Visions from a Vanishing Atoll



Few people have heard of one of the world's largest atolls - Ontong Java in the Solomon Islands - but this anonymity has not saved it from the effects of climate change. The 3,000 strong Polynesian population are living with worsening food security, severe coastal erosion and the ever-growing prospect of fleeing to an uncertain future on more elevated islands hundreds of kilometres across the sea. In June and July 2015, Displacement Solutions sent photojournalist Beni Knight to Ontong Java for two months to document and record the culture, lives and opinions of the people of the atoll. 


Eventually we will be faced with the stark reality that we are losing our homeland
— Father Nigel Kelaepa






Ontong Java atoll - also sometimes referred to by its colonial name of Lord Howe - is a ring of some 120 islands located in the western Pacific Ocean some 500km north of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. One of the most remote landmasses in the world, the islands span 1400 kms2, but combine to make up only a tiny 12km2 of land that sits no more than 3 metres above sea level. The people here have always lived at the mercy of the wind and waves, but the largely subsistence life that has served them for centuries is becoming increasingly untenable.


Islands are perched a mere 1-2 metres above sea-level. Pelau Island (pop:800)


As with most islands in the tropics, at first glance life on the atoll seems idyllic. Palms tower above traditional homes, there are banana and papaya scattered about and coconuts and fish abound. People smile effortlessly, and in this classless society are happy to share what they have. The days are filled with fishing, gardening, cooking and repairing homes made of palm trees and pandanus leaf. Hammocks swing under shady trees, while children play in the shallows of turquoise waters lapping on white sandy beaches, catching fish and eating it raw with fresh coconut. Other than the occasional trade in beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) that brings in some monetary income, the local economy remains largely subsistent in nature.


With limited communications access, not much news filters in from the outside world. Much of the islands rely only on two-way radio and the wireless, of which there are few. News outside of family circles is mostly disregarded; the common concerns are finding daily sources of food and staying out of the heat. Life goes on, but change has already arrived and nervous talk of relocation pervades a growing number of once casual discussions.


Homes are located just metres from the shore and are less than 1 metre above sea level. Luaniua Island (pop:2000).


Villages fade away


Islander Chris Keungi is 40, and the son of a former chief. He was educated in Honiara and worked for years in many of the larger islands of the Solomons. In late July he stands on the southern point of Pelau, the island he and approximately 600 others call home. Pointing out beyond the tip of the island, to where the village once stood, it is hard to imagine anything other than its present state, which today is a current of sea water flowing into the lagoon. “When I was ten years old there were a lot of houses here, maybe 30 houses. When I came back (after 10 years studying in Honiara) I saw a lot of changes had happened. The soil erosion had begun to wash away most of the houses that were affected by sea rise”, says Keungi. The village has retreated into the bush, forcing the islanders to cut down large areas of forest to relocate homes.


On the nearby island of Avaha, he points out another example of a lost village. “Here there was a cemetery” he says as he points into what looks like just another white sandy lagoon, “And beyond were 20 or 30 houses that made a very beautiful village”, but all that can be seen is a narrow white sandy point, just wide enough to walk down. At the base of this sandy point there are three remaining homes, a church and an old fresh water well that is now tainted with salt. The villagers here have also retreated closer to the centre of the island where they have rebuilt their homes, but groundwater has become contaminated, so nowadays they must rely solely on rainwater for all of their water needs.


Beyond this tree used to stand 20-30 houses and a cemetery. Ahaha Island (pop:20)


The islands are habitable for now but the signs are not good. Not only is the ocean encroaching through high winds and waves bringing seawater and salt over the land, but due to rising sea levels it is coming from underneath, “like the island is leaking”. The atoll is being undermined to the point where salt water is rising up through the porous coral soils into their swamp gardens and water wells that have been used for centuries. The islands are in the early stages of decay, beginning to fade away. There is not an island in the group that isn’t showing signs of major erosion, to the point where some islands have disappeared completely.


