Fish in the Forest

(First Shared 15th September 2008; Subsequently published on Reuters Alertnet)

Papua New Guinea is already feeling the effects of Sea Level Rise. Preparations to help communities adapt to the inevitable changes need to be taking place today.

You could knock together a hotel, pop in a pool and an open-air bar, and justifiably call it paradise. But the ten thousand Manam Islanders who are forced to live here will tell you it’s more like a prison.

When I try and describe what Papua New Guinea’s north coast is like, the most apt description I can find is usually ‘the Garden of Eden’. Rich soils tempered with volcanic ash give rise to thick lush vegetation, indulged by year-round cycles of tropical rain and equatorial sunshine, as close to an outdoor greenhouse as you can get. The narrow potholed road that snakes along the coastline is encroached on by primordial vegetation, overhung by tall coconut palms and two-metre grasses and a hundred varieties of tropical trees.

But home is a powerful concept. Riven by steep-sided, impenetrable valleys and scattered island groups, PNG’s 800 ethnic groups- and as many languages- developed largely in isolation from one another, and their identity is pervasively rooted in their own parcel of territory. Land ownership here continues to be one of the firmest cultural traits that unites the country. To lose your territory is to lose a significant part of your identity- and your freedom. To be displaced onto somebody else’s puts you entirely at their mercy.

This, however, is exactly what has happened to the Manams. Living for generations on a small volcanic island an hour’s boat journey off PNG’s north coast, they were forced to flee, to the last person, when in 2004 the volcano blew its top. They were settled on narrow strips of coastal land over a hundred kilometre stretch in half a dozen ‘care centres’- camps for the displaced. The solution was only ever supposed to be temporary. But the eruption destroyed several of the island’s villages, buried the food-gardens in ash, left the steep slopes too unstable to traverse safely, and continues to rumble and belch smoke to this day. The Manams remain in their camps.

“At least we can still see our home,” one says to me, nostalgia in his voice as he points out to the majestic cone looming a short distance out to sea, visible above shining blue waves that crash on a short sandy beach.

Crowded together into a disparate pockets of land totalling a fraction of the area of the island they once enjoyed, the Manams not only have to contend with the growing tensions of living in such restricted geography, but with being hemmed in on all sides by neighbours who traditionally owned the land on which they find themselves, who are of different ethnicity, and who are none too pleased with the presence of the Manams, invaders in what has always been their back yard. They limit the resources they allow the Manams to use- resources such as fruit from trees, lumber and leaves to construct houses, plots of land on which to grow crops.

You wouldn’t know it, walking through. Compared to the relief camps I’ve visited in Africa’s Sahel, where families endure the baking heat of the desert during the day, queue for long hours to fill a bucket of water, and have no other choice but to receive sacks of foreign food aid just to survive, the Manam care centres look like a little slice of heaven. Quaint stilt houses with thatched roofs. Stands of banana groves amidst mango trees and banyans and shady rain trees, and gardens green with sweet potato and tomatoes and beans. Dark-skinned children splash and squeal in the sparkling sea in the morning sunlight. Still, Reynold informs me as I visit Mangem, ninety minutes’ drive from Madang town, children here have died from suspected malnutrition.

The Manams don’t make it easier on themselves, either. A strong and at times beligerent people, their young men grow frustrated with the confines of their context as the temporary solution stretches out. They go into the land belonging to neighbouring tribes and take things they want to take. There are clashes. Sexual violence is commonplace. Blood has been spilt, overt conflict narrowly avoided. Tensions remain high. Warfare between the Manams and the mainlanders would be catastrophic- for both sides.

There’s still no solution in sight. The World Bank has, with its typically opaque modus operandi, offered a vast sum of money to develop an inland area for the Manams, forty kilometres from the coast in deserted swampland that nobody nearby wants to live in. The news scares the Manams, most of whom have had no say in the decisions, and know little of what is going on.

“Would you take a fish and put him in a forest?” one asks, with a smile that belies the gravity of his rhetoric.

“It floods for many months of the year there,” another points out, eyes wide with concern. “How would we bury our dead? We would have to keep them on the houses with us, rotting until the waters went down.”

In the discussion that follows it is implied that they feel many Manams would die if they relocated away from the coast.

Although not related directly to climate change, the story of the Manam Islanders serves to highlight many of the unavoidable challenges that sea-level rise will bring with it, displacing tens of thousands in PNG, tens of millions worldwide if current predictions continue to prove themselves accurate. Governments, NGOs and communities alike need to start addressing these now.

