Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Gilbertese (Taetae ni Kiribati), English.
Main religions: Roman Catholicism (57.3 per cent), Protestant (31.3 per cent), Latter Day Saints (5.3 per cent), Seventh Day Adventists (1.9 per cent) and other small Christian denominations, with other groups including Bahá’í (2.1 per cent) and a small Muslim community.
According to the 2015 census, there were a total of 110,136 people living in Kiribati, although estimates in 2018 were slightly higher, with approximately a population of 118,000 people. 96.2 per cent are indigenous I-Kiribati, with smaller groups including I-Kiribati/Tuvalu and Tuvalu (collectively making up just over 1 per cent of the population), as well as smaller Australian, Chinese, European and New Zealand communities. Banabans, while included as part of the I-Kiribati population, are a minority of a few hundred with a distinct history due to their displacement from their homeland of Banaba to accommodate colonial phosphate mining. The language of the few hundred Banabans is slightly different from that of the Gilbertese of Kiribati.
There has been considerable migration from the outer islands to the main island of South Tarawa, where more than a third of the population live.
Updated April 2018.
The Pacific island state of Kiribati has been especially affected by the onset of climate change. In this region of low-lying atolls and coastal settlements, rising sea levels are already having a devastating effect on many communities, forcing many to leave their homes and resettle elsewhere. Tidal surges, known as king tides, are already causing damage to property. The challenges facing the small state of Kiribati, however, are especially severe – and risk leaving its indigenous population without a home.
Comprising a series of 33 islands with an average height above sea level of just two metres, the state is already feeling the impacts of climate change in the form of saltwater intrusion and loss of coastal land. This has hit the islands’ agricultural sector hard and undermined many essential food sources in Kiribati, from freshwater fish to local crops. As living conditions become more difficult, many islanders are now facing a difficult decision – whether or not a future in their homeland is still viable. While Kiribati’s environmental pressures are not new, with issues such as coastal erosion and soil contamination having been evident for decades, the onset of climate change has exacerbated these issues. As a result, some predictions suggest that by 2050 large areas of its territory may effectively be uninhabitable.
In response to these challenges, while international migration from Kiribati has historically been rare, it is now seen by many as the best available option as the nation’s environmental pressures intensify. Future migration flows out of the country are likely to be increasingly driven by climate change. In response, one of the strategies being pursued by the Kiribati government is ‘migration with dignity’, a cross-border labour migration scheme that aims to help establish Kiribati communities in other countries to support future migrants, while making Kiribati citizens more attractive by improving their educational and vocational qualifications through upskilling. However, it has been pointed out that the potential beneficiaries of this policy will only be those who would voluntarily migrate, and that many citizens – those with little education or dependent primarily on traditional subsistence activities that may not be transferrable outside Kiribati – will not be able to access these opportunities.
In the meantime, another strategy being pursued by the government is to secure space in another country for migration, with around 20 square kilometres of land purchased in Fiji in 2014. However, some have questioned whether the land – an isolated plot characterized by hills and swamps, with a community of displaced Solomon Islanders already settled there – will be adequate if resettlement is needed. Furthermore, as Kiribati will have no legal sovereignty over the land, there is no guarantee that in future I-Kiribati citizens would be allowed to move there. Authorities have also been considering the construction of artificial islands with the support of the United Arab Emirates, to protect Kiribati’s future – though the likely costs of the project, which could be as high as US$100 million, may mean that without international support it will remain out of reach.
While traditional practices and livelihoods in the islands are already threatened by rising sea levels and the environmental toll of climate change, migration could effectively accelerate a process of cultural extinction in the years to come. One example is the maneaba, a community meeting space that historically has been central to Kiribati leadership and consensus-based decision-making. As the system needs to be structured around closely connected communities to function effectively, the migration of many villagers to larger urban settlements has already put it under pressure. Many fear that migration out of Kiribati could see maneaba vanish entirely.
Other forms of indigenous I-Kiribati heritage could also be badly affected, such as the traditional celebrations called botaki where each family shares food with the rest of the community, and te karekare, a customary system of work that promotes cooperation among families, not to mention Kiribati’s rich traditions of dancing and music. Similarly, its sacred spaces and traditions – already physically threatened by rising sea levels – face a further threat in the form of mass migration from the islands, while interest among the younger generation appears to be in decline.