On a calm and fine day some nine years ago there was a wave (presumably a tsunami) that swept over and through the northern part of the atoll. Once it had passed, the people could see that one of their islands had relented and surrendered its last stand of trees to the sea, leaving a bare reef between newly neighbouring islands. The stories are numerous of other lost islands, all that remains are the bare reefs that once served as their foundations.


A freshly eroded cemetery. Luaniua


When witnessing the lay of the remaining islands from Keungi's canoe while returning home to Pelau, it is hard not to imagine that more islands will soon dissolve into the sea. Once upon a time they were bigger, and some were even connected to form much stronger lands, but today they seem small and fragile as they are separated by racing currents that are growing higher and wider each year, encouraged by storms and cyclones that are becoming more severe and erratic.


The weather started to become unpredictable in the early to mid-1990s according to Patrick Makau, also the son of a former chief. Makau is 55 years old and is well travelled through the western Pacific. When he speaks of times gone by he says, “we had our own time; this month the wind will start, this month the good weather and so on. I have seen it and the old people talk like this. We knew the time, but today we don’t. The wind comes anytime, the rain comes anytime”. These changing weather patterns are causing unease amongst the people, and to rectify this he believes; “We should go back to the old culture to see how we are going to save our people. If we listen to what our grandfathers and our fathers were telling us, then we can do something better for our island”.


Cyclone Raquel was out of season and damaged many houses and gardens. July 1st 2015, Pelau.


Disaster strikes


Rising seas are only one of the threats facing the atoll. During the night of 30 June 2015 Ontong Java was hit by two simultaneous disasters. First, two very large waves hit the south side of the southern islands, followed immediately by wind gusts of up to 125km/hr from the west generated by cyclone Raquel.  


The island of Luaniua, the largest of the atoll with a permanent population of 2,000 bore the force of both these extreme weather events. At around 9:30pm the incoming tide was noticed to be draining off the reef on the ocean side of the island. Then just before 10pm the first of two waves flooded over the usual high tide mark and into the village. This wave was followed by a second that doled out most of the damage as it broke in the tree line and ran inland, toppling homes and sending families running to the opposing shoreline just 200 metres away. As the water was receding the wind swung from the south to the west as cyclone Raquel lashed out.


A suspected meteo-tsunami damaged many homes and gardens. Luaniua.


With just 200 metres of land to shelter on, and disaster coming from both directions, there is nowhere to run and nowhere to hide on these islands. When disaster arrives most just gather their families and wait for it to pass.


By the time the sun rose, the villages and gardens of this tiny island were a disaster zone. An estimated 80-100 homes, kitchens and rest houses had given in to the force of the category 1 cyclone, which is the first recorded such event in the area at this time of year. While the many destroyed homes provide an immediate sense of the devastation, the gardens suffered much worse. Precious garden soils are now tainted by salt, which led affected crops to die within two short weeks. It will take years for the soil to recover if it ever does. Some of the atoll's elders agree that since the region's most significant cyclone in 1967 the soils have never properly recovered, leading most to believe that this time it will be even worse.


Growing food insecurity


With the changing climate and declining soil quality come new challenges for farmers struggling to grow healthy crops. Chris Poasi has cleared a parcel of his land to try new styles of gardening. “I think some things can grow in this soil and others cannot, so I am trying my best to find out which ones can grow” he says. “I always work hard to find out what can grow, but now they don’t grow very well and all the plants are dying. People need to come and see, and tell us what is happening with the ground here. When people have come before to try and help us with the gardens, they have just come and given us plants. They have not come and taught us to do this or do that”.


Each harvest yields less "fruit" as the soil is struggling with salinization. Patron Laliana, Pelau


Another food producer, Joel Keise, was born on Luaniua. After studying agriculture, he then worked within the agricultural departments of government for many years. He is now 79 years old and retired to his home on Luaniua, where he grows what can only be described as an extremely healthy garden. “I am interested to teach people how to improve the soil and how to grow good crops, but I cannot do it alone. I must have support from the government otherwise I cannot afford to travel between islands while my own garden suffers”.


