The Island Nation That Bought a Back-Up Property

“Clearly, the highly urbanized atolls like Tarawa where so many people live on the narrow parts are going to require expensive engineering solutions if they can’t reduce their populations,” Kench said. Or they can move back to their home islands. Aranuka, for example, has seen its population drop to 800 as many moved to Tarawa. It has the same land area as Tarawa, but instead of being long and thin, part of it is three miles by five on the lee side of the island—“Good protection against the waves,” said Kench. “I’d say it has a good chance of surviving climate change.”

One of Tong’s signature projects has been the purchase of land in Fiji so his people will have somewhere to go to when, as he put it to Zakaria on CNN, all his country’s islands “are underwater, given the projections being put forward by the IPCC.” The search had been going on since 2011, when Tong announced his intention to buy land as insurance against climate change during his third and last campaign. In 2012, after settling on an estate in Fiji, he told the Associated Press, “We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it ... It’s basically going to be a matter of survival.” After people protested in Tarawa that they did not want to leave, Tong said that the real purpose of the acquisition was to insure food security, though Kiribati people eat mostly imported rice and local fish. 

On May 23, Tong announced on Kiribati Radio the completion of the purchase for $8.7 million taken from Kiribati’s $600 million sovereign wealth fund, whose interest goes into the budget.

That night at the Lagoon Club in Tarawa, a bare-bones beachside bar that’s a favorite watering hole for senior officials, former environment minister Amberoti Nikora, who was instrumental in the purchase, was celebrating, beer in hand. “The place can hold 60,000, 70,000 people,” he told me confidently. “People should not be afraid of the future, the government will take care of them.”

But when I traveled to the estate in a remote part of Fiji’s Vanua Levu Island, during a trip made possible by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, I found a very different picture. Two-thirds of the property, called the Natoavatu Estate, was covered by impenetrable forest and the rest was an abandoned coconut plantation where some 270 Solomon Islanders practice subsistence agriculture. They were invited to settle there in 1948 by the Anglican Church, which had inherited it, in exchange for conversion. (Anyone who leaves the Church must also move out, they told me.) 

The Solomon Islanders said they didn’t think the land could feed more than a couple of hundred more people. John Teaiwa, a former permanent secretary of agriculture in Fiji, agreed over coffee in Suva, the capital. The purchase, he said, “makes no sense as a food source either.” 

The Solomon Islanders explained to me that they farmed 400 acres for food and grazed their cattle—which they use to plough fields—on another 300 acres. They were upset that the church had carved out 300 acres from the property and leased them to the village for 99 years without charge, in order to sell the remaining 5,451 acres to Kiribati. “We told them 300 acres is not enough,” Eparama Kelo, a retired schoolteacher, said. “They told us that’s all we’re going to get.”

In an interview in his office Suva, Archbishop Winston Halapua, who heads the Anglican Church’s Polynesian Diocese, dismissed a suggestion that the church had failed in its moral responsibility toward the villagers. “Three hundred acres is a big land,” he said. “I think this is just.” An examination of the sales records of neighboring and similar properties showed that the price Tong paid per acre was four times the average price the other properties fetched. But Hanapua denied the Church had taken advantage of an unsophisticated buyer. “We were open for any offer, and there was an offer,” he said. 

As to the land’s unsuitability for resettlement, he insisted that it could accommodate several thousand more people. He noted that Chinese immigrants to Fiji “transform barren places into green ones where they produce food for the markets.” He said he saw no reason the Kiribati people could not do the same, even though that there is virtually no agriculture on atolls, whose vegetal output is mostly limited to breadfruit and coconuts from trees.

Members of the opposition in Tarawa said they had no idea of the inflated price and the land’s unsuitability for food production. They were outraged that the government had said that all the Solomon Islanders had left the property, and that Tong had wasted trust fund money on what they called a publicity stunt to glorify himself. (Tong declined to be interviewed for this article.) Tetabo Nakara, who served as environment minister under Tong but quit over Tong’s alarmist campaigning, said the purchase “was done strictly for the publicity. He did it just so he could say he’d done it,” Nakara said.

Teburoro Tito, Tong’s predecessor as president, agreed. He said the fact that Tong has variously described the purchase as being for relocation, food security and as an investment highlighted the fact that the president, who governs with little parliamentary oversight, has no clear plan. Tito pointed out that after three years of negotiating the purchase of the land (and making no effort to ascertain its value), the first thing he announced he was doing after the purchase was completed was to appoint a committee to decide what to do with it. Tong, Tito charged, is on “a mad drive to turn Kiribati into a climate change asylum to justify the many irrational and nonsensical decisions he has made so far.” 

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Christopher Pala is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. 

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