The importance of Kiribati’s heritage of indigenous knowledge and practices highlights the need to adopt a more nuanced, rights-based approach to climate change adaptation and migration, extending beyond the technical and logistical aspects of resettlement to also incorporate ways to ensure the survival of the social fabric and cultural traditions of communities. This is especially the case when those forced to migrate by climate change and environmental disasters are indigenous peoples, such as I-Kiribati, with every aspect of their lives connected to the lands from which they are uprooted.
A further crucial issue for Kiribati is gender discrimination, and specifically violence against women. There are more girls than boys enrolled in secondary education, but after that indicators for economic and political participation generally skew heavily towards males. As of May 2017, only 6.5 per cent of the members of the national parliament were women; and only 10 of the total of 332 local councillors were women. Even more starkly, 68 per cent of girls and women between the ages of 15-49 years who have ever been in a relationship have experienced intimate partner violence. Ninety per cent of women report controlling behaviour by their partner. The roots lie in social norms which dictate that women must be obedient to their husbands and which legitimise domestic violence. In 2011, the government put in place a 10-year strategic plan, and in 2014 it passed legislation the Te Rau N Te Mwenga Act (Kiribati Family Peace Act), which introduced a number of reforms including greater support to victims.
Updated April 2018.
Kiribati is a Micronesian state with a vast maritime area spanning the Equator and crossing the dateline, consisting of three coral island groups, two of which are populated, separated by 3,500 kilometres. Its maritime area is one of the largest in the world with an Exclusive Economic Zone, which covers over 3 million square.
Kiribati was part of the British territory of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, and gained its independence in 1979 (the southern-most Polynesian islands of the British territory broke away to become the nation state of Tuvalu in 1978).
The island of Banaba produced phosphate until closure in 1979, the same year that Kiribati achieved independence. The mining of Banaba from 1900 to 1979 resulted in the postwar displacement of the Banaban population, who were transferred to the island of Rabi in Fiji. There has been some minority interest in returning to Banaba, and a few Banabans live there, but compensation payments made to the Banabans have been invested in Fiji, and the island has not been rehabilitated.
In recent years, Kiribati has struggled with the impacts of climate change, with sea level rises in the region inundating communities and threatening the future viability of many low-lying islands. This has contributed to significant internal migration within the country and has led in recent years to the Kiribati government exploring options for mass resettlement in the event of the territory becoming uninhabitable.
The parliament (Maneaba ni Maungatabu) is unicameral, comprising 42 members who include a Banaban representative. Historically, political parties are not of great significance, but recent elections have shown the development of closer political alignments. The economy is highly dependent on remittances (from workers on merchant shipping lines or elsewhere) and overseas aid. Exports are few and a subsistence economy of fishing and agriculture dominates. The economy is also reliant on revenues from foreign fishing fleets operating in Kiribati’s vast Exclusive Economic Zone, which covers over 3 million square kilometres of ocean.
An increasing focus of the Kiribati government has in recent years been on how to adapt to the increasingly severe impacts of climate change and the threat it poses to the future survival of many of the islands. This has led it to explore different options to resettle in a managed process, described as ‘migration with dignity’. The phrase was coined by former president Anote Tong, who took the initiative to purchase land in Fiji in preparation for eventual resettlement. After serving a maximum of three terms, he could not stand for reelection in 2015, when the opposition party led by Taneti Maamau won. Maamau promised to focus his government’s priorities on more immediate domestic issues.
Alongside these activities, Kiribati has also played a leading role in the Coalition of Low-Lying Atoll Nations on Climate Change (CANCC), launched at the UN Small Islands Developing States Conference in Samoa in September 2014. The CANCC consists of the five low-lying atoll states – Kiribati, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Tokelau and Tuvalu – and has launched the ‘Pacific Rising’ initiative: this is a plan of action, described as a ‘climate change Marshall Plan’, tailored to the needs of each country and focusing on a range of solutions to preserve, in the words of its mission statement, ‘the lives, livelihoods and cultures of the Pacific’, with the latter including education, health and heritage. CANCC has also been working at the UN to create a legal framework to protect the rights of those displaced by climate change.
Updated April 2018.
Kiribati Women Activists Network (K-WAN)
Aia Maea Ainen Kiribati (AMAK)
Kiribati Climate Action Network (KiriCAN)
Abara Banaba (Our Homeland Banaba)