Photographer Jocelyn Carlin

Kiribati 09

Edited Transcript of interview between President Anote Tong and Jocelyn Carlin, 11/02/09
Copyright strictly Jocelyn Carlin

PRES TONG: Our concern is that the focus of the debate is not just centred on future arrangements; in Kiribati there are those whoíve already become victims. We are the very reason the global community must deal with this, at the same time as focusing on what we do beyond Kyoto, addressing those that have fallen by the wayside in the process is more of a challenge to the global community than anything else. So far there been very little, if any discussion about this at all.
JC: In Poznan there were the discussions about adaptation funds.
PRES TONG: Adaptation has limited prospect here, you saw the high tides yesterday. Well before final submersion a lot of things are going to happen to these islands to the extent that we wont be able to survive as we are even at the moment, the ability of the islands to sustain life will be much declined, so what do we do, how do we deal with this.
JC: So you see adaptation as a short-term plan?
PRES TONG: Adaptation is short term, but we have to look at it in the widest context possible, funding for adaptation should encompass all that has to be done or has to do with our adjustment to climate change, the extent of how we can adapt within our current environment is going to be very limited.
JC: Building Seawalls?
PRES TONG: How practical is it to build seawalls around these many islands, the government can only protect public infrastructure. All day people are building seawalls at the same time as the waves and the high tides are taking them down, thatís the kind of problem we face.
JC: Was there any addressing of climate change issues at the Pacific Forum Meetings this time?
PRES TONG: Whatís got to be understood is Pacific Forum countries vary, there are those that are very vulnerable like ourselves and there are those that will continue to survive over the next few centuries, they have enough land and sufficient altitude, their need is not as pressing as ours, for us our very survival is under question over the next couple of decades.
JC: So do you feel stronger on this issue in the Association of Small Island States?
PRES TONG: Any association that will give greater voice will be always be useful, I think we need to argue together, but what are we arguing for, on this issue we want to talk with people in similar situations, for example The Maldives and Tuvalu, one or two other countries. The Marshall Islands have access to the US, theyíve got green cards, other PI countries have low-lying islands but they also have high-rise islands so they have options, we donít. In order for us to handle decade three we will have to step off the island I think.
JC: You mean three decades from now?
PRES TONG: We donít know how long weíve got but you can see whatís happening.
JC: Your voice is very strong on this, is it an emotional issue for you personally?
PRES TONG: Of course itís an emotional issue but itís got to be approached in a very rational fashion because people donít listen to emotional speeches.
JC Do you feel the Pacific people are the most victimized and the furthest from the debate?
PRES TONG: We are a small voice, and how we small countries can impact on international politics is very limited but I think what we are saying is very rational, very powerful because itís true and should really touch on the human conscience, we hope it does.
JC: Do you see the long-term solution in education and in fostering migration schemes; is this the long-term survival strategy?
PRES TONG: We are faced with a number of questions, what happens to you as a nation, as a culture as an ethnic group, quite frankly we are not so preoccupied with those questions at the moment, they will become very relevant later but we should focus on surviving at the moment.
JC: As a viable sovereign nation?
PRES TONG: If we donít find answers very shortly, what are the options, are we going to build walls around these islands, maybe one or two but not for all, there is no promised land we are looking for any kind of land, itís so simple, if the land is going down you step off it.
JC: Do people generally realise the culture could easily dissipate beyond recognition?
PRES TONG: There is always denial, it wonít in my generation but it doesnít mean that I should not think about it as leader, I must provide the options for our future.
JC: It is a unique culture.
PRES TONG: It is, this must be the biggest moral challenge ever faced by mankind.
JC: Iím curious, Iíve never heard in the debate especially about Kiribati that has a huge and valuable economic zone, what happens to that zone in the face of total migration?
PRES TONG: There are a number issues and we have to consider these, do we loose our existence as a nation. There will be those willing to build up seawalls so they can barely survive in order to maintain the sovereignty of this nation. But there is no doubt about it thereís got to be movement if not everybody then a significant number of people so we have got to be prepared.
JC: Up-skilling?
PRES TONG: Up-skilling is one option I think we must do that. One or two countries are saying weíll become environmental refugees, no country wants to hear that, nobodyís going to say yes Iíll take your 100,000 people and Iíll put them here, they donít, but they know theyíve got to do something, so weíve got to provide them with an option which is also acceptable to them and thatís the best that I can think of, up-skilling our people so they can migrate with dignity, with a lot of pride as professional worthwhile people.
JC: Tuvalu seems to be taking the stand, ĎItís our moral right to stay on our land and we require adaptation funds to do thatí
PRES TONG: We would love to stay on our land are you going to give us billions of dollars to build seawalls, if that is the case yes we would love nothing better than to be able to remain, but we must be provided the means to be able to do that, if that is the answer by the international community then fine.
JC: So in your travels and in your leadership are you actively seeking land?
PRES TONG: We are serious Iíve raised it in jest but I am serious, every time I fly over these big islands that are huge in comparison to ours I think this would be wonderful. Thereís a lot of land available except nobody would want to give it yet. Iíve been asked, have any of your neighbours offered you land, I have to say no.
JC: Would there possibility of a trading land for a part of the economic zone?
PRES TONG: We havenít explored that, there are still a lot of deniers a lot of people who say no, Iíve been accused of being a defeatist, nobody wants to see the demise of their own existence as a people. Weíve got to look ahead we are seriously looking at the options of land availability, if they want to sell it, we will buy it if the international community will give us the money to buy land, lovely letís have it.
JC: One comment Iíve heard about the responsibility of the international community is that every single person on his planet is responsible for this situation so letís participate together and build the security of every single person back on this earth.
PRES TONG: Well this is our argument isnít it, Iíve come across a lot of compassion by individuals, by citizens, the difficulty is the governments because they think they have a wider responsibility to keep people out, and they are always more receptive to their own concerns than migrants. Weíve got to all call on something other than constitutional responsibilities I think humanity has got to be called into question here, weíve got to challenge humanity and say this is what has to be done.
JC: Isolation is a problem, are you able to show your unique culture to the world?
PRES TONG: I think we have a unique culture it would be a pity to loose it, thereís no question the culture is going to be diluted over time if there is movement, as I said there is a number of questions for which I donít really have the answers and I really donít want to focus on it because we have much more to deal with at the moment, how to provide options for our people so they donít loose hope, they donít get depressed, I think about it and wonder whatís going to happen to my grandchildren, where will they be, how will they deal with the situation when it comes.

Other Galleries in this exhibition
Pacific Kiribati 09 | Environmental Stories from the Pacific Region | Pacific News -Tonga | Pacific News - Tonga2 | Another War Story | Tuvalu | Legacy Tuvalu - The Footprint on Funafuti | American Samoa and Samoa | Solomon Islands | Nauru/Kiribati/Fiji