By Alister Doyle
VUNIDOGOLOA, FIji – Simione Botu points to a lump of concrete and a few wooden posts jutting out of the yellowish sand of a remote Fijian beach overhung by coconut palms.
“This is my house,” says Botu, 61, surveying the remains of his boyhood home, washed away decades ago by the South Pacific Ocean.
Since then, Botu, the chief of Vunidogoloa village, has rebuilt his family home inland twice to escape coastal floods, partly caused by a creeping rise in global sea levels. Botu and his family are among vanishingly few people anywhere in the world forced to move twice during their lifetimes to escape shifting coastlines.
They probably won’t be the last.
Many places – from Vanuatu in the Pacific to Alaska in the United States – are moving communities inland, driven by a cocktail of reasons including more powerful storms, natural subsidence and man-made climate change.
The trail of abandoned, rotting houses in old Vunidogoloa, slowly getting overgrown by vegetation in eastern Fiji, may hold lessons for governments worried by an accelerating rise in sea levels driven by melting ice from Greenland to Antarctica.
“The water came into the village – at high tide it could be up to our knees,” Botu said. Vunidogoloa is a community of 150 people who live from farming and fishing on Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second largest island.
As an adult, he built a new wooden house about 100 metres inland, behind makeshift sea walls built in vain to keep out the rising tides. Even here, though, floods reached the top of the low stilts underpinning the building, threatening to buckle the wooden floor and making it uninhabitable.
In 2006, the villagers sought and won aid from the Fijian government to relocate – or re´hi´cate – the village.
New Vunidogoloa, a kilometre inland on a hillside with 33 cyclone-proofed wooden homes painted light green, is the first community moved inland by Fiji as part of a policy of helping coastal people cope with climate change. It was formally opened in January 2014.
Botu, who has four children and four grandchildren, lives in one of these new homes – an airy space with colourful decorations.
Another three communities have since moved in Fiji and about 40 more are earmarked to move to higher ground.
Fiji’s government says it was also the first to promise to take in potential Pacific migrants from lower-lying atolls – such as Tuvalu or Kiribati – where entire islands may become uninhabitable this century. Sea levels are rising with an accelerating melt of ice sheets and glaciers.
“We understand the situation, we are the coal face of it,” Fiji’s Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum said of rising seas driven by man-made greenhouse gas emissions.
“We are perhaps luckier overall than the other atoll countries where it is existential for them, like it is for some of our low-lying communities,” he said.
Fiji is formed by extinct volcanoes – higher and more robust than coral atolls for bedrock. “We have mountains, here the highest peak is 4,000 feet above sea level. Tuvalu’s highest point is 12 feet,” Sayed-Khaiyum said.
Still, it’s hard to pin down why Vunidogoloa is so vulnerable when seas are rising worldwide – on average by about 20 cms in the past century. As with many communities moving inland, other factors aggravate the problems.
The old village is at the end of Natewa Bay, lashed by storm surges when cyclones rage from the north east. It is also at the mouth of a river, whose meandering estuary capriciously devours the coastline.
Vunidogoloa could move easily because the villagers own the surrounding land. They earn money from selling timber, sand, gravel, coconuts and grog – a drink made from the roots of the kava plant served in a coconut shell that gives a sedative, mildly euphoric feeling.
Fiji is part of an international coalition, led by small island states, that wants deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times as part of the global 2015 Paris climate agreement. Average world temperatures are already up about 1C and on track to breach the limit by around the 2040s.
“Climate change cannot be stopped, it will be increasing, increasing,” Botu told me when I visited in December 2018.
And Vunidogoloa, with solar panels for electricity, was a showcase for Fiji at U.N. negotiations on climate change in Bonn, Germany, in 2017. Fiji hosted the annual talks as part of efforts to spur action under the Paris deal.
But not everything’s fixed.
Despite being hailed as a model for the world, 90 percent of people in Vunidogoloa voted for opposition parties in November 2018 elections when Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama won a new term. Botu says locals accuse the government of failing to finish the project. Some drains are incomplete, water pipes lie unburied and some of the houses lack promised extensions for kitchens, he said.
“The government told us ´you have to do it on your own´. So when the election came we decided we do not vote for them,” he said.
