Climate change is a harsh reality for the Pacific Islands. Madeleine Chapman travelled to the Solomon Islands with World Vision to meet the communities whose lives are already being upturned by climate change.
The homes at the Lord Howe settlement are well built. So much so that it took me by surprise when we entered what has often been referred to as a slum. It was early and overcast, the perfect conditions for that one patch of land because the sun gets too hot for kids to play outside and the rain turns the sand and dirt ground into mud. It was a Saturday so the place was crowded. Teenagers played volleyball by the river, where piles of dirt, rocks and rubbish had been deposited. Better there than where the families sleep.
Where the families sleep, all 1500 members, are 84 homes built high, sometimes a whole storey up, above the ground. After visiting various villages and islands in the Solomons, we’d yet to see a home built at ground level. And if they once were, the sand and rock beneath them has eroded away so that they aren’t ground level anymore.
People have moved to the settlement for a number of reasons since it was established 50 years ago, but all come from Ontong Java, a cluster of 122 small islands in the northernmost region of the Solomon Islands. Families will cross the waters if parents have secured a job in Honiara, the capital city. Parents will send their children to live with relatives, or sometimes strangers, so that they can go to a better school in the city.
Moving for school or work used to be the only reason families would leave their relatives and travel huge distances to live in an unrefined settlement, but now climate change and its effects has been added to the list. Someone who’s seen this shift as it happens is Father Nigel, a local priest who moved to Lord Howe settlement as a teenager in 1985. When I sat down to speak with him, Father Nigel was on the third, and hopefully final, day in a cycle of malaria. He looked feverish and miserable but insisted on answering all of my questions.
When I mentioned a recent king tide that had destroyed families’ crops and forced them to migrate from Ontong Java to Lord Howe settlement, he wasn’t surprised. “It has people really worried,” he said, “Increasingly we are seeing king tides of a magnitude that we haven’t seen before. People are starting to talk about the dangers of living in the islands.” Dangers that have always been there, like tsunamis and cyclones, but never with such frequency. “A lot of them wouldn’t say outright that they would want to leave,” he added, “but the idea is there in the back of their minds.”
But what happens once they make that move? Unlike some other islands where there is a mainland nearby to relocate to, the residents of Lord Howe settlement have left behind their lives for a faraway, and temporary, solution in this crowded settlement. Each home we walked past looked large and then suddenly so small as we were told how many people lived in each – 16, 18, 20. The silver lining is that they stay together as a community. The people of Ontong Java speak their own dialect and have their own customs and traditions. For Father Nigel, that’s as important to them as their living situation. “It’s important not to lose our culture and our language,” he said, “You ask some of the younger kids to speak to their grandparents and they don’t know how to speak the language.” I sat there, incapable of speaking Samoan to my own Mum at home, and vowed to pick it up (again) as soon as I got back to New Zealand. “That’s one of the fears,” he continued, “being assimilated into a bigger culture and disappearing.”
And that’s where this becomes something bigger. These are not just people having to move their houses across the road to higher ground. It’s a systematic shift in their society and culture.
As I walked around the settlement I realised that the people looked more Polynesian than anyone else I’d seen all week; they could have passed as my Samoan relatives. As shameful as it is to admit, it was only when I saw four women sitting together looking like my dear aunties that it hit home just how close a neighbour these islands are to us. I sat down to interview one of the women, Sarah, who’d moved to the settlement just last year. But as I suspected would be the case, I wound up interviewing the whole group at once.
For Sarah, it was a king tide, the third in five years, that washed out her crops and forced her family of eight to relocate. They’ve lived in Lord Howe settlement for just over a year now and, while the kids are enjoying their schooling, Sarah is struggling to support them on what little she makes from selling goods at the central market. In the morning, she buys raw fish and potatoes from that same market, cooks them up at home, and resells them as cooked fish and chips. On a good day she might take home SBD$200 (about $40 NZD), while her husband works temp jobs in the city when they’re available. As she told me this, Sarah looked not unhappy, just resigned to her situation. When I asked if this was enough to live on, she just smiled and shook her head no.
That’s where the community comes in again. Sarah and her family live with relatives. Every family that relocates to Lord Howe settlement begins their life there depending almost entirely on a relative or neighbour from back on the islands. It’s not that they’re being invited to move in, but no one would turn away member of the community.
“Here our culture is we have to accommodate people,” Sarah explained. “Even though the houses are overcrowded with people, we have to accommodate them.” It’s a sentiment that carries through the whole settlement. A sense of togetherness in working towards something, even if that something is just getting through the day. And it’s this sense of togetherness, despite their grim living situation with no long-term solution in sight, that compels Sarah to answer a resolute “Yes” when I ask if she’s happy away from her home. “During Christmas we do our cultural activities here in the community,” she said, “we dance our custom dance so it’s a little bit like home.”
After an hour of chatting and drawing maps of Ontong Java in the sand with a stick, I said my goodbyes to Sarah and her friends. The drive back out to the main road once again took us past the teenagers playing volleyball, past the younger kids looking for hidden treasures in the piles of rubbish, and past the hospital which drew so many to the settlement in the first place. Looking at the homes again, I still marvelled at the craftsmanship in a community without government structure or means. The people of Lord Howe settlement, once leaving their islands voluntarily to search for better prospects and now leaving out of necessity, have worked wonders to make their band-aid solution feel like home. But they need and deserve better.
Our Pacific neighbours bear the brunt of climate change as sea levels rise, homes are washed away, and crops fail. World Vision New Zealand, along with 14 leading New Zealand humanitarian organisations, is asking New Zealand politicians from all parties to back the Zero Carbon Act, and reduce our country’s emissions to zero by 2050. Join the thousands of Kiwis who have already taken action for a safe and stable climate.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.