National Geographic : 2015 Nov
134 national geographic • november 2015 language the word for “land” and “people” is the same. If your land disappears, who are you? Yet, conversely, Pacific people are renowned for their migrations—after all, their ancestors made the entire ocean their home. In Kiribati’s origin story Nareau, the Creator, was a spider, and IKiribati have been spinning webs ever since. Every family has relatives in New Zea land, Australia, Fiji, and farther overseas, each migration a silk strand in a net of kinship bonds. There is sometimes an expectation that the young will leave Kiribati and the old will stay. But some of the young choose to live a simple life on ancestral land rather than pursue prosperity abroad. Mannie Rikiaua, a young mother who works in Kiribati’s environment ministry, told me she would rather work for her own people than serve another country, despite her father’s urging that she migrate to a “higher place.” “Part of me wants to go,” she admitted. But then she added, as if she had made her mind up once again, “Kiribati is the best place for my sons, regardless of the threats.” She was responding to tangiran abam, she said, the love and longing IKiribati feel for their homeland. Tangiran abam has kept Kiribati’s more distant atolls culturally vibrant, even as their populations shrink and Tarawa’s swells. It remains a strong impulse. I heard that love of place in the sound of people singing in the lagoon at night. I saw it in the vivacious dances of schoolchildren that mimic the movements of seabirds. I heard it in the words of Teburoro Tito, when he met me between parliamentary sessions and said that, at heart, he was an island boy: “I grew out of the soil and the sand and the coral of this place. I love these islands, and I don’t see any other home in the world.” To protect that home from the hungry ocean, some islanders have taken to planting mangroves, whose matrix of roots and trunks traps sediment and quells scouring waves. I joined some women who were picking ripe seedlings that dangled in bunches like string beans among the glossy green leaves of a mature mangrove stand. A few days later we planted them in a part of the lagoon that needs extra protection from king tides. It wasn’t much, but there’s little else islanders can do to hold on to their land except rebuild their seawalls when the waves smash them. Mangroves might make a good national sym bol, I thought: resilient trees resisting storms, binding the land. The current symbol, embla zoned on the Kiribati flag, is evocative too: eitei, the frigatebird, a bird of chiefs, a bird of the dance, a high flier that floats on the wind rather than fights against it. But frigatebirds must fol low the schools of fish on which they feed. If the fish depart for good, will the frigatebird’s forked tail still be seen scissoring Kiribati skies? One of the mangrove planters, Claire Anterea, who works in the Kiribati government’s climate adaptation program, said her people must acknowledge their role in climate change, small as it may be, and try to offset it. “ We contribute less, but we still contribute,” she said. “ We have been eating a lot of Western food. We like noodles, we like Ox & Palm [canned corned beef ]. And that food is made in factories that produce gas. We are all contributing because we want to live the Western way.” Anterea had just finished building a tradi tional house, powered by a solar panel. “I can’t talk about climate justice overseas if I don’t act right myself,” she said. Even small actions have a multiplying effect, she believes. “If we work together—all the countries in the Pacific—we can maintain our islands and stay here.” On my last night in Tarawa I wanted to do something to show solidarity with my Kiribati neighbors. I am a Pacific islander too—although New Zealand’s mountainous islands face noth ing like the existential threat that looms for atolls where much of the land is only a few feet above sea level. Yet the “blue blood of Oceania,” as Kiribati poet Teweiariki Teaero calls the Pacific, binds us as one family. The electricity was off, not an uncommon problem, so two of my mangroveplanting They do not think of themselves as “sinking islanders,” rather as descendants of voyagers, inheritors of a proud tradition of endurance and survival.