Where pigs can swim

The tit for tat between the republic of the Marshall Islands and the International Chamber of Shipping this week over the severity and timing of maritime emission cuts brought back memories of my only trip to the South Pacific.

Ten years and one month ago to the day I got a glimpse of the very front line of climate change on a voyage to a distant colony of New Zealand’s.

After six hours the lush green mountains of Samoa faded away and the rich, dark copper sulphate coloured Pacific enveloped the view from horizon to horizon.

In another 24 hours, following a tetchy night on deck, periodic squalls and endless tinny Polynesian music, a dot appeared through the ringed viewpoint of the binoculars on the ship’s bridge. The spec gradually widened to a dark strip and then it perforated and turned green. Palm trees in their thousands. We had arrived.

To get more remote than Tokelau, you’d have to apply to Nasa. There’s no capital, airport or port. The civil service even works in another country. Located roughly where the international dateline bisects the equator the tiny trio of coral atolls are New Zealand’s last colony and, as the locals – all 1,447 of them – like to comment, the last paradise on earth.

Discovered by the poet Byron’s grandfather in 1765, it was visited a few years later by another British navy ship looking for mutineers from Captain William Bligh’s HMS Bounty. It was the last place in the British Empire to hear that World War One had started, a full five months after hostilities got underway. It was also the last place on earth to have telephones. Yet, this far-flung territory does have one unfortunate first that it can boast. It is likely to disappear off the map before almost anywhere else.

Tokelau is a Petri dish of climate change in motion, with tides higher and more irregular. In a Darwinian twist, the pigs on the southern atoll of Fakaofo have even evolved so that they can now swim and fish for eels.

A former leader of the colony, Kuresa Nasau, told me when I visited there a decade ago, “We will be the first one to go.”

Tuvalu, whose ancestry bears most similarities with Tokelau and lies 400 km to the west, is also endangered from rising waters, but has been able to vocalise its perilous position better as it is independent. “Tuvalu has been saying the same as us for years, but we just haven’t had a voice,” Nasau said.

“If you want an example of the canary in the mine for extreme events related to global warming, Tokelau is your candidate,” David Payton, the New Zealander who used to administer Tokelau, told me.

An official from the middle atoll, Nukununo, confided her concerns, “We are listening and we hear about the ice melting somewhere far away and that will raise the waters here.”

Near where the boats land on Nukununo just in front of the ladies playing bingo Mike Perez cast his arm forwards. “You see that,” he said, pointing 20 metres in the distance, “When I was growing up the sand went all the way to there. Now though,” he pointed directly down, “the waves are lapping at our feet.” His cousin, Luciano Perez, an avid fisher, recalled how El Nino dried out the lagoon for three months a few years ago. Luciano runs Tokelau’s only hotel/bar – a lovely, simple house with seven guestrooms that he set up in 1995 after 31 years as a schoolteacher and to this day his guestbook stretches to less than 20 pages.

A twice-monthly 30-hour cargo boat ride from Samoa 500 km to the south represents the only transport link with the outside world yet technology is hooking these islands up for the first time. Satellite television arrived 11 years ago, and via a deal with a canny Dutchman for their domain suffix .tk, wireless broadband internet has been available throughout the islands since 2003.

Change in somewhere so remote with its traditional methods of ruling via village elders is not necessarily welcome. No more than 40 foreigners visit each year. Some that do are turned away. Pamela Stephenson, the wife of comedian Billy Connolly, recounts in her book Treasure Islands how she moored up near the southern atoll of Fakaofo, went ashore and was promptly told to go away. Told to Fakaofo was her neat chapter title for that encounter.

Non-Tokelauans cannot buy property. The former leader, Mr Nassau, who spent the first 41 years of his life in Hawaii, has seen the dilution of Polynesian traditions there and is adamant the same will not happen in his own country.

Unusually for Pacific atolls, all three are totally encompassed by coral so that the tides of the sublime, 360-degree paradise vision turquoise lagoons inside are different to the ocean outside. Yet if Tokelau is to survive it will have to work out how to deal with the outside world. The seawalls it is urgently building now will insulate the archipelago from the initial ravages of global warming, but for how long?

The name Tokelau means northern wind and it is thought the atolls were first settled by Samoans 1,000 years ago. Since most of the territory is just two metres above sea level, each atoll is impossible to see from another, and for much of their inhabited existence the three atolls fought each other. Though they are all one territory now with a total land area of just 12 sq km, none of 128 islets that ring the lagoons being wider than 200 metres, the three atolls have distinctive characteristics. Judith Huntsman, an American professor of anthropology at the University of Auckland, who first visited Tokelau in 1967, maintains these differences have been evident since the first Europeans came into contact with these Pacific islanders.

“The first European visitors were greeted in different ways,” says Huntsman. In Atafu (pictured), the northern most atoll, all the men came out on canoes and engaged avidly with them. They brought them to shore and traded. In Nukununo, nowadays the one Catholic atoll, no one came out, some even ran away. The islanders on highly populated Fakaofo were initially aggressive and then they sat on the shore and officially received these strange white fellows in their 18th century naval attire.

“Atafu were the pioneers. They were and are forward. Nukununo is reserved and Fakaofo is assertive,” Huntsman commented.

It was their strategic location on the route of a proposed underwater telegraph cable that brought Tokelauans under British protectorship in 1877. By then missionaries had arrived and transformed society into a God fearing one and to this day the church occupies prime land and no other religion is allowed to be practiced on the islands.

Robert Louis Stevenson on visiting in 1890 thought there was no territory in the whole empire “more loyal” than Tokelau. Then known as the Union Islands they were transferred begrudgingly to New Zealand in 1926.

Both New Zealand and the United Nations have been pushing Tokelau towards de facto independence for the past 50 years. A referendum on self-governance with free association with New Zealand a decade ago failed by just 10 votes to get the two-thirds majority needed.

The Catch 22 is that as a colony most of the highly qualified people move overseas – mainly to New Zealand, where more than 5,000 ‘Tokes’ as they are nicknamed reside. Many of the positions needed to keep the colony running – nurses, doctors, teachers – are filled from neighbouring Tuvalu. Tuvalu retains its qualified staff by virtue of being an independent country whereby emigration is harder.

“Tokelau governance seems to be a strange mixture of Christianity, communism and anarchy,” wrote Peter McQuarrie in his book Tokelau – People, Atolls and History.

Every day now the 1,447 citizens of Tokelau wake to find their land that bit smaller, the sound of the lapping waves ever closer. Soon this little slice of paradise could well be wiped off the map forever, a fate that faces many other islands in the Pacific.

The Marshall Islands’ foreign minister went on the record yesterday to stress his country’s determination to push through the quickest pathway for shipping to get to a zero emissions state. “[W]e will not compromise on our survival,” he tweeted.

One Splash reader commented this week: “If the owners from Greece, China, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Germany had their families and homes under immediate threat from sea level rise would they be stalling?”

A suggestion I have is to get all the owners who have registered their ships with the Marshall Islands, the world’s second largest flag, to take a trip to Majuro, the crowded, vulnerable Marshallese capital, to actually experience climate change close up. Better still, head to Tokelau, see the pigs with their webbed feet, get that dusty guestbook full, and maybe draw some inspiration from the territory’s flag (pictured below).


Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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