova.
“The situation was getting worse – we had tried building seawalls; planting mangroves but nothing was a match for the strong currents that were washing away at our shorelines.”
Mr Tunim completes the picture about current conditions on the islands – a scattering of low-lying coral atolls in a horseshoe shape, with a total land area of 0.6 sq kms, located 86 kms north-east of Bougainville.
“Our water wells have been completely destroyed; we planted swamp taro but very little of that has grown. There’s not much to live on now but fish, coconuts and water in some of the tanks.
“Now the islands are a series of swamp landscapes – mosquitoes are on the increase bringing diseases like malaria and dysentery.”
It was while Ms Rakova worked in Bougainville that she started to feel challenged to help her own people.
She set up Tulele Peisa to coordinate a response to the crisis.
“Tulele Peisa means ‘ a convoy of canoes sailing the waves on our own’, Ms Rakova says.
“The job of the organization is to coordinate the evacuation and relocation of the island people.”
The Carteret Islanders are predominantly Catholic. Tulele Peisa is negotiating the handover of eight hectares of land owned by the Church in Bougainville.
“It’s obviously not enough land for everyone but would be good as a transit place,” she says.
“We are also attempting to negotiate the purchase of 300 to 700 hectares of foreign-owned plantations but this requires between one and two million kina (AUS$404,480 to $808,960).”
Meanwhile Mr Tunim is busy liaising with chiefs from Bougainville to bring them to the Carterets to see the situation for themselves. He’s also organising chiefs from the Carterets to visit Bougainville to see how that society works.
“We’re hoping to have everyone off the island in five to seven years… although we plan to return to the islands for fishing to keep the connection,” he adds.
“We believe that Australia as a superpower in the Pacific can help us as it has helped others in the region.
“Our situation is totally different to many others connected to this issue.
“We don’t drive cars or have factories; we are victims of a situation that is not of our making,” Mr Tunim says.
“Those wanting to help us can contact organizations like the Sisters of Mercy Justice Group or Friends of the Earth who are setting up a website to report our progress,” adds Ms Rakova.
“If nothing else, pray for us,” say these determined defenders of their people.