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“The Island President” Film Opens, despite former Maldivian President and Climate Activist’s Fall From Power

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As the film “The Island President” opens this week in New York, former President of the Maldives Mohamed Nasheed has been featured in various news outlets, talking not only about what he refers to as a coup, which ousted him from his presidency of the tiny island nation in the Indian ocean, but also about his life’s work as a climate advocate and a spokesperson for drowning islands. 

Find the transcript of a recent Democracy Now interview with former President Nasheed below (link to story: http://www.democracynow.org/2012/3/29/ousted_maldives_president_mohamed_nasheed_on): 

“JUAN GONZALEZ: The tiny Indian Ocean state of Maldives remains in a state of political turmoil seven weeks after the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was ousted in what he has described as a coup at gunpoint.

In 2008, Mohamed Nasheed beat the longtime ruler of Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, in the country’s first free and open election. Prior to the vote, Nasheed was a longtime pro-democracy activist who was jailed for six years. At the time, he was described as the “Mandela of the Maldives.” Nasheed now insists the February 7th coup was led by supporters of the former dictator.

The coup became news across the globe in part because Nasheed has become an internationally recognized leader on climate issues, as he urged the world to do more to save small island states from rising sea waters.

AMY GOODMAN: Ousted Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed once held a cabinet meeting underwater to highlight the threat of global warming to the Maldives. He also pledged to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country and installed solar panels on the roof of his presidential residence.

President Nasheed’s rise to power and climate activism is the focus of a new documentary called The Island President. It’s just opened at the Film Forum here in New York. This is an excerpt.

MOHAMED NASHEED: If we can’t stop the seas rising, if you allow for a 2-degree rise in temperature, you are actually agreeing to kill us. I have an objective, which is to save the nation. I know it’s a huge task. I’ve been arrested 12 times. I’ve been tortured twice. I spent 18 months in solitary.

We won our battle for democracy in the Maldives. A year later, there are those who tell us that solving climate change is impossible. Well, I am here to tell you that we refuse to give up hope.

AMY GOODMAN: Mohamed Nasheed, the ousted president of the Maldives, joining us here in studio in New York. Also with us, Jon Shenk, the director of this new documentary called The Island President.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! President Nasheed, I last saw you at the U.N. summit on climate change. That is where you’ve become famous around the world. But talk about what happened, the date, the time, and what took place in your country, in the Maldives, that led you—your forced departure from the presidency.

MOHAMED NASHEED: Thank you very much, and good morning.

As you know, in 2008, we had our first multi-party elections. I was fortunate to be elected then, and we were able to beat President Gayoom, who has been in power for the last 30 years then. It’s—one of the things that we are now coming to understand is it’s easy to beat a dictator, but it’s not so much easy to get rid of a dictatorship. The networks, the intricacies, the institutions, and everything that the dictatorship has established remains, even after the elections.

On the February 6th—on the February 7th, rather—on the 6th, on the night of the 6th, I asked the military to restrain 200 riot police who were rebelling. These 200 riot police has been—they were established in 2005, specifically to disrupt the peaceful demonstrations of the Maldivian Democratic Party at the time. When we came into government, we, in a sense, fired them, or rather, we stopped using them, and we had them scattered across the islands and in other islands, as well, because we had no use to use so much force. But unknowing to me, they were—the opposition, or rather, the dictatorship and the elements connected to it were talking to these people.

And on the 7th, they staged a rebellion. And they were sitting on the—they were sitting—they were protesting on the Republican Square. And I asked the military to restrain them. I asked them at 11:00 in the evening that day. By 5:00 in the morning the next day, the military was—the military still hadn’t done that. So I went to the military headquarters. And then, there, I found that sections of the military had also joined with the rebellion, and they were refusing to restrain the police. Then, around early that morning, about 9:00 in the morning, the generals started asking me to resign, and they told me that if I did not resign, they would resort to using arms. They would use arms on me, and they would also use arms on the people. Then, I had no choice, really, because sections of the military who were in the headquarters were with the rebellious police, and also I saw more than a hundred other soldiers coming from the other barracks in Malé and also another hundred soldiers coming from another barracks near Malé. And so, at the end of the day, it was about 500 soldiers and policemen against about a hundred or so soldiers who were loyal to the government and to the constitution.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the reaction of the—of others in your government, and the one who then assumed the presidency?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, the vice president assumed the presidency, but the vice president had been, we understand now, talking to them throughout the month before that, and they had these understandings that after my forced resignation, the vice president would take over, and then to seemingly make it look like a usual resignation and for him to take over.

