Tiny island's race against the tide

By Phil Taylor

The Pacific atoll of Takuu is sinking, threatening its unique culture. Phil Taylor reports on the plight of the islanders and the New Zealanders telling their stories

The cameras were there when the sea came, there to record the prelude to a fate foretold.

The Christmas before last, waves swept right over the atoll, terrifying the 500 inhabitants of Takuu with its power, spoiling crops with its salt.

That was a king tide, no more, but it showed how defenceless their homeland is when its summit is just 700 millimetres above the high tide mark.

It may now be less, because Takuu is disappearing beneath the sea, an early victim it seems of a heating planet and breakdown of the atoll itself. Either way, Takuu brings existential meaning to the term low-lying.

For its inhabitants, the choice is simple: leave for the foreignness of Bougainville and its malaria-carrying mosquitoes, 250km to the southwest, or stay and share the fate of the only home they have known.

Time is up for their unique culture and way of life because relocating means the loss of the isolation that has protected those things.

A dot in the ocean. That's the phrase we use to indicate the smallest of landfalls. Go to oceandots.com - an image-based encyclopedia of islands - and you discover that Takuu hardly qualifies as a dot. Squint as much as you like and yet the marker indicating its location still points to seeming uninterrupted blue.

Still, it wasn't so inconspicuous that missionaries couldn't find it. Takuu islanders sent them away and have, until recently, banned people selling religion. That, too, preserved their traditional religion.

For the record, the Takuu Islands is a 12km-by-15km ring of sand-topped coral, fractured here and there into a dozen islets. The Takuu islanders live among palm trees on one of the smallest of these islands on the east of the rim. Many of the older people have never set foot anywhere else.

"What will you do?" The question is asked by Bethells Beach film-maker Briar March in her soon-to-be-released documentary There Once Was An Island.

"Maybe," shrugs one native of Takuu, "they will find nobody. This island will be gone."

March, who is currently at prestigious Stanford University studying documentary film-making, explained to KiaOra magazine that she has a passion for finding stories she believes need to be told, "an important thing that needs to be known".

She discovered Takuu after reading an article about the work of Richard Moyle. Moyle, the recently retired associate professor of Auckland University's Centre for Pacific Studies, has dedicated much of his career to recording aspects of the Takuu people's way of life before it is too late.

He has lived on the island for a total of 20 months during eight visits. He is one of only four researchers to have been allowed to stay on the island, the only one to have published and the only one adopted as a trusted son.

The Ariki (chief), until his death last year, treated Moyle as something of an adviser and islanders still use the name the chief bestowed on Moyle Sauhatu, which translates as "raising the stone/sinker", a reference to fishing for a species of fish who when hooked at great depth race towards the surface, thus raising the stone.

Boat trips from Buka (on Bougainville) are rare (about four a year) and the timetable is fluid. Moyle's bags are packed and ready in his Coromandel Peninsula home, where he awaits word of the next sailing (expected in about a month). He will take the islanders an extraordinary gift seven copies of a dictionary of their language (in book and DVD form), drawn from hundreds of hours of his audio and video recordings.

The dictionary follows earlier books he has produced about their songs and dances, and a bilingual record of their fables. Moyle is working on a fourth book (about their religion) and has material for several more.

He will also take them photographs they have never seen of ancestors standing on the five acres of sand where they live today.

What has become an abiding interest of Moyle's life began 17 years ago from a project funded by UNESCO to survey the music of Oceania. Essentially, the project involved sending researchers to inhabited places in the Pacific about which little was known.

The language spoken on Takuu is thought to have derived from Samoa and as Samoan has been Moyle's second language since the 1960s (when he lived in Samoa researching an MA thesis and later a PhD in Samoan music), he'd thought he could "step off the canoe and speak Samoan and make myself understood."

"It took me two minutes to realise I was sadly wrong," says Moyle.

"They believe they come from Samoa and there's evidence to support it, but the two cultures have been separated for so long the Takuu language and grammar are quite distinct."

The community has one Ariki but is extremely egalitarian. "All houses are the same shape and the same design. Canoes differ in size and shape only in that the drift wood that washes ashore is longer or shorter. There are no leaders in performance of singing and dancing; in theory anyone can start."

Houses, which sit in crowded rows so close the eaves almost touch, are made entirely from materials from the island. Roofs and walls are thatched pandanus leaves, tree stumps become house-posts, beams are lashed together with sennit and crushed coral covers the floor.

There is good reason for egalitarianism, notes Moyle. "It gives the most people the best chance of survival. At birth each person is allocated two people, taka (translated as sponsors), who will look after that person throughout their life. So if the mother and father fall on hard times the child won't be abandoned and the chances of reaching maturity and having kids of there own is increased."

Their presence and survival on the island is remarkable. Though information is patchy, indications are they came in a great canoe journey, probably from Samoa.

"If you look at the outliers [populated small islands] on a map, they are roughly north-west and south-east. That coincides with the tradewinds," says Moyle.

The knowledge locals have of their history prior to European contact was eliminated by an epidemic accidentally introduced about 1860. Several canoes were sighted off-shore with bows tied together and when the islanders went out to inspect they found all but a few people aboard dead. The survivors told them they had come from Java in the Solomons and were escaping an epidemic. "The problem was they weren't escaping it, they were carrying it."

