Ursula Rakova was born in a tropical paradise. The tiny, low-lying islet of Han is part of the Carteret Atoll in the southwest Pacific, with clear blue waters lapping at its palm-fringed shores. Fish was plentiful and so was taro, the staple food.
The atoll community is matrilineal, and Rakova’s mother passed ownership of Han islet to her – but the island paradise is disappearing, one of the first places to fulfill scientists’ predictions that climate change will submerge many coastal communities.
Shorelines were eroded. King tides – unusually high tides – which used to come every five or 10 years, started appearing every year. Low tides are retreating further, leading to bleaching of the offshore coral. Today, the gap between the two parts of what used to be Han islet is big enough for canoes to pass through and is growing wider, Rakova said.
“The sea that we love to swim in is now turning against us,” she told participants in the first “Summit on Women and Climate” in Bali, Indonesia this week. “Our shorelines are eroding so fast. The food that we normally eat has disappeared. Year in, year out, every day, it is a struggle for my people,” she said. “It’s frightening. It gives you a feeling of anxiety – what’s going to happen next?”
Fish and other seafood is getting harder to find. The islanders now have to rely on the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government for food, but they are given rice, which is not their staple food, Rakova said.
The Carterets’ Council of Elders, tired of waiting for the government to act and aware of the need for change, asked Rakova in 2006 to help plan their future. Rakova, a 50-year-old social studies graduate born and bred on the atoll, had worked on human rights and environmental issues with numerous organisations including Oxfam New Zealand.
Her first move was to set up an action plan dubbed Tulele Peisa, meaning “sailing in the wind on our own” in the local language. It is an apt description of the programme, which has made tremendous progress under her leadership despite continuous challenges. Her struggles also highlight the obstacles facing many women grassroots leaders looking after their communities and their environment.
Rakova’s plan was far-reaching: she is leading the permanent resettlement of some 2,000 climate refugees from the atoll to mainland Bougainville, a three-hour ride on a wooden boat on a good day. She is also making sure the islanders will be self-reliant in their new homeland.
“The islands are isolated so the culture has been intact. We also more or less know everyone and it’s very peaceful,” Rakova said in an interview with Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We are a very loving people and the island provided everything we needed.” The atoll is becoming increasingly uninhabitable, but resettling some 2,000 people – the total population is around 2,700 but the elderly do not want to move to the mainland – requires more than just dumping them in a strange place. “We had to look at the education of the younger people, health facilities, economic opportunities for the islanders, and trauma counselling for the families that we’re moving as well as the host community,” she said.
All of this requires money, which was not forthcoming, from the government or anywhere else. The big donors wanted them to be registered, have their books audited, see the cash flow — when they didn’t even have a few thousand dollars to their name, Rakova said. The local administration, far from helping, was creating more obstacles. Funding “has been a very very hard struggle and to some extent, a lone struggle,” Rakova said, her friendly, generous face looking sad for once. Small amounts of seed money from the New Zealand High Commission in PNG and the Global Greengrants Fund helped them work out an 18-step process which included community profiling and community assessment, and resulted in the islanders owning land, a home and a sustainable way of living in their new location.
Thankfully, the local community on Bougainville hails from the same clan as the islanders and was welcoming – largely thanks to the exchange of chiefs and elders of the two groups that Rakova’s organisation set up before any relocation started. This gave the mainlanders an understanding of the islanders’ situation. The Catholic Church, which owns vast swathes of land in Bougainville, provided the islanders with four parcels of land.
The first group of families – 86 people in total – have moved into their new homes and started farming again. Rakova remains concerned about the impact on the islanders of Bougainville’s social problems, including that posed by marijuana, which is grown on the mainland but not on the island.
“It’s not a case of ‘living happily ever after,’ it’s a continuous struggle,” she added. Building the first set of homes brought more funding problems. Donors wanted cheaper houses and Rakova told them to keep their money, arguing that cheaper buildings would not last. The bureaucracy was frustrating, that of both international donors and her own government, which has tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for the climate adaptation of islands and atolls but says funds could not be used for house building. So Rakova set up Bougainville Cocoa Net Limited – to enable the settlers to grow and export organic cocoa. The cash earned from this will help to accelerate the relocation. The settlers are already starting to export to Hamburg in north Germany, after receiving funding from a German organisation.
The next step is to obtain fair trade certification and grow the market, she said. Though carrying the burden of the community’s future, Rakova is a gentle, loving soul who is always ready for a joke and has an uproarious laugh. Despite winning the 2008 Pride of PNG award for her contribution to the environment and the 2014 Equator Prize, she remains humble and helpful. She was amused by how long it took her to get to Bali from her islet – five days, involving a boat trip, a car ride, and two flight changes. She missed one connection and had to stay inside Sydney airport for 24 hours as she had no Australian visa. Her sense of humour remains intact, which she attributes to being a woman and an islander. “We want the world to know that we also want to make a living. We want to move to this new location so we are growing our own cash crops to sustain our own family income but we need support,” she said. “We want to have markets in the United States. This will sustain our programme so that we won’t have to beg for relocation funds all the time,” she added. “We’ve had enough of chasing donors and funders. We want to do it ourselves.” The one thing the islanders can’t do is hold back the sea. “The sea has to play its part. It’s displacing us,” Rakova said stoically.