Keise’s agricultural education, dedication and inspiration are unmatched in these islands. He has created a group on Luaniua that he hopes can be a model that Ontong Java can carry into the future. He is creating a savings scheme to help the people firstly to earn money and then how to look after it and spend it. He believes the lucrative beche-de-mer is breeding a dependence on an unreliable income that is giving a false sense of security and is leading to laziness towards traditional livelihood practices that have worked for hundreds of years.


Joel Keise has discovered that Giant Taro from Papua New Guinea can grow well with the proper agricultural practises. Luaniua


This kind of leadership and foresight needs to be embraced, but with the chiefly system breaking down on the islands and the absence of government officials on the atoll, there is a distinct lack of support for Joel and others like him. Without it the population will rely more and more on the monthly supply ship carrying rice and flour, and thus expedite processes leading ultimately to departure.


Despair of the present, fear of the future - Where will they go?


Chris Keungi believes that without any help his people face an insufferable future. “Our government should step forward and look to the situation that we are facing here today. If anybody, any organisation, would really want to step in and intervene with our problem, then that would be much help to us and the difficulties that we face today. Otherwise I will be displaced, then I will have nowhere to settle for the education of my children, so we will become a devastated family.”


Keungi's views are shared by a growing number of his fellow Ontong Javanese who face growing daily challenges of accessing food and water, combined with the increasingly visible signs of coastal erosion and loss of their precious lands. Fleeing one's land to settle in new lands surrounded by new cultures with pre-existing land disputes, are decisions that are never taken lightly. When faced with the sinking reality of climate change, though, Keung, his family and the rest of the atoll may have no choice. But where will they go? Earlier governmental plans to relocate the Polynesian people of Ontong Java to the southern tip of culturally distinct Melanesian island of Malaita have come to nought, and the prevailing absence of government officials and institutions on the atoll have led the people to begin agonizing about their future. Though a police station was built on the atoll recently, it has never hosted a police officer. Rudimentary schools are often closed for long periods. The 2000 inhabitants of Luaniua have no access to health care. The monthly boat service to the islands is far from reliable. Thus people are becoming increasingly frustrated and unsure of where to look for help as they struggle to adapt.


The unique culture of Ontong Java is as obvious as it is beautiful. Luaniua


To the capital?


In recent decades a small settlement of Ontong Javanese has emerged in the outskirts of the capital Honiara. Home today to some 300 residents, the settlement has given many the chance to further their education, and some the chance to relocate permanently. Father Nigel Kelaepa moved to Honiara to study when he was 14 and has since only returned to his island home on regular visits. His journey has seen him study in London and Australia before resettling in Honiara to assist his people while holding his position within the Church of Melanesia.


Father Nigel has become Ontong Java's leading advocate and will soon get the chance to plead his people’s predicament on the world stage in Paris later this year. Ontong Java has had trouble finding support from its own government, but now there is hope that the world will take notice and push them up the agenda of Solomon politics. “The government has promised to do things, but so far all they have done is issue reports or assessments and then nothing else. I think the government should step up its act in terms of looking seriously into Ontong Java”. As it stands, the provincial government of the highly populated province of Malaita is responsible for any plans or action regarding the situation of the tiny outer islands. Unfortunately this narrows the possibilities for relocation, not to mention funding for adaptation infrastructure.


The Ontong Java settlement in Honiara


The planning commences


Whenever the issue of relocation is raised with the residents of Ontong Java it inevitably turns emotional. People understand the growing need to move, but most have no intention of leaving. There is widespread understanding that it will be more than just their islands that they will lose; it will be their culture, their language, their resources and their ability to live freely from them. But unknown to most of the Ontong Javanese, they are far from alone in contemplating the loss of their cherished homes. Among numerous cases already underway, indigenous Guna islanders in Panama have begun moving to the mainland, villagers throughout Bangladesh have already faced climate displacement, and more than 40 villages in Fiji are in the process of relocation. And the list sadly grows with each passing year.


