Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The boat people from paradise lost



In rich countries we speak of climate change as a lifestyle choice or economic problem for some time in the future. For Pacific Islanders it is a life death and survival crisis happening right now, as they watch their islands drown.

Lyn Bender and Ursula Rakova (middle) with volunteers from Healthy FuturesI thought I knew the truth about climate change; but it was not deep knowledge. I hadn't seen its face and heard its voice, until I heard from an islander whose home is literally disappearing beneath the waters.

At an event sponsored by Friends of the Earth and Caritas, Ursula Rakova told how the sea that had been the friend of her people, was turning against them. It had crashed through and divided her island in two. Coconut palms were collapsing at the new shoreline.

Food gardens were lost, as the soil was increasingly rendered infertile by salty tides that washed over them. The land that had been handed from grandmother to daughter, would bequeath no legacy to the granddaughters. The homeland of generations was disappearing before their eyes.

Ursula spoke movingly of the collective loss. She is asking for the help of the rich countries whose fossil fuel based prosperity has been achieved at the cost of her people's survival. She represented the many poor and indigenous people who are suffering most from the warming of the planet.

Climate change and the danger it presents to our planet is something many claim to know. But do we feel it? Do we care enough? Do we comprehend the loss of displaced people whose land has been washed away? Do we see that there but for the passage of time, are all our futures?

The government continues to approve new coalmines and seemingly remains lighthearted about the plight of those affected by climate change. Remember the one about sinking Pacific islands? Caught on camera, the Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton quipped to our since deposed prime minister, Tony Abbott, that 'Time doesn't mean anything when you have water lapping at your doors.'

They chortled over that one.


"Do we comprehend the loss of displaced people whose land has been washed away? Do we see that there but for the passage of time, are all our futures?"


Imagine that being said with compassion instead of in heartless jest.

Listening to Ursula Rakova, the audience at Melbourne University sat in stunned silence. Ursula's task was to head the relocation of the inhabitants of the Carteret Islands and to raise Australia's awareness of the need for climate action. She had been entrusted by the elders to head the project Tulele Peisa, which translates as 'riding the waves on our own'.

The Catholic Church in Bougainville gifted the land of four former plantations for the resettlement of Carteret Islanders. The German Lutheran Church and Protestant Churches have also assisted them.

In preparation for the arrival of ten families, traditional homes were built and cocoa and coconut palms and traditional food gardens were being planted. They were now exporting dried coco pods to chocolate makers in Hamburg. One hundred and thirty more Carteret families were destined for re-settlement.

But all this is a drop in the rising oceans considering the thousands that would be displaced from Tuvalu, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands and more. Will we help these climate refugees?  

In 2001 John Howard refused the request by Tuvalu to resettle its climate refugees. Instead, without any apparent sense of the irony, Howard proposed that Tuvalu become part of his Pacific solution for asylum seekers. Meanwhile Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock declared that the people of Tuvalu did not fit the criteria for refugee resettlement.

The Pacific Islanders are the new boat people. Not all of them have a mother island like Bougainville.

So far ten Carteret families have travelled the 45 nautical miles to Bougainville in 19m banana boats. Each house is built at a cost of $8500.

But in terms of making a contribution, Australia is missing in non-action. Someone in the audience remarked rhetorically. 'How would Australia's coastal cities cope with relocation?'

As I watched Ursula's video, Sisters on the Planet, I was at once profoundly inspired and deeply saddened. I asked her a question. 'How do you deal with your grief?'

Ursula responded. 'We keep our values strong. We teach our children the culture. Even when our islands are gone we will continue to visit them.'


<Lyn Bender headshotLyn Bender is a Melbourne psychologist. Follow her on Twitter @Lynestel

Pictured: Lyn Bender and Ursula Rakova (middle) with volunteers from Healthy Futures.