Attorney General Sayed-Khaiyum, however, insists Fiji has kept its side of the bargain. He said many factors were at play in Bainimarama´s wafer-thin re-election in 2018 and that Vunidogoloa was not untypical in voting for the opposition in large numbers.
And ‘rehication’ isn’t cheap.
Fiji’s government reported in 2014 that it had spent almost a million Fijian dollars ($460,000) to relocate Vunidogoloa, including building homes, fish ponds, and a processor for helping produce coconut oil.
Clothilde Tronquet, a researcher at the Institute for Climate Economics in France, estimated the Fijian government probably paid about three-quarters of the cost of the village’s relocation. Botu disagreed, saying the locals had contributed a bigger share than the government by providing labour, timber and land.
The high cost “casts doubt on the viability of the project to be replicated elsewhere”, Tronquet wrote in a 2015 report.
Prime Minister Bainimarama casts Vunidogoloa squarely as a victim of sea level rise – effectively pinning the blame on industrial greenhouse gas emissions by nations such as the United States, the European Union, China and Russia.
“Today, we launch the first project in Fiji to save an entire village from the rise in sea levels caused by climate change,” he said in a ceremony in January 2014, opening the new village.
“It is real. It is happening now.”
On a visit to Fiji in 2018, Britain´s Prince Harry went even further, calling Vunidogoloa “the first village in the world to begin relocating to higher ground due to sea level rise.”
The rhetoric over-simplifies science and history.
Born in 1957, Botu said his parents’ generation decided in 1953 to move the village away from the shoreline – long before scientists detected man-made global warming or global sea level rise. The unpredictable estuary was simply an unsuitable site.
Some sceptics question whether Vunidogoloa is a misleading media poster child for climate activism and sea level rise.
Around the world, several remote communities claim to be the first to move inland because of a changing climate and rising seas. In 2005, for instance, the U.N. Environment Programme said a community of about 100 people on Tegua Island in Vanuatu north-west of Fiji “has become one of, if not the first, to be formally moved out of harm’s way as a result of climate change” by moving to higher ground.
Still, Fijian officials say that a bit of over-simplification is justified to highlight the problems of rising seas that will get ever worse this century. Rising seas worsen other risks – such as more powerful storms and “king tides” linked to man-made climate change that blow salt water onto coastal crops.
Bainimarama warned the United Nations in Bonn in 2017 that “cities in the developed world like Miami, New York, Venice or Rotterdam” are as vulnerable to the global rise in sea levels as low-lying nations. That was a veiled jab at U.S. President Donald Trump, who owns properties in both New York and Florida and doubts that climate change is man-made.
Climate scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change write, in an unpublished draft report, that seas are likely to rise by up to 133 centimetres this century if greenhouse gas emissions keep rising. Deep cuts in emissions could limit the rise to 33 cms.
Despite grumbling about unfinished business, Vunidogoloa is a success by many yardsticks.
In new Vunidogoloa, children laugh as they play with used car tyres – one heaves a tyre to make it roll as far as possible while rivals try to hurl tyres from the side to knock it over.
Under the shade of a mango tree, a group of women are sewing and cutting leaves to make brooms for sweeping the floors. Further up the hill, workers are tending a plantation of pineapples.
And atop the hillside, the villagers are building a Methodist church. On Google maps, new Vunidogoloa is listed as “Kenani”, the local version of “Canaan” or the “promised land” of the Bible. Botu reckons the church, a locally funded project separate from the relocation, will cost 250,000 Fijian dollars.
Among other advantages, the new village is right by a gravel road where buses stop on the way to the towns of Labasa and Savusavu. That means the locals have far less to walk when carrying shopping home, and anyone who is ill can get to the doctor more easily.
Jane McAdam, a law professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia and a leading global expert on migration, wrote in a 2015 review that few people uprooted from their homes are happy about moving. “Resettlement is a fraught and complex undertaking, and rarely considered successful by those who move,” she wrote.
Vunidogoloa may be among exceptions.
“People are happy here,” Botu says.
Still, he is wistful for the past.
Down on the beach, looking out over the sea from the abandoned site of his boyhood home, he shrugs: “When we come here our heart is here. Our forefathers were here.”