The Island Nation That Bought a Back-Up Property

Scientists raise questions about the doomsday scenario that made one Pacific leader spend millions on new land.

Palm tree amidst dark stormy sky

Mikarite Temari, the mayor of Christmas Island, Kiribati’s largest atoll, rolled his eyes and shook his head as I read off my laptop in his office what his president, Anote Tong, had said during a visit to New York.

“According to the science and the projections,” Tong, a slim 62-year-old with a trimmed mustache, a gray crew-cut and a talent for metaphor, told Fareed Zakaria on CNN, “it is already too late for us.” For Kiribati and other nations made up of low-lying atolls, Tong added, “The impact of climate change is about total annihilation.” An interviewer in The New Yorker wrote, “Kiribati’s fate is settled; Tong gives it twenty years.”

“This is not true,” Temari said with visible dismay. “None of it.” Scientists who analyze atoll island dynamics agree that any notion of existential threat for atoll nations is unfounded. Indeed, several studies have shown that the six inches the central Pacific has risen since 1950 has had no measurable effect on any island. The scientists say that the tropical white-sand islands languidly draped around aquamarine lagoons are actually sitting on live coral reefs that will grow as the Pacific rises two to four feet by the end of the century, as the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change predicts.

“The reefs will maintain equilibrium with sea-level rise,” said Scott Smithers of James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. “Waves are what will allow them to keep their head above water.”

“During big storms, the waves wash over the beaches and deposit sand inland,” explained Paul Kench, head of the University of Auckland’s School of Environment, who like Smithers is a coastal geo-morphologist. “That’s how the islands rose above the reef thousands of years ago and that’s what they’ll keep on doing as long as their reefs produce sand.” Atoll sand is made of broken bits of coral and coralline algae and of the skeletons of mollusks and tiny creatures called foraminifera. Noting that ocean acidification and a warming ocean will be increasing their mortality, he added, “That’s not significant in geological time, because a reef can produce sand for centuries after it dies.”

But no one is saying that the expected growth spurt will be as pleasant for the people living on atolls as life has been for the last 3,000 years, which were marked by sea-level stability. Even if islands aren’t submerged, scientists agree that climate change will create major problems—at the very least the same ones that coastal residents will face everywhere. “The low-lying areas will go under water more frequently as the sea level rises,” said Colin Woodroffe of the University of Wollongong in Australia. “And the narrower parts of the islands will be washed over more often.” What makes the process hard to predict is that there are no topographic maps of most atolls because the higher parts are usually covered in vegetation—trees, bushes or grasses—so satellites can’t measure just how high they are above the water. On most islands, people, like vegetation, stick to the higher, less exposed parts.

Christmas Island, which at 150 square miles is five times the size of Manhattan, is the biggest atoll island in the world by land area. There, the sea-level rise will likely be benign, the scientists agree: The peninsula where London, the capital, is located (which is also where most people live) is 20 feet above sea level. In addition, Christmas, whose Kiribati spelling is Kiritimati but is pronounced Christmas, has enough fresh water for four times its population of 6,000, according to a European Union study.

But 2,000 miles to the west in South Tarawa, Kiribati’s narrow, six-square-mile capital island crowded with 50,000 people, the picture is much darker. Over the past half-century, residents of the 15 other Gilbert Islands have flocked there in search of jobs and better schools for their children. The island, once a Japanese fortress and the site of a World War II battle, was already hardly pristine. Now, many live in flimsy beachside houses that are routinely awash in high tides. To minimize flooding, they built poorly designed seawalls that regularly collapse. Meanwhile, the government increased South Tarawa’s area by 19 percent over 30 years by building causeways between islets and creating new land over the reef with lagoon sand poured behind seawalls. The widespread erosion and flooding that resulted “is primarily due to [local] human activities,” which unless stopped will “increase erosion and susceptibility of the reef islands to anticipated sea-level rise,” one study concluded.

Though the study’s lead author is Naomi Biribo, a senior civil servant in Tarawa, Tong has ignored it and become a minor international celebrity by blaming the island’s coastal problems uniformly on climate change. “We are on the front lines of climate change,” he has often said, and Conservation International—Tong is a member of the group’s board—describes him as “a loving grandfather who is concerned that his country will no longer exist when his grandchildren grow up.”

Tong’s stirring descriptions of his people’s plight have led to the creation in Australia of a committee to promote his candidacy for the Nobel Peace Prize. (Its organizer, Philip Glendinning of the Edmund Rice Centre, did not answer several e-mail requests for comment.) Scientists like Kench say that the people of Tarawa will face the same choices as other coastal denizens when the sea rises further. Either they allow the beach to move forward and they retreat inland to higher ground, or they build concrete seawalls and the beach is washed away—a particularly unpleasant choice for places like Waikiki, the touristy neighborhood of Honolulu that is dominated by high-rises.

“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.”

Back on Christmas Island, Temari, the mayor, told me that what he needed from his head of government was not more speeches in foreign venues—where Tong is said to be angling for a high-visibility job in climate change when his last term expires next year—but more coconuts.

For most people in Christmas, the sole source of cash is harvesting and drying coconut meat, known as copra, and selling it to the government at subsidized prices. But since several thousand people arrived from Tarawa over the past two decades, the supply of coconuts from a limited number of trees has fallen behind the demand of the growing number of harvesters.

Noting that it takes four years for a sapling to produce coconuts, Temari said, “Instead of buying land in Fiji, the government should hire people to plant trees, lots of trees.” Then, he said, people emigrating from overcrowded, flood-prone Tarawa would have not only plenty of space and drinking water, but a way to earn a living.