Traditional dance group. Pelau


As it is everywhere, relocation is a highly complex issue in the Solomons, but one that has proven more workable in the country than in many others. Land in the country remains largely under customary ownership and control, and when people from one cultural group (wantok) wish to move to new land within the same wantok territory, this can lead to favourable outcomes that enable those relocating to begin life anew in a safe and secure environment no longer under threat from the effects of climate change. The 2013 Peninsula Principles on Climate Displacement Within States provide guidance to governments and communities on how best to protect the rights of people needing to relocate because of climate change, and the national government is now working on a relocation framework that will hopefully draw on the Principles for inspiration.


If the day to leave finally arrives, many on the atoll have indicated a preference to move to the island of Santa Isabel some 300 kms to the south, rather than to either Malaita or Honiara. They see Santa Isabel as the best chance in the Solomons of a place where they can re-establish themselves, and be welcomed as new arrivals with at least a semblance of their ancient culture and traditions in tact. To move from these islands is to lose far more than just a home, for the atoll has had permanent human occupation for as much as 2,000 years, in a cultural context where people and their lands are effectively one and the same. Ontong Javanese universally believe that if they decide to flee their islands that they will at best be forging a new hybrid culture. Father Nigel says “we would like to maintain our identity as a people, our culture, our way of life as people from Ontong Java”. This is a genuine concern. The identities of the Ontong Javanese are intricately intertwined with their islands, so to lose those islands would mean the loss of identity, knowledge and history that will dissolve with them. “We fear that if we have to leave, we will be assimilated into the wider culture out there and will lose our identity as a people. This is why we would still like to maintain at least a small population on the islands so that wherever we are we still have ties with the original homeland, we are still landowners”.


One of the last few remaining women to wear the traditional full body tattoo of Ontong Java. Sarah Abora


When asked whether or not the international community could help the islanders, Father Nigel says “We can’t expect the international community to change their lifestyle for this matter, but they could help. If feeling responsible for what has happened, it is only right that they do something to help us out with the problems that we are now facing. They could help with adaptation for example, or any efforts towards relocation. There have been calls for Western industrialized countries to try and bring down the global temperature rise to about 2 degrees, which should be the minimum that everyone in the small islands could survive with. So they could help in that way.”


The world will come together in December in Paris to thrash out a new global accord on climate change. For atoll groups such as Ontong Java, the stakes could not be higher. If Paris succeeds and new vigourous rules are created and enforced that dramatically reduce CO2 emissions and secure renewed funding to protect those already grappling with the effects of climate change, the meeting will be hailed as a success. With the term 'climate displacement' and 'planned relocation' mentioned for the first time in the current draft, the Paris gathering holds out at least a measure of hope that the most vulnerable societies will be supported. However, if the worst CO2 emitters, which includes one of the Solomon Islands closest neighbours Australia, succeed in watering down the current text and allowing ever more fossil fuels to be burned and accessed, the 3,000 people of Ontong Java will be victimised due to no fault of their own and forced to flee the islands they have called home for generations, to an unknown and difficult future, all because of an economic system built on non-renewable resources, predicated on unending growth, and driven by levels of greed and requisite inequality the world has never witnessed before.


The people of Ontong Java have done literally nothing to cause climate change, but have been forced by no fault of their own to endure ever worsening conditions of life that may end with them fleeing for safety. As climate-displaced people everywhere, the Ontong Javanese are citizens and rights-holders, rights which the government of the Solomons and the international community have vowed to uphold. Working together, with the islanders at the lead, provincial government in Malaita, the national government in Honiara and NGOs, donors, the UN and other States can at the very least smooth the rougher edges of the future that awaits them. Educating the islanders on the facts of climate change and on their rights will be a good place to start. Following that, identifying land on islands where they themselves wish to move should the day of relocation arrive and ensuring that any relocation that does take place is done with the utmost care, again with islanders at the forefront, may provide the best source of hope the islanders have had in a very long time.


Where there is life there is hope. Henua Aiku

Beni Knight is a photojournalist who spent two months on Ontong Java in June-July 2015. Scott Leckie is the Founder and Director of Displacement Solutions.