But after I was forced to resign and after the announcement of my resignation, again, I was incommunicado for more than 24 hours. I was only able to get in touch with the British high commissioner roundabout evening that night. Then again, it was not me. It was my secretary. The British high commissioner rang my secretary and wanted to speak to me. I told my secretary that I’m surrounded by the police in my—in the presidential residence. They were really sacking the residence and going through every—all of my personal belongings and so on. So I said, “I can’t speak.” That was the only telephone conversation or only message that I was able to bring to the outside. Otherwise, I had—I was there in the presidential residence.

But then, later that night, I still had some loyal soldiers who were there. So with their help, I was able to slip out from the president’s residence and go to my family home. As soon as I went home, I almost fell, because I hadn’t slept for two nights by then, by this time, and I’d been very, very abused and pushed around and bruised. So I slept that night. The next morning, I spoke to our party members, and we decided that we should go out on the streets and tell the people that this is not on, and here is a coup in every sense, and we would want to—we would want reinstatement, and we would want investigations into the coup.

AMY GOODMAN: At this time, I wanted to play what the Obama administration was saying in the midst of this coup, with the coup in the Maldives. Within a day of your ouster, the State Department here in the United States defended the ouster and confirmed the new leadership had been in contact with the Obama administration. This is State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, who was questioned in February about the U.S. stance and diplomat Robert Blake’s visit.

REPORTER: Are you going to withhold—I mean, are you taking any position on the suggestions that it might have been a military coup? Are you going to investigate that? Is Blake going to check that out? Or do you think that that’s not a sort of a reasonable suggestion here?

VICTORIA NULAND: Well, obviously, we are talking to all parties. That’s why we’re sending our folks down. But that is not the information that we have at the moment. But Assistant Secretary Blake will have a chance to be there and talk to everybody on Saturday. But in the interim, we are urging calm, we’re urging dialogue, we’re urging the—President Waheed, as you know, has committed to forming a national unity government, and we think that will also be an important signal to political factions across the Maldives.

REPORTER: Does that mean that a determination on whether this was an unconstitutional change in power is going to wait until after Blake’s visit?

VICTORIA NULAND: Well, our view, as of yesterday—and I don’t think that that has changed; obviously we’ll collect more information going forward—was that this was handled constitutionally.

AMY GOODMAN: So that was Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokesperson, saying that the coup was constitutional already, talking about the new president, who was the Vice President Waheed. President Nasheed, what is your response?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Well, it was really shocking and deeply disturbing that the United States government so instantly recognized the former dictatorship coming back again. We were hoping that they would look into the facts and understand what was happening on the ground. And we would still hope that they look into it and urge the dictator, or urge Dr. Waheed, the former vice president, to resign and, therefore, to allow for fresh elections in the Maldives. We have to have democracy back on track in the Maldives. It’s very young. It’s a very young democracy. We only were able to have our first multi-party elections in 2008. And it was only three years down the line, and suddenly there was a very well-planned coup, and Dr. Waheed has been installed as a facade, and Gayoom is back. We were shocked that the United States acted so swiftly in recognizing the new regime.

Especially disturbing was, all throughout our last three years, we worked very closely with American ideals, with democracy. We wanted to have better relations with Israel. We wanted to have a more moderate Islamic country in the Maldives. And we’ve been fighting for all the civil liberties and all the human rights, fundamental rights of the people. And therefore, it’s deeply, deeply disturbing that your government has not been able to understand what was happening in the Maldives.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, what’s even more disturbing is that we’ve seen this script so many times now in recent years, whether it’s in Haiti with President Aristide or in Honduras with Manuel Zelaya Salaya or with Chávez in Venezuela. The U.S. government seems always to jump in immediately, as the coup is occurring, to support the coup plotters rather than the legally elected officials. And so, on the one hand, I understand your shock, but on the other hand, it’s amazing how it keeps happening, and no one seems to say anything about it here in this country. But I’d like to ask Jon Shenk—you had unparalleled access to President Nasheed’s administration, in terms of being able to chronicle or document what it is that he was trying to do. And if you could talk about the film and how you managed to get that access?

