By Paul Chapman
In what could be the world’s first climate-induced migration of modern times, Anote Tong, the Kiribati president, said he was in talks with Fiji’s military government to buy up to 5,000 acres of freehold land on which his countrymen could be housed.
Some of Kiribati’s 32 pancake-flat coral atolls, which straddle the equator over 1,350,000 square miles of ocean, are already disappearing beneath the waves. Most of its 113,000 people are crammed on to Tarawa, the administrative centre, a chain of islets which curve in a horseshoe shape around a lagoon.
“This is the last resort, there’s no way out of this one,” Mr Tong said. “Our people will have to move as the tides have reached our homes and villages.” Mr Tong said the plan would be to send a trickle of skilled workers first, so they could merge more easily with the Fijian population and make a positive contribution to that country’s economy.
“We don’t want 100,000 people from Kiribati coming to Fiji in one go,” he told the state-run Fiji One television channel. “They need to find employment, not as refugees but as immigrant people with skills to offer, people who have a place in the community, people who will not be seen as second-class citizens.
“What we need is the international community to come up with an urgent funding package to deal with that ambition, and the needs of countries like Kiribati.” The land Kiribati wants to buy is understood to be on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island.
Mr Tong’s proposal is the latest in an increasingly desperate search for solutions. Last year he suggested the possibility of constructing man-made islands like oil rigs for people to live on. His government has launched an Education for Migration programme, aimed at upskilling its population to make them more attractive as migrants.
Kiribati youngsters study for degrees at the University of the South Pacific, which is based in the Fijian capital of Suva and jointly owned by 12 Pacific island countries. Dr Alumita Durulato, a lecturer in international affairs at the university, said: “They are already preparing quite well.
“They have educated their youth to be able to survive in the new lands that they want to go to. “They are going to leave behind their culture, their way of life and lifestyle, which is a little bit different from ours in Fiji.”
Tarawa lies 1,400 miles from Suva and some i-Kiribati, as the islanders are known, hold concerns about whether their culture would survive after the population moves, especially if those who leave first are mainly the young. A member of the Commonwealth, Kiribati was known as the Gilbert islands until independence from Britain in 1979.
The islands were first named after Thomas Gilbert, a British naval captain who navigated the archipelago in 1788, Kiribati being the local pronunciation of “Gilbert”. The total land area is 313 square miles and none of the coral atolls rises more than a few feet above sea level.