In the South Pacific Islands, communities face climate change with creative solutions. Here’s an overview.
TEXT by Michelle Pucci
Water does not divide the thousands of islands in the South Pacific Ocean — it binds them together. The area is home to nearly 3.5 million people inhabiting either high islands, with volcanic origins, or low islands, raised from the buildup of coral reefs and barely above sea level. The nation-states and colonies that occupy the South Pacific are on the front lines of environmental change, battling coastal erosion, rising sea levels, and strong winds which gradually transform the geography of the area. Island communities include independent states like Micronesia, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands, and colonies like French Polynesia and American Samoa. Each island region has its own unique set of environmental challenges, and each is taking steps to reduce fossil fuel emissions, protect marine biodiversity, and develop waste management systems. The islands do share a common concern over the steadily rising tide and warming ocean. Seawater is infiltrating rainwater catches that inhabitants rely on for freshwater. Temperature spikes cause bleaching of coral reefs, which are most sensitive to environmental changes and expel algae in warmer water, leaving them susceptible to death. In response to all this, local communities are conserving coastlines to promote sustainable fishing and waste disposal, among other initiatives.
Urbanization & Coastal Development
Urbanization and coastal development, coupled with insufficient wastewater disposal, are overwhelming local ecosystems. Marine conservation programs in the South Pacific are traditional to islands, where communities would rotate between closing and opening coastal areas to development and fishing. Marine protected areas in the Marquesas and Fiji are based on the same principles of managing coastal land and water to preserve a healthy ecosystem. In Bora Bora, hundreds of species of coral were transplanted to mini-gardens or private lagoons to create sanctuaries, as well as stingray feeding areas, for ecotourism and scientific observation. The Fakarava Biosphere Reserve in the Tuamotu archipelago was expanded in 2006; it is home to fewer than 2,000 people and contains native species of plants and animals.
The reserve also supports sustainable fishing and coconut grove regeneration. Fiji islanders continue to maintain hundreds of small, local marine protected areas that limit activity on the coasts. And if the wastewater is ever unmanageable, some communities are able to turn sewage into fertilizer. In the Marquesas, educational marine protected areas based on traditional models draw young people into local projects, where they come face to face with the human impacts on coral and marine life. Students conduct studies and develop conservation plans. The educational MPAs raise awareness and remind young people that they are the most important players in protecting their local environment.
“We’re not going to change global warming in the next months or weeks, but because we see a superimposition of the local impact, promoting best practices for coastal development, promoting the marine protected areas, promoting the local conservation of coral reefs, it’s a way to eliminate stress. We can play on that immediately.” — Serge Planes, director of Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement (CRIOBE) in Moorea, French Polynesia
Staple crops, such as swamp taro (or pulaka) and coconuts in Tuvalu and sweet potato in the Solomon Islands, are struggling to keep up with the changing climate. In Tuvalu, soil salinization from rising sea levels is testing the limits of local crops, some of which are already adapted to grow in salty soil. Pulaka is traditionally grown in family-owned pits, which are threatened by saltwater flooding. The Tuvalu government initiated a strategy to import salt-tolerant strains of the crops that are important to locals’ diets. Success stories for saline agriculture in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Ghana show promise for Tuvalu. Other initiatives include rehabilitating family-owned pits and combining forestry with agriculture to diversify land use. In the Solomon Islands, farmers are sowing a variety of crops and plants together through atoll permaculture to restore soil health. The diverse crops share resources and deliver higher yields with less maintenance.
As plastic production increases rapidly around the world, much of it is turning up on islands in the South Pacific. On Henderson, one of the four Pitcairn Islands, nearly 38 million pieces of debris litter the beach, and dozens of new plastic items wash up daily. Identified items have come from as far as Spain, France, and the United Kingdom. Plastics turn up on coasts around the world regularly, but the colourful debris here is out of place on an island with little to no human activity. Restricting plastic consumption through local efforts and government regulation can reduce the output that is dragged across the ocean. Without a concerted global effort, there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050. Luckily, plastic pollution reduction has made it onto the agenda at the first-ever UN Ocean Conference, which will be co-hosted by Fiji and Sweden in June.
“Henderson is a sentinel, an indicator of what’s going on in the ocean. The same thing could be happening across all islands in the South Pacific — the Marquesas, the Gambiers, and the Phoenix Islands — because they’re so remote, people don’t really go there, and when they do go there, they don’t spend all their time counting plastic.” — Alexander Bond, Senior Conservation Scientist, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
Bodies of water enable human travel between islands but isolate terrestrial organisms, so islands typically evolve as unique, symbiotic ecosystems of plants and animals over time.
Endemic species can easily be endangered or threatened by invasive species, like rats or tilapia, which have both been introduced into island regions (whether accidentally or intentionally) by settlers or because of changing habitat conditions, and have had devastating effects on local ecosystems.
On Easter Island, a Chilean enclave in the southeastern Pacific, researchers are racing to protect the last remaining endemic species — a dozen types of cave-dwelling insects and invertebrates. The island populations were wiped out by invasive species. Human settlement of the island transformed the landscape of palm and toromiro trees into grasslands, and nearly all plants and animals native to Easter Island are now extinct. Biologists teamed up with local conservationists from the island to visit caves and cliffs to study the isolated invertebrates.
Sea Level Rise
Low-lying islands — including five Solomon Islands that disappeared over the last five decades — are no match for high winds and sea levels, which are rising globally every year. Waters in the North Pacific are expected to rise by three feet in the next century, submerging parts of greater Vancouver. But unlike Canada, the islands of the South Pacific generally lack the resources to build the flood prevention infrastructure necessary to keep land above water. In French Polynesia, the French government signed a deal earlier this year allowing the Seasteading Institute to study the feasibility and potential impact of a “floating island” at its own expense. The man-made island would serve as an economic hub for locals threatened by higher waters, according to the institute, which is surveying locations off the coasts of Tahiti, Tupai, and Raiatea.
Over the next six months, Across the Salty Roads and BESIDE will provide dispatches from the South Pacific, giving insight into the unique biological diversity of its islands, the environmental challenges precipitated by climate change, and the ways in which local communities are resisting them in order to keep their culture alive.
“Every country is going to have a different story and different set of problems. These are people, they’re not that different from you and I, they just live in a different place and have a different history.” — Simon Donner, Associate Professor of Climatology at the University of British Columbia