Community Input Improves Climate Change-Induced Resettlement Effort | Land Portal

In the Global South, climate change-induced resettlement requires a holistic and integrated approach, involving all stakeholders—state institutions, local customary and civil society institutions—and in particular respectful engagement with local traditional actors and networks. In a policy brief for the Toda Peace Institute, we examined climate change-induced resettlement from the Carteret Islands in the Pacific, a case which encompasses a broad range of issues relevant to future relocation efforts elsewhere. Those who seek to make this type of resettlement possible would do well to heed these lessons.

Due to the effects of climate change, residents of the Carterets atoll in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) do not see a future for their families on their home islands. Some 3,000 people currently live on the atoll, which consists of six low-lying islands with a combined land area of just 0.6 square kilometers. As freshwater wells and soil become salinized, it will be difficult to maintain a subsistence economy, which is based on fish, bananas, taro and other vegetables. Malaria strikes more often. Dependency on food aid is increasing. And travel by boat to the main island of Bougainville is becoming more dangerous with severe storms happening almost year-round.  

Relocation Plan

People from the Carterets took the initiative to form an NGO, Tulele Peisa (“Sailing the waves on our own”) that developed the Carterets Integrated Relocation Programme. The aim was voluntary relocation of approximately 1,700 Carteret Islanders to mainland Bougainville, 86 kms away, with land for relocation gifted mainly by the Catholic Diocese. The resettlement plan addresses housing and infrastructure; income generation projects; and health, education and training facilities; as well as the needs of the recipient communities. Tulele Peisa has put much thought into reducing any potential resentment and animosity from the recipient communities, trying to establish sustainable bonds between them and the newcomers.

A seven-member Board of Directors leads Tulele Peisa. Two of the directors chair local governing bodies in the Carterets and in Tinputz (a relocation site), respectively. Placing them on the Board ensures that local voices are represented in the leadership of the organization.  

At the Tinputz resettlement site, substantial work has involved: establishing food gardens (for the residents’ consumption and surplus to send back to the Carterets), planting taro, learning how to grow cocoa trees and ferment and dry cocoa beans for income, building houses, planting trees, and setting up water tanks. The settlers built houses, with the help of carpenters and workers from the recipient communities and local building materials. House construction provided a new source of income for recipient communities, and it also creates a sense of ownership and pride for the local community to contribute and showcase their building skills.

Challenges to Resettlement

So far only around 100 people have resettled.  Securing more land for the people who want to resettle will be hard. Land is scarce on Bougainville, and traditional land tenure in Bougainville societies does not easily accommodate newcomers. Even if enough land is found, it will be difficult to negotiate the acquisition of customary land between Carteret Islanders and communities on Bougainville and to obtain clear legal title. Securing the funds for land purchase is another critical issue. An estimated US$5.3 million is needed to relocate all of the families who wish to move. Hence, financial constraints pose a major obstacle blocking relocation efforts.  

Leaving their own land behind is problematic for Carteret Islanders who risk losing their cultural heritage, their identity, dignity, and connection to their sacred places.

Resettlement poses particular challenges for women whose communities on the Carterets are matrilineal. The loss of land is a traumatic experience for them as the chain of land transfer will be broken. On the other hand, the women realize that their land cannot sustain their families any longer. They are torn between the desire to stay and the need to move if they want to secure a future for their children.

The fears and concerns of the Carteret Islanders are a strong reminder that resettlement is not only a technical issue concerning material problems. It also has important cultural, psychological, and even spiritual dimensions. To address these needs, one of Tulele Peisa’s objectives is to help Carterets people “to overcome fear, anxiety and trauma associated with the need to leave their homeland.”

Limited State Support

The plight of the Carteret Islanders has drawn considerable international attention. However, this has not translated into substantial support. Tulele Peisa’s resettlement program gets only modest support from donors and international civil society. Support from the state of Papua New Guinea has been modest. In October 2007, the PNG government allocated the equivalent of US$800,000 for an official Carterets Relocation Programme. But despite lengthy consultation plus several surveys and social impact studies, no actual resettlement resulted.

Previous state-led relocation endeavors have failed due to local conflicts between settlers and host communities and inappropriate sites. Neighbors targeted relocatees, destroying their houses and food gardens or their produce at markets, attacking their young people, or raping the women.

These earlier resettlement schemes failed, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), due to reluctance on the part of relocating communities to move, a lack of local input in the design and execution of resettlement—including choosing the location— lack of suitable land, and insufficient attention to social integration with host communities.

In comparison, the Tulele Peisa program is more promising, because it is grounded in comprehensive community participation. UNDP therefore holds the view that Tulele Peisa’s community-based approach to relocation offers a positive relocation model for other atolls in the region.  

The people from the Carterets have not waited for the state and others to come to their assistance, but have taken their fate into their own hands, and in so doing have displayed considerable capabilities and ingenuity. The people on the ground have agency; they are not just passive victims of climate change. However, one should not let international organizations and national governments off the hook. Local agency should not be used as an excuse for inaction by international or regional organizations and of governments and state institutions.

However, it is true that in many regions of the Global South that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, state institutions do not function effectively and have problems delivering services. In such fragile situations, it is particularly important that state institutions and international donors work closely together with non-state actors: civil society actors like NGOs and community-based organizations, and also customary local networks and traditional authorities. These local traditional leaders manage the governance of communities, natural resources and the environment. Because they can and do play an important role in planning, decision-making and implementation of resettlement programs, as the example of Tulele Peisa demonstrates, they must be involved in climate change adaptation, including resettlement measures.

The interesting thing about Tulele Peisa is that it is not just an NGO or civil society organization in the Western understanding of the term but is closely linked to non-state actors that do not fit neatly into the Western “civil society” category. Tulele Peisa was set up at the request of the local Council of Elders, that is, traditional authorities from the customary sphere of society. Tulele Peisa thus is an example of a “bridging organization,” which connects local customary life-worlds and the “outside” world of state and civil society.

The following policy recommendations can be drawn from the Carterets case:

  • Climate change relocation should integrate the activities of stakeholders from different societal spheres—state institutions, local customary as well as civil society institutions—in an overarching governance framework. In particular, the potential of local traditional actors and networks must not be left untapped.
  • Resettlement should be understood and addressed in a holistic way, encompassing socioeconomic, political, psychological, cultural, philosophical, spiritual, material, and immaterial aspects.
  • Due to the conflict potential inherent in resettlement, it should be conducted in a conflict-sensitive way, taking account of the needs, interests, expectations of both resettlement communities and recipient communities.
  • Both new settlers and recipient communities need to be meaningfully included in and participate fully in every stage of the resettlement process, through continual dialogue with all parties.
  • Linkages should be built between different levels of relocation governance, from the international to the local, giving particular support to bridging institutions which can bring together stakeholders from different governance levels, different societal spheres, different localities, and with different worldviews.

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