Although PNG’s Carteret Islanders hold the dubious honour of being titled the world’s first sea-level-rise refugees, in fact they are just the most vocal of three or four atoll populations in PNG who are today’s vanguard among the environmentally displaced. The contamination of fresh-water lenses, poisoning of crops and flooding of low-lying settlements is a trend that will only continue, not just on outlying island chains but increasingly, on mainland coastal communities as well. In Madang town itself, where I’m based, hundreds live on the small islands dotted around the harbour. Just a few feet above sea-level, many are already complaining of the effects of sea-level rise. Along the coast, even the Manams are not spared. In Potsdam, the sump of low-lying ground behind the beachhead where the islanders have set up their huts, salt-water regularly intrudes into the water-table, killing their efforts to grow bananas and coconuts for food and sale. With every inch that seas rise, this story will be repeated up and down the PNG coastline.

Global warming is no myth here. People are feeling its effects on their daily lives. I travel into small island communities, not just in PNG, but in the Solomon Islands as well, and villagers who may not have completed primary school find out I work in disaster response and say to me, “we hear the seas are rising, and we have seen it taking place here. Tell us what is happening.” Just this week, national newspapers have reported on the finding that malaria, once confined to coastal zones, is now becoming a problem in highland areas. As temperatures rise, mosquitoes are able to survive at higher and higher altitudes and spread the disease. Goroka, in the heart of PNG’s highlands, has registered half a degree’s warming over the last two decades . This is empirically measured fact, not hype and theory.

Although it’s not my profession, I’ve been a student of climate change for well over a decade, at university reading up on ice cores and coral records and the presence of different isotopes in the fossilized shells of prehistoric marine organisms in deep-sea beds. It sounds dry, but when you look into it, you realise the science behind climate change isn’t really up for that much debate. What’s less clear is what exactly it will all mean, and what sorts of impacts will be felt over time. System elasticity, complexity, and other big words all suggest that we know more or less what to expect, but not to what extent or when. There’s also a lot of ignorance and hype as climate-change now becomes a rubric which is mainstream. I was recently walking along a beach on nearby Karkar Island, another rumbling volcano, this one home to a worried and worrying 56,000 people. Walking with my guide we picked our way through a tangled network of palm trunks that had fallen headlong into the ocean.

“This is global warming,” he said to me confidently, indicating the bank that had collapsed into the sea beneath the trees’ roots. “Sea level rise.”

Actually, what I saw with my eyes was coastal erosion. It could have been due to rising sea levels. Or it could have been the same natural process that has been happening on this island and shaping coastlines around the world for hundreds of thousands of years. The fact is, study into the effects of climate-change rise at the micro-level, as well as the proliferation of valid informative material on the phenomenon, are both woefully inadequate, here and elsewhere.

Some things are patently clear though. Even the anthropomorphic naysayers have come to accept that global temperatures are rising- whatever their cause might be. This means people in PNG and elsewhere will be displaced. Displaced like the Manams, with no hope of returning to their homeland. In a nation like PNG, where the government owns virtually no public land on which to shelter people, this presents an enourmous problem. Namely, where on earth do we put them when they are eventually forced to flee? These will be almost universally coastal people, but as sea-levels rise, coastal people on both islands and mainlands are going to find themselves on the move, their ecosystems and livelihoods growing ever more fragile as the waves encroach. Coastal land is already at a premium- witness the saline sumps that the Potsdam Manams find themselves swashing their living from. Will there be space to squeeze those displaced from other coastal communities along an already saturated coastline?

It’s inevitable that coastal communities in PNG are going to face lifestyle changes. For those with backlands to retreat into, this may involve abandoning seafront huts and re-establishing themselves a few metres higher up and half a mile back from shore- as has already happened to at least one village in PNG’s Morobe Province. For others, the only solution may be that one being offered to the Manams- inland relocation, replete with the need to adapt to new ecosystems, agricultural practices, diseases and neighbours- in short, the loss of an entire cultural lifestyle. Accelerated urban inmigration is an inescapable conclusion, particularly for the youth who are already pulled to the crime- and poverty-ridden settlements of Lae and Port Moresby. The potential for conflict is huge as competition for resources around displaced populations spikes.

What steps is the government taking to prepare coastal communities for the inevitable changes to their lifestyle? How are they readying host communities for an influx of strange outsiders with all their resource needs, and so limit the potential for bloody conflict? What land reforms are taking place to ensure the government can access land to house populations forced from their homes? What contingency plans are in place?

These issues all need to be addressed, by the PNG government, by its international supporters and donors, even by NGOs in their long-term development plans. Tragically, although the discussions of Pacific vulnerability have been held for well over a decade, although science is now sounding sirens with ever more convincing urgency, although some community groups themselves are waving their red flags from what are increasingly starting to look like sinking ships, the answer to the above questions is a polite but resounding “sweet very little.”

“Would you take a fish and put him in the forest?” the question is asked again. It sounds ridiculous. Who would do that? But as we grow ever more convinced of the changes that are taking place in PNG’s coastal communities, our question is going to have to be, “how will we take a fish and help him thrive in the forest?” We have in front us a clear list of the challenges to be overcome. It is now for communities, the government and civil society to come up with adaptive strategies to manage these challenges ahead of time, because the Manams are soon going to become just a few small fish in what will be a very, very large shoal.

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