JON SHENK: Yeah, well, The Island President, as far as I know, is just a—is a unique documentary. It’s really the first-ever documentary that gets a kind of no-holds-barred access to a sitting head of state. And, you know, now, sitting, you know, weeks after this coup occurred in the Maldives, I have to think back of—you know, on the film as really an example and proof of President Nasheed’s penchant and desire to have transparency in government. And, you know, the Maldives had a dictatorship for 30 years, and the type of press that would come out of that dictatorship was highly controlled by a state-run television. You know, that was the only station in the country with programming that was, you know, sort of only blessed by the president himself. And then, as soon as Nasheed stepped into office, there’s instantly several independent television stations. The state-run media was privatized and made independent. And, you know, this film is really just an example of what can happen when there truly is a commitment to transparency. And the camera went to places that, you know, cameras have not gone before, not only to his strategy meetings and behind-the-scenes sessions, but also to bilateral meetings in the international climate debate, which is just, you know, fascinating and highly dramatic.

AMY GOODMAN: The film is playing—played at the Film Forum last night, going national around the country. Is it there this weekend at the Film Forum?

JON SHENK: Yeah, it started at the Film Forum last night. We had sold-out crowds. And it’s opening in San Francisco tomorrow and L.A. next week, Washington, D.C., etc.

AMY GOODMAN: President Nasheed, in this part of the conversation, we’re going to continue it and post it online at democracynow.org. Your final comments about the importance of climate change and why you think it is that you were ousted?

MOHAMED NASHEED: Climate change is a real issue, and it is happening now. It’s not something in the future. If you—from Jon’s film, you would be able to see how precarious and how vulnerable the Maldives is. Any imbalance to nature will have very, very huge impacts on the low-lying Maldive islands—and not just simply the Maldive islands, but also all coastal regions around the world. I think about a third of the population of the world lives on coastal areas. And they will be seriously challenged if we are unable to do something about climate change in the next few years. We feel that we have to advocate, that we have to try and get the message across that there has to be better understanding and international agreement on reducing carbon emission.

AMY GOODMAN: President Mohamed Nasheed, Jon Shenk, I want to thank you for being with us. We will continue our conversation and post it online at democracynow.org. On tomorrow’s show, we’ll play the legendary poet, essayist, feminist, Adrienne Rich. We’ll post her words online at democracynow.org.”

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Drowning Islands Coverage in the BBC- “Kiribati mulls Fiji Land Purchase in Battle Against Sea”

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Drowning islands made national news headlines again today: 

“The low-lying Pacific island nation of Kiribati is considering purchasing land in Fiji to help secure a future threatened by rising sea levels.

Kiribati’s President Anote Tong is in talks to buy 23 sq km (9 sq miles) on Fiji’s Vanua Levu island.

The land is wanted for crops, to settle some Kiribati farmers and to extract earth for sea defences, reports say.

Some of Kiribati’s 32 coral atolls, which straddle the equator, are already disappearing beneath the ocean.

None of the atolls rises more than a few metres above the sea level.

‘Last resort’

Fiji, which is more than 2,000km (1,300 miles) away, is one of a number of countries that Kiribati hopes its population may be able to move to in the future.

The chairman of Fiji’s Real Estate Agents Licensing Board, Colin Sibary, said he was facilitating talks between Kiribati officials and a Fijian freeholder who owns the land on Vanua Levu.

“I’ve been working very hard on this for Kiribati for a year,” Mr Sibary told the BBC.

“After the purchase they will formalise a development plan which will include various farms to produce vegetables, fruit and meat for export to Kiribati.”