Topic tags: Lyn Bender, asylum seekers, climate change, Pacific Islands, Tuvalu, Carteret Islands



submit a comment

Existing comments

I was touched by hearing Ursula speak and watching her insightful power-point presentation at the Sunshine Coast University last Wednesday. I didn't notice any politicians there. 'Would the truth of the reality of what climate change is doing to islanders on low-lying Pacific Islands be too much for our politicians to face up to?' I wondered. The fact that our major Australian political parties are receiving huge donations from the fossil fuel industry is not only contributing to global warming, rising sea levels and the destruction of the Great Barrier but also undermining our democratic process. The two greatest issues the world faces today are climate change and poverty and these issues are interlinked. The Australian Greens are the only political party I know that is serious about addressing these two issues. All our major political parties are more interested in opening new coal mines, supporting gas mining and cutting back on overseas aid.

Grant Allen | 22 April 2016  

Well said Grant. I couldn't agree more.

Mary Connell | 24 April 2016  

Important article - thank you so much. I spent time in Kiribati and understand the seriousness of the situation, and it means that Australia will need to be generous in repatriating people when that time comes. As you (more-or-less) say here, it is pretty much a non-issue in this (on the whole) very privileged country, so the question of how to get Australia people more concerned about what's happening in our own backyard (treated more like a backwater by many) looms large. Please keep on writing about this Lyn!

Christine Nicholls | 24 April 2016  

"We are told sea level is rising and will soon swamp all of our cities. Everybody knows that the Pacific island of Tuvalu is sinking. ... Around 1990 it became obvious the local tide-gauge did not agree - there was no evidence of 'sinking.' So scientists at Flinders University, Adelaide, set up new, modern, tide-gauges in 12 Pacific islands. Recently, the whole project was abandoned as there was no sign of a change in sea level at any of the 12 islands for the past 16 years." (Vincent Gray).

Luke | 25 April 2016  

Much of the heat involved in warming the climate is generated when the rays of the sun meet dry desert sand. If that dry sand could be covered by vegetation, most of that heat would be absorbed by the green coverage. We would soon find that instead of too much water, we would be looking for more water to desalinate and irrigate the deserts. Thus both problems would be resolved.

Robert Liddy | 25 April 2016  

Most of the extreme weather events result from extremes of temperature conditions around the earth. If more effort was put into 'greening the deserts', not only would these extremes of temperature differences be lessened, but a lot of the CO2 would be absorbed and neutralised by the green vegetation. - Another win-win for the planet and its inhabitants.

Robert Liddy | 26 April 2016  

Lyn, I'm the person at Friends of the Earth who organised the speaking tour. Glad you could attend the event in Melbourne. I'd just like to offer the comment that people in the Pacific facing and already experiencing forced relocation because of climate change have told us many times they do not want to be called refugees, and don't think it's appropriate to try to fit them into the provisions of the Refugee Convention. We are seeking to support internal migration programs and to advocate for new migration pathways by countries like Australia.

Wendy Flannery | 29 April 2016  

Similar Articles

Five reasons the LNP's carbon scare campaign is doomed

  • Greg Foyster
  • 03 May 2016

It was as if Australian politics had regressed four years overnight. No sooner had Labor released its new climate change plan than the Coalition was resuscitating Tony Abbott's 'carbon tax' line. The Coalition's attempt to revive the defining debate of the 2013 federal election won't work. As other commentators have noted, Labor's plan has been carefully crafted to avoid the carbon tax sledge. More importantly, external factors have changed to make a scare campaign less potent.


Dumped-on Elders down but not despairing

  • Michele Madigan
  • 03 May 2016

As fifth century BC Athenian historian and general Thucydides said: 'The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.' 'I'm sitting here trying to eat my weetbix and keep my thoughts calm,' said Enice Marsh, Traditional Owner for the Flinders Ranges area of SA. Enice and the other Adynamathanha Elders had just received the news that former Liberal Senator Grant Chapman's property Bardioota is 'at the top of the list' to be the site of Australia's national radioactive waste dump.