Likely to have been small pox, it reduced the population of Takuu to just 11 people. A photo taken in 1884 by explorer Richard Parkinson and said to depict all inhabitants, shows 15 people, none of them elderly.

"That era", says Moyle, "is just silence, we just don't know."

What is known is there were several enormous out-rigger canoes measured by Parkinson at 17 metres indicating a significant voyage to the island and a substantial population as they would take perhaps 30 people to haul each one to and from the sea.

The canoes (Parkinson didn't indicate how may) were rotting in their shelters because there weren't enough people to launch or crew them.

More bad luck arrived from the sea in the form of Queen Emma of New Guinea, a headstrong woman said to have been too much even for her one-time beau, the pirate Bully Hayes. Of American and Samoan parentage, she was well-connected, a sharp-operator known for her charm and the extravagant parties she threw.

On Takuu she struck a deal with the familiar hallmarks of misunderstanding. She provided the islanders with axes and other items she believed was in payment for their islands and which the locals thought was a gift in exchange for allowing her to set up a trading store.

Queen Emma had the trees cleared for copra plantations and ordered the locals from the large island they had inhabited to a small one where they lived, says Moyle, in virtual slavery for 40 years.

That tiny island remains their home today. "You can stand anywhere on that island," says Moyle, "and throw a stone into the water."

The population reached a peak of 1000 in the mid-1990s when many islanders returned to escape the civil war on Bougainville. That co-incided with Moyle's first visit and he witnessed the island's inability to cope. Many of the educated islanders soon left with their families for paid jobs elsewhere in Papua New Guinea and as a result the population dropped to about 500 today.

Moyle has no doubt that the sea that brought their ancestors there will force them out. Salt water is leaching into the freshwater table and poisoning taro crops and, significantly, the soil built up over generations of composting.

One of the first things he will do on arrival is cut a new notch in a palm tree come lunar high tide. "I used to make marks at the highest tide of every lunar month on the trunk of a coconut palm that had been overtaken by the waves but was still standing. Each notch I cut was getting higher by several centimetres each year."

A rising ocean (due to global warming) or a sinking atoll? Moyle believes it is both and that there may be just a few years left before the ability of the atoll to sustain life is extinguished.

Are the people of Takuu reconciled to their fate?

"Older people simply cannot comprehend life anywhere else. There are people who have never left the island, believe it or not. You ask them the question: what will you do? They will simply shrug.

"Others will say 'I'm not going'. You say 'you will have no food' and they reply, 'well, I will simply die here.' It is a rational response, there is nothing emotional about it."

Some may simply prefer that fate than leave an island where there is little crime or corruption for parts of Papua New Guinea about which the same can not be said. Moyle notes that funds set aside by the Bougainville government for relocating the people of Takuu has mysteriously disappeared.

Their culture, says Moyle, can not last away from the island it is inextricably tied to. It won't just be the mosquitoes that will prey on them. Churches too will compete for their souls and that way lies the loss of the only traditional Polynesian religion that Moyle has heard of that is routinely practised today.

And how should we consider the loss of something so small, yet unique?

Perhaps one of the islanders had the answer when he told the film-makers: "If you lose something small in the world, you lose a lot."

THE CLIMATE FOR PEACE

Pacific Island nations have compared global warming to an invading army in a plea for the United Nations Security Council to break the stalemate in negotiations over a legally binding global climate treaty.

The 11 nations that make up the Pacific Small Island Developing States told the UN's most powerful body to argue that the threat they face from a warmer world and rising sea levels is comparable to armed conflict. "Climate change can devastate a country just as thoroughly as an invading army," said Nauru's UN Ambassador Marlene Moses.

Moses, who chairs the group, said the Security Council must step in because the UN-led negotiations for mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases and assistance for the most vulnerable nations is stalled.

"If [the] international community fails to take immediate action, then it will be complicit in the extinction of entire nations," she said.

The group said climate change was contributing to severe food and water shortages in the Pacific and already making refugees of people in Vanuatu, Micronesia, Papua New Guinea, Tuvalu and the Solomon Islands.

The group's letter, sent by UN ambassadors from the 11 Pacific Island nations, was pointedly critical of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that sponsored the last major climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark last December.

A last-minute political agreement fell short on specific steps to cool the planet, but urged deeper cuts in emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases blamed for warming the globe. It also set up the first significant programme of climate aid to poorer nations and adopted a goal of holding the rise in global temperatures below 2 degrees celsius.

A promised $30 billion fund over the next three years, scaling up to $100 billion a year by 2020, was a key element.

"While the UNFCCC should be the primary forum for developing a global response to climate change, the negotiations are not keeping pace with the severity of the impacts," said Samoa's UN Ambassador Aliioaiga Feturi Elisaia.

"Climate refugees, conflict over increasingly scarce resources and the loss of territory are all impacts caused by climate change that will threaten global peace and security," he said.

- AP

There Once Was An Island, screens as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, nationwide 8 July-17 November. www.nzff.co.nz for details.

- NZ Herald

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