He said Kiribati officials also hoped to bring barges into Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island, to take away landfill to help stop encroachment by the sea in Kiribati.

At most, he thought 500 Kiribati inhabitants might end up living on Vanua Levu, involved in farming and working on the landfill project.

“There is no thought of moving them all,” he said.

President Tong said climate change was a daily battle for Kiribati, but has admitted it is one his country would ultimately lose.

He said moving the Kiribati population would be a “last resort” to save the more than 100,000 islanders.

Relocating the entire population would be a monumental challenge, says the BBC’s Phil Mercer in Sydney.

Kiribati’s officials hope that many people would also be allowed to settle in other countries in the vast region, including Australia and New Zealand.

Previously, Mr Tong suggested constructing man-made islands resembling oil rigs for people to live on.”

 

 

 

Read the full story at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-17295862

There is No Place Like Home- Marshall Islands’ Native James Bing Remembers his Homeland

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I love the Marshall Islands because it is my home.  There is no place like home.  it’s very different than here.  I love the beautiful sun and warm rain year around.  I love the people there.  Marshallese people are the kindest and nicest people.  I know almost everyone there.

I really miss the Marshall Islands. 

I miss my friends and family that are still there.  I miss hanging out with my old classmates and playing basketball everyday.  I miss working at my grandfather’s company.  I miss having those Sunday BBQ with my mom, dad, and siblings.  My dad and my younger brother would always have their fishing gear ready.  While I’m the one busy cooking, they’ll be tossing their lines and stand on the sea-wall and fish.  I miss that atmosphere – it is very different than here.  It’s really hard to explain how different, maybe because it’s my home.  Spending time with my family and friends is one thing I really miss about home.  

During my 20 years of living in the Marshall Islands I have noticed climate change happening.  The islands are getting smaller.  The beach is almost completely gone due to coastal erosion.  The land and soil is being washed away slowly and slowly.  I see that the Marshall Islands are getting smaller, but I can’t do anything to change it.  Every year during the king tide season, I remember it not being a big deal.  This is when I was younger, probably 8 or 9 years old.  Now it’s different – you can see the water flooding the streets and homes.  In high school, during king tide season, I remember being late to school because of traffic and roads being shut down because of flooding.  I have a feeling it’s even worse than my last visit.

People in the Marshall Islands know that climate change is happening, but they don’t worry about it.  “Because we depend on God.  We believe that God would never flood the Earth again because he promised Noah that.  So the Marshall Islands won’t sink.” This is something almost everyone will say if you ask them about climate change on the islands.  They all see climate change causing these floods, loss of land, and loss of soil. But they won’t admit to it.  It doesn’t seem like a big deal because they all believe that God won’t flood the earth.  Climate change is not the issue to them.  But as for me, I see it differently, I believe climate change is happening.  I do feel scared for my homeland.  I do worry everyday about it.  I’m not saying I don’t believe in what the bible said about God not flooding the earth.  I believe in the bible, I believe in God and his son Jesus Christ. 

I believe that God said he would never flood the earth, but he never said anything about mankind destroying the earth themselves. We are destroying the earth – not God.

They don’t blame anyone for climate change affecting home.  Because they believe that it is the will of God and God will not let harm come to the Marshall Islands.  I personally am not blaming anyone.  I think burning fossil fuel has caused the greenhouse effect and caused the rising sea-level, but I am not blaming anyone or pointing fingers.  I would like the powerful countries to address this issue and see that climate change is really affecting the Marshall Islands.  Do something about it because we are helpless.  If the Marshall Islands sink, where will we go?? Where will we go and will you accept us? 

I would actually want to raise my son there.  I want to him to know who he is and know where his homeland is.  I want him to know how to fish, know how to swim, know how to work, eat marshallese food, sail a canoe, and so many other things.  But due to the impacts of climate change, I really don’t know if I want to raise him there because who who knows  if there will still be a Marshall Islands?  But it would have been great to raise him the same way I was raised back home. 

