06.06.2012 - Rio+20

I need a new home, my island has sunk

The Carteret Islands - six islands with a population of about 1,700 - are, literally, sinking. Since the 1980s, several relocation schemes have been implemented - sometimes described as the first organized relocation due to climate change - resulting in the people of the Carteret being called the world's first "climate change refugees".

According to recent research conducted by Dr. John Duguman of the University of Papua New Guinea, with support of UNESCO Apia Office, the relocation schemes in the past were not very successful. The families relocated in the 1980s and the 1990s to Bougainville, a larger island near the Carterets, ended up returning to the Carteret islands due to civil conflict, hostility toward them from neighbours, or lack of living facilities. Now two relocation shemes are ongoing. In 2008 five families were relocated to Marau Village near Tinputz, however three of them have already returned to the Carteret Islands.

It is important to understand that relocation is much more than simply providing a house and land. It is a comprehensive economic, social and cultural change. To ensure success, special attention needs to be paid to indigenous culture. Thus, capacity building and social education programs must be provided, not only for relocated people but also for local people in the area where the relocated people are settling.   

Who is affected?

In the 1980s, 10 families in the Carteret Islands were relocated to Bougainville. One of them returned back to the Carteret soon after the relocation. Beginning in 1990, civil conflict on Bougainville forced the other families to return to the Carteret Islands.

In the 1990s, 12 families were relocated to Bougainville, however all left after only two years due to hostility toward them from neighbours near their settlement site. On one occasion, a Hanahan youth threatened a Carteret youth with a knife, took his possessions and burned his house down.

Recently two relocation schemes have been implemented by the Autonomous Region of Bougainville Government and Tulele Peisa Inc., a Non-Government Organization established in 2007 to facilitate an ecologically and culturally sustainable relocation and resettlement of the Carteret Atoll community.

In 2008 Tulele Peisa Inc., in cooperation with the Catholic Church, facilitated the relocation of five families from the islands to Marau Village near Tinputz. The fathers were sent ahead to establish gardens and build houses, however, three of the five fathers returned to the Carteret Islands after three months. One of the returned men reported he came back because the house was not complete, the garden land was limited, water tanks provided by Tulele Peisa Inc were too small, and the land for each family to plant cash crops such as cocoa was not clearly delineated. Other people in Carteret Island have mixed feeling about where to resettle. They are waiting to see how the families who have already moved to Bougainville are settling.

Why does it matter ?

The case of the Carteret Islands shows the importance of socially and culturally well planned schemes. The International Organization for Migration predicts the number of people displaced by environmental changes will grow to 200 million by 2050, though estimates range from 50 million to 1 billion. What is certain is that the number of people affected by environmental change is rising dramatically. Without a comprehensive consideration of social and human dimensions, a proper solution is impossible.

The Secretary-General of the UN said during COP 17, (Durban, South Africa, November and December 2011), "As Secretary-General, I travel widely. And everywhere, people ask me for help - they ask for our help as the United Nations - as nations, united. On the Pacific island of Kiribati, a young boy told me "I am afraid to sleep at my home". Because his land, his island, Kiribati, is slipping beneath the waves. There are many such islands in the Pacific and elsewhere."

What is UNESCO doing?

UNESCO has supported a case study for the relocation of the Carteret Islanders to understand better their situation and to seek a better solution, the result of which is to be published.

In Papua New Guinea, UNESCO is building capacity in social sciences, through strengthening knowledge bases and social policy networks, to address current global environmental changes. UNESCO works on the ground to support research collaboration between the natural and social sciences and to raise the awareness of the international community on the issue of climate change and migration.

UNESCO, as the lead agency of the Global Migration Group (GMG), a group of 16 agencies involved in migration-related activities throughout the UN and beyond, is focusing on the relationship between the environment, climate change and human migration.

A UNESCO publication 'Migration and Climate Change', which brings together the views of 26 leading experts from various disciplines,  is the first authoritative overview of the relationship between climate change and migration.

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