Temoana Aberaam ankle-deep in water in Tarawa, Kiribati, 2015. Photo courtesy of Humans of Kiribati
Temoana Aberaam stands ankle-deep in water in Tarawa, Kiribati, 2015. Photo courtesy of Humans of Kiribati

The Climate Crisis Isn't Just Taking Pacific Islanders' Homes, It's Taking Our Identities

As Indigenous Pacific Islanders, climate adaptation plans cannot override our fight for sovereignty and self-determination.
December 4, 2019, 10:00am
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Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.

According to traditional knowledge, in Southeast Asia at the end of the last Ice Age, “fenua imi,” the swallowing of land, forced people to relocate to faraway atolls in a region now called Oceania. About 4,500 years of global stability allowed for the island cultures to develop and thrive in ways specifically tied to the local environment.

Now fenua imi has returned.

Guam, my ancestral land, is one of 38 nations and territories in the Pacific Islands, including Kiribati, West Papua, Fiji, and New Caledonia, where Pasifika people like me have lived for thousands of years. In recent history, our homeland has been divided, colonized, and used as a pawn in U.S. war efforts. Guam’s geographic position and natural deepwater port, Apra Harbor, make it one of the U.S. military’s most strategic bases around the world, so military land seizures have remained constant since World War II.

"Fenua imi," the swallowing of land, has returned to Guam. Drone footage by Lynn Englum, Vanishing Places

It now faces near unlivable conditions because of the climate crisis: Dead arms of staghorn coral are beached; typhoons and super typhoons sweep through more regularly, building on Guam’s position in the most active storm basin in the world; drinking water reservoirs already contaminated with military runoff are becoming depleted as the dry season gets drier. Our subsistence way of life is threatened by nuclear wastewater spills, shifting fishing cycles, and salinated land. Since 1993, sea level surrounding Guam has risen 4 inches and is expected to rise by 3 feet in the next century. Low-lying islands throughout the Pacific could become uninhabitable by 2050.

But the loss of these islands, atolls, and archipelagos is more than just loss of land: it’s a threat to the political and cultural future of Pasifika communities. It’s why, even in the face of rising seas, the loss of tillable land, pesticide pollution, and a simulated war zone, the island feels impossible to leave. Already, island nations throughout the Pacific are preparing to leave their homes. In 2014 then Kiribati president Anote Tong purchased a large section of land on an island in Fiji for citizens forced to relocate because of the climate crisis.

This migration represents a cultural loss. The land our creators made for us, the land that our ancestors are buried in, is disappearing underwater with more and more centimetres of land slipping away every year. Five of the Solomon Islands have been lost since the mid-20th century, and sea level around Palau is rising at a rate three times the global average. Tong has created a program to “migrate with dignity,” providing Kiribati citizens with tools to relocate legally and find work in an effort to protect their human rights before they become, as they are called colloquially, climate refugees. Citizens of Kiribati “would not be people running away from something,” Tong told VICE News. “They would be migrating, relocating as people with skills as members of communities they go into, even leaders, I hope.”

More and more centimetres of land are slipping away every year. Drone footage of Tarawa, Kiribati by Lynn Englum/Vanishing Places

The United States first occupied Guam at the turn of the 20th century as a result of the Spanish-American War. Besides a brief period during World War II when the island was occupied by Japan, the United States has maintained possession of the territory. By 1950 the CHamoru people, Guam’s native inhabitants, became a minority as the population of the island skyrocketed to nearly one-third United States-born after Guam was used as a forward base for U.S. attacks targeting Japan during World War II.


The military seized 82 percent of the land for military purposes. Gravesites and traditional medicine, thousand-year-old artifacts, and remnants of our family members were parcelled and razed. Those liberated from concentration camps, like my grandmother, were pushed into refugee camps. The land filled with Agent Orange, nuclear waste, and artillery shells. Our ecological future was placed in the hands of the U.S. military, one of the world’s largest global polluters.

Now, a third of Guam is home to military installations. Much of the coverage of climate change on the island has focused on how those changes will damage the bases.

Kiribati like much of Micronesia was part of the WWII Pacific Ocean theatre. Photo by Lynn Englum, Vanishing Places

Kiribati like much of Micronesia was part of the WWII Pacific Ocean theatre. Photo by Lynn Englum, Vanishing Places

While vying for environmental protections, the actual nationhood of Pacific Island states is also caught within an international fight for recognition. Guam is one of 17 non-self-governing territories recognized by the United Nations, but it’s in the middle of a plebiscite concerning the island’s status in relation to the United States.

Today, living in Guam can mean that live-fire artillery is one of the first noises a child can expect to hear, even from the womb. It can mean that our elders die at young ages and our aunties and uncles struggle with the illnesses that come from the fallout of nuclear testing. It can mean undrinkable water thanks to the runoff from the Air Force base above the aquifer.

But leaving Guam means saying goodbye to the only home most of my family has ever known. Leaving Guam, in managed retreat or otherwise, can feel like admitting defeat in a 500-year fight for self-determination.

I moved to Washington, D.C. this year to work on supporting Indigenous resistance movements while combating the climate crisis. I tell myself that living away from Guam—and outside the Pacific entirely—is a sacrifice I made to ensure there’s a safe environment to return to. But, I question that belief. Diaspora islanders like myself can grow up watching the rest of our family become strangers in our island with the influx of service members, while growing more isolated from those of us who have left for higher land.

Leilani Rania Ganser’s grandfather on Guam, 1978. Photo provided by author

Leilani Rania Ganser’s grandfather on Guam, 1978. Photo provided by author

War and the military incursions exacerbate the climate crisis, and the climate crisis worsens our humanitarian needs. This destructive cycle also regulates the immigration of soldiers to island bases in Micronesia, which itself has accelerated the environmental degradation of land Indigenous Pasifika have relied on for centuries for sustenance. This degradation then pushes Pasifika out of our islands and works to silence the sovereignty movements grounded in our ecologically minded cultures.

This makes managed retreat a question of Indigenous sovereignty or, put another way, makes Indigenous sovereignty a form of climate action. It underscores the necessity of listening to the Indigenous population of a region affected by the climate crisis and gives context to the global challenges Indigenous climate defenders face.

Leilani Rania Ganser is a Kānaka Maoli and CHamoru writer, activist, and survivor. Her bylines appear in In These Times, Foreign Policy In Focus, Korean Policy Institute, and more. Follow her on Twitter.

Humans of Kiribati shares stories about Kiribati and the people living on the front lines of the climate crisis. Like them on Facebook.

Lynn Englum has been writing on climate change and resilience issues for more than a decade. For the past year, she’s been travelling to places deeply affected by climate change. Follow her journey on Instagram.

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