If Climate Change worsens, I believe Marshallese will move to the United States.  The U.S is not bad, I also love it here, but there is no place like home. It’s different,  words can’t really explain the difference and how sad we will be if we have to move from the Marshall Islands.  It is our home.  Our land, culture, traditions, local food, and beaches would be left there, and it is very heartbreaking.  It’s even sad just to think it might happen.  We shouldn’t move!!! Why should we leave our home? What did we do so bad to deserve this?? 

What should Americans do to help this problem? Tell everyone around the world about it.  America is the strongest nation in the world.  I believe they can find a way to solve this.  

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The Kuna Tribe in the San Blas Archipelago – Panama’s own Drowning Islands

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The drowning islands blog deals primarily with climate change impacts on coral atoll “stand alone” countries – Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and the Maldives. However, it also weaves together stories of flood, tsunami, and non “drowning island” locations as a way of illustrating the fact that all individuals, organisms, and locations are impacted by climate change. Bangladesh is rather famously impacted by rising sea levels, many Alaskan villages are somewhere in the process of relocating due to melting permafrost, and many communities from non-independent islands are discussing whether to begin relocating as well.

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One example is the Kuna tribe of the San Blas Archipelago off the coast of Panama.

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This idyllic chain of islands and their decorated, fascinating inhabitants enjoy relative semi-autonomy from mainland Panama, after achieving their independence in 1938.

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I was able to visit the incredible islands and their unique people in October, and was absolutely stunned by the beauty of this place.

 

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It was not the easiest trip I have ever taken, but certainly one of the most beautiful. 

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Sadly, this low-lying archipelago is warming, so it’s coral reefs and vegetation are dying at alarming rates.

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The islands rise just above sea level, precariously, so naturally the Kuna are talking about leaving for higher ground.

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Words do not do this place justice, so I am posting a multitude of pictures in this post, and will write more at a later date. 

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Political Turmoil in a Sinking Paradise- Maldives President and Environmental Activist Mohamed Nasheed Resigns

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How does the survival for those on the drowning islands depend on politics, diplomacy, and the political stability of their respective countries? Environmental activist Mohamed Nasheed, until today President of the Maldivian coral atoll nation, resigned from the presidency today amid rioting. Time will tell what happens to the political structure and well being of his country in the wake of this news. But at the very least, this illustrates the tenuous nature of the small victories that the drowning islands experience as they fight for climate justice. 

The full story is available here: http://edition.cnn.com/2012/02/07/world/asia/maldives-president-resigns/?hpt=hp_t1

Excerpts: 

 

Strategically located in the Indian Ocean but extremely poor, the country is threatened by rising sea levels. Nasheed once held a Cabinet meeting underwater, with ministers wearing scuba gear, to highlight the problem.

Maldives is also grappling with a very likely possibility that it will go under water if the current pace of climate change keeps raising sea levels.

Most of it lies just 4.9 feet (1.5 meters) above sea

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change has forecast a rise in sea levels of at least 7.1 inches (18 cm) by the end of the century.

Male is already protected by sea walls. But creating a similar barrier around the rest of the country will be cost-prohibitive.

Soon after his election, Nasheed raised the possibility of finding a new homeland for the country’s approximately 400,000 residents.

He is the subject of an upcoming documentary, “The Island President,” that tells the story of his efforts to raise awareness of climate change.

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Island nations want climate change in world court – AP Article

UNITED NATIONS: Small island nations, whose very existence is threatened by the rising sea levels brought about by global warming, are seeking to take the issue of climate change before the International Court of Justice.

Johnson Toribiong, president of Palau, said Friday his country and other island nations had formed an expert advisory committee to bring the issue before the U.N. General Assembly. That would allow the world court in the Hague to determine the legal ramifications of climate change under international law.

”If 20 years of climate change negotiations have taught us anything, it’s that every state sees climate change differently. For some, it is mainly an economic issue … for others it’s about geopolitics and their past or future place in the global economy, but for us it’s about survival,” Toribiong said.

”Pacific countries are in the red zone, a swell of ocean where waters have risen two or three times higher than anywhere else in the world. That differential might explain why we speak about climate change so urgently and we look to everyone in every corner of the United Nations to find a solution,” he added.

Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Colombia University and a member the advisory committee, said the idea is to have a court determination compelling developed nations to control emissions of the greenhouse gases believed to cause global warming in the absence of an international treaty.

Gerrad said that the big emitter nations could then be found liable under the international law principles of transboundary harm, when physical activities in one country impact adversely upon another, and the preservation of statehood _ something that becomes exceedingly difficult if a country is submerged between the rising oceans.

Palau’s announcement comes just months before the United Nations is scheduled to hold a major international environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro, ”Rio plus 20,” referring to the 20 years since the U.N. Earth Summit was held in that tropical city.

Unlike the 1992 Earth Summit that was devoted to climate change the June conference will discuss sustainable development, a change diplomats have said has to do with the difficulty of advancing emissions reductions in today’s political environment.

Dr. Dessima Williams, Grenada’s U.N. ambassador, said the idea of bringing the issue before the world court was to raise the level of international consciousness ahead of the Rio conference.

”We (the island nations) cannot meet the challenge of sustainable development goals if climate change is not addressed,” Williams said.Image

http://www.dawn.com/2012/02/05/island-nations-want-climate-change-in-world-court.html

Drowning Island Coverage on Yahoo News

http://news.yahoo.com/photos/snapshots-1320966603-slideshow/snapshots111312-photo-1326482674.html

“Ghorama is an island located in West Bengal, India, that is eroding into the ocean due to a dramatic increase in the sea level. The photographer posed locals on disappearing segments of the island. According to the artist, locals who still live on the larger segment of the island expect to be relocated within the next 25 years. (Photo: Daesung Lee/Sipa Press)”

 

Daesung Lee/Sipa Press

I used to look down at the ocean, but now I see it at eye-level…

About six weeks ago on my trip to the Marshall Islands, I found a particularly dilapidated, wind-beat, fading strip of land and homes on the ocean-side of Majuro. It was a cloudy Sunday morning, and various groups of churchgoers belted into song at any given moment. I had the good fortune of meeting Angelisa Hepisus, a warm, articulate woman who has lived in the same house since she was a child- the house she now raises her own children in. This home and it’s adjoining yard – updated and cared for on the inside – abuts the sea, and is perniciously separated by a foreboding, crumbling sea wall. Angelisa was sweet, caring, confident, and vulnerably open about her lifelong relationship with this particular piece of property on this particular drowning island.
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Angelisa has lived here since her childhood. Despite the continuous, daily beating the house takes from climate related elements (sand, wind, rain, tide, sun…), it is in remarkable condition. She makes improvements to the home- I instantly noticed the updated, shiny flooring in the living room. That same place I stood has been underwater many times during Angelisa’s life. Once during her childhood, she remembers that the entire island of Majuro was evacuated to the island-edge town of Laura (where it is easier to find “higher” ground- higher being a relative term in the Marshalls). When the families were allowed to return to their homes, her house was flooded in sand- measuring several feet high, all the more significant to a small child. Her possessions were broken, but thankfully, the concrete house stood. The wooden homes did not fare as well. The house has flooded many times since, sometimes because of typhoons, and other times because of the climate-induced heightened sea level and king tides.
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Angelisa’s parents had 17 children (three who sadly passed away in their childhood), so creating resilience was no easy task, but understandably one of the more important items on their to-do list. After the memorable childhood flood (which was spurred by a typhoon), they set to work on building a rather legendary sea wall- a beautiful, still-standing structure that has protected Angelisa and her family ever since from the brunt of the ocean’s force. The wall was expensive and incredibly time-consuming- built entirely with the sweat and labor of Angelisa’s family members. But despite its strength and ingenuity, the wall does not hold everything back.
The reef just beyond Angelisa’s home was once thriving- she remembers eels, fish, and other lively sea life that provided continuous play-time fun for her and her friends. That reef is all but gone now. As they do, the reef acted as a protective barrier, cutting the strength and size of the waves before they crashed onto Angelisa’s backyard. Now the reef provides no playground-like respite. It does not protect Angelisa’s family from the ocean’s force – it is now just a remnant of what it once was.
The sea wall has started to crumble into the sea. Angelisa’s lovely house bears the unsightly storm-scars of boarded windows. The ocean’s waves are reclaiming the graves of loved ones.  Angelisa does not know who is to blame for her plight. She admits that she is not a scientist. But each of her anecdotes focus on climate and change. She says the same thing in many ways, many times: the weather is not as it once was, and we are fearful.
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“We are getting used to being scared,” Angelisa confesses. “The waves wash over my back yard several times a year now… there are times when we cannot let the kids play outside out of fear of what the water will do…I used to look down at the ocean, but now I see it at eye-level… But what do we do? This is where God put us. It’s our family home. And we also believe that God gave us these small islands. Where else can we go?”
While standing in her backyard, facing the waves in the vast pacific ocean, it is easy to see why Angelisa is at once terrified and torn. In a quiet moment she finishes by waxing poetic- but with an effortless authenticity.
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“This is my home- it’s where my heart is… And I do love waking up to the sound of the ocean. It is beautiful.”
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I admit, the view from her backyard is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.

In God We Trust

On a bright, gleaming Saturday morning walk in the small community of Rita, I met Eli and Mary Rose Silk, the Marshallese pastors of the Salvation Army Church. They were somewhat modest and soft-spoken, asking me to take pictures of the children around the church building rather than themselves. But they were generous and open in conversation- freely discussing their weather and water related experiences in the Marshall Islands and their thoughts on the future.

Pastor Silk: The weather is changing here- the tide has changed. Some places, like in Laura [this seemingly pristine, gorgeous point at the far end of Majuro], the tide now reaches the trees. The sand there washes away with the waves, and sometimes yards there flood now. When I was young, it wasn’t like that. It’s different now. The trees are flooded, and now they fall into the sea. The breadfruit are smaller now- nearly half the size they used to be. Some of the places we used to play in when we were young are gone. When we were young, there were occasional typhoons, sometimes people even died in the storms. But now, there is standing water in the streets after it rains, or when the tide swells.

I ask why now? Why the change?

Pastor Silk replies: As a pastor, I know that everything is under “him” [referring to God], and that the end is clearly coming closer, as evidenced by these increasing and intensifying weather events.

I want to delve deeper here, and ask: Do you think the end will come at a different time than, say, California?

To which Pastor Silk replies: Well, we don’t know, because it’s [climate] killed more people than in the Marshall Islands so far. Even though we live on very low land, we don’t see disasters like you have because of weather in California, like fire, earthquakes, or floods that you have elsewhere in your country.

I’m impressed and humbled by his insight here. Yes, of course we have climate-related disaster in our country, but you don’t hear us talking about with his candor very often.

I want to know more about what weather-related disaster looks like in the Marshall Islands. I ask about the King Tide season, from December to February when the seas intensify and the waves grow. Pastor Silk’s wife, Mary Rose Silk, perks up.

Mary Rose: Mothers get nervous, scared even, during this time. Our little children used to run around and play freely, but as the King Tide season comes now, with its storm surges and waves, we grab our kids and get inside. Sometimes they announce these storms on the radio now, and we’re told to evacuate our homes. It’s happened four times already this year. It never used to happen.

I ask if they believe that climate change is real-

Mary Rose, with conviction in her voice: Yes, I believe it’s happening because I’ve seen the changes.

She is emphatic and sincere. Pastor Silk seems more hesitant, like the question I’ve asked is more complicated and multi-faceted than the question I asked his wife.

Pastor Silk: [after a delay]… Yes, I believe it’s happening. But I mostly just depend on God. I try not to worry.

I probe a little on this, because it reminds me of a comment from James Bing III, a a young, thoughtful, smart Marshallese man in his 20s who I recently met with in Washington and who will appear on Drowning Islands soon. Pastor Silk happens to know James Bing III’s family, and so I mention that from James’ perspective, God may have promised that he would never flood the earth, but that he said nothing about what mankind would do. Many scientists believe that climate change is at least exacerbated by human activity, not God

Pastor Silk: Yes, God promises never to flood the earth again. Our island is low and small. But lots of the things going on in the world- we don’t see them here. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados… Why? Because he’s caring for us. But if we don’t believe in him or make him happy… that’s God’s problem and he’ll take care of it.

I ask if they think that Americans, Chinese, or Australians, for starters, should do something different about the way that we live in order to protect small islands.

Pastor Silk almost immediately responds, in a seemingly forgiving and generous way that only God can make this sort of sea-change. But Mary Rose seems troubled. She is quiet for a moment, then asks:

Mary Rose: Do you think that big places, big cities, are the ones that cause this problem?

I quickly confide that I am not a scientist, and that I am not able to crunch numbers and analyze weather patterns the way that those in meteorology and climate sciences can (and do). But, I hasten to add my parting words-

If changing the way that I live, if emitting less carbon and supporting governmental policies that encourage and enforce this sort of action MIGHT help the problem, then I will do it.

To this, they both vigorously nod.

[An important aside- Pastor Silk wants to read this blog, send and receive emails, and allow community children the use of their computer. However, their nearly archaic computer broke several months ago and they are awaiting funds to send it for repair in Honolulu. If you would like to help buy a new computer for this community, leave a comment or send me an email at bmeakins@me.com]

What If?

Despite the fact that the U.S. is on track to experience one of its worst weather-related-disaster years on record, many in the U.S. do not attribute weather events like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or fire to climate change, particularly human-induced climate change. But this luxury is not one afforded to the countries that are on the front lines of climate change. While those of us in developed, high-emitting countries sit back and debate whether or not our activities intensify weather-related catastrophe (and the loss and detriment to human life that ensues), there is this lingering what-if question: if our actions and inactions carry the possibility danger and forced human sacrifice, why wait? If acting now might help, what are we waiting for?

For the Marshall Islands in particular, this is not the first time where land and people have acted as an American testing site… a what-if battleground of sorts. On March 1, 1954 alone, when the United States detonated the experimental hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll, it’s strength was 1,000 times the strength of Hiroshima. 1,000 times. The Marshallese that called Bikini their home were sadly relocated to neighboring islands prior to the period of nuclear testing, which started in 1946. They watched as ironically named Bravo’s mushroom cloud soared into the air, and only hours later were covered in a toxic, nuclear mist. In the weeks and months that followed, perfectly innocent islanders experienced a sickening variety of symptoms, including nausea, itching, and vomiting at first, which over the years has led to hair loss, tumors, disfigurement, cancers, and death. In a dizzying and erratic turn of events, over the coming decades, the Marshallese were moved by the US Military back to the nuclear waste-sites that they still think of as their homes and then relocated back to “safer” islands multiple times, on broken promises that their contaminated islands were considered live-able. All in all, the Marshall Islands was home to 66 nuclear bomb detonations.

And for those of us that were not alive during this nuclear experimentation era, and therefore feel like we escape the feelings of guilt that come with inaction… a month ago, nearly 100 chickens and ducks died mysteriously on Kwajalein atoll- an inhabited nuclear contamination site. The United States has ruled out avian flu, but has yet to inform the Marshallese what the cause of sudden death may be. To think that these idyllically beautiful outer islands have somehow been scrubbed clean is to shamefully oversimplify the matter.

Comparing 66 nuclear experiments in a faraway land to our own personal greenhouse gas emissions may seem like a stretch. Maybe it is. But spending time in the Marshall Islands means that you think about these things. Every time I eat this tuna here and (somewhat selfishly) wonder whether it is contaminated or see an individual with physical deformities, I get this sinking feeling that we are doing it again. This time, rather than experimenting with nuclear bombs for the “good of mankind” (which is what the Marshallese were told they were contributing to),  we are experimenting with emissions. I am certainly in this category myself- after all, I flew on a commercial airliner to get to this what-if observation deck. From the comfort of our homes, we debate whether our actions mean anything to the rest of the world. Whether our activity or inactivity impacts the world around us. What if?  If there is a possibility that our actions impact others in nuclear proportions, is this a legacy worth repeating?

http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/08/17/us-usa-weather-cost-idUSTRE77G5DI20110817