Not Waving but Drowning, the Plight of Tuvalu
By Sam Urquhart
The source of the .tv domain name, will soon become a virtual nation
The U.S. coastline is sinking, waves are sweeping over the plains, leaving the land encrusted with salt and virtually useless. Trees wither and die, people are forced to migrate inland. Meanwhile, as the President appeals to the international community for any form of help, other nations ignore the American tragedy and refuse help to migrants. American appeals to the international conscience fall upon deaf ears, the rest of the world struggle on into an uncertain future as a nation slowly drowns.
Fortunately, that’s just a fantasy. Outside Louisiana, America remains complacent and isolated on Climate Change. Other nations, however, are much more vulnerable. Substitute the Pacific island state of Tuvalu for the U.S. in the story above and the scenarios becomes real and along with it the hypocrisy of the “international community.”
It is a story that directly relates to GNN. Tuvalu once held the domain suffix ”.tv” due to a fluke of history, and sold the rights to that name for $40m to an American entrepreneur in 1998, before he sold them to Veritel who presumably granted “Gnn.tv.” domain rights. This works out at $1m per quarter for ten years.
As the recent BBC Storyville documentary, Before the Flood directed by Paul Lindsay shows, Tuvalu has both benefited and suffered from what amounts to a windfall for such a small nation (the second smallest by population in the world with about 9400 inhabitants). Tuvaluans are aware of the steady encroachment of the Pacific upon their flat islands and can see every year more trees contaminated by salt before they fall and are replaced by beach. Whole atolls covered with trees have been stripped bare. At the same time, the money has enabled them to build roads and buy SUVs, a gas station, nightclub and to produce mountains of litter. Development has locked them into the present, as they face a disastrous future.
In the not too distant future, Tuvalu will cease to exist. Evacuation plans are on the table. For example, an island of Fiji has been earmarked for transplantation yet its small (and intensely moralistic) community reject the changing morality of the Tuvaluans. New Zealand is mentioned as a refuge, but is unwilling to act as one, whilst Australia does the same.
At this moment, one thousand Tuvaluans are waiting in Nauru to be “repatriated” to an island that will cease to exist – possibly within twenty years – as an inhabitable place. The Australian government have talked about relaxing temporary visa restrictions upon Pacific Islanders, but have shown no willingness to listen to their requests for refuge. The Howard government say that Pacific islanders are frequent “overstayers”, and sources of crime. A recent report refutes this, but the government are unlikely to listen to it. There are too many nativist votes in restriction.
What about the international community? Here lies a bitter tragedy for Tuvalu. Naturally, they are critical of the anti-Kyoto stance of the American and Australian governments. As Saufatu Sopoanga, the Prime Minister of Tuvalu has written, “Successive elected governments in Tuvalu have adopted the concept of sustainable development, and we confront its issues almost daily. But however much we try to put this concept into action locally, we also know it will not solve the problem of rising sea levels, if in fact the sea is rising. What can we do?” Tuvalu are the victim of a global hypocrisy, and they know it.
Their history is one of imposition. In 1892, the British declared Tuvalu a protectorate, and a prime target for aggressive missionary work. During the Second World War Tuvalu “hosted” a U.S. air base that flattened the central part of the main island (worsening present day problems of storm surges). Independence was gained only in 1978, but since then economic development has been slow, whilst cultural change and population growth have been fast, forcing Tuvalu to rely on foreign remittances and aid money. However, even a nation as small as Tuvalu has had to cut back on public expenditure as a condition for aid.
In 2002, the Prime Minister, Koloa Talake, took the drastic step of launching legal action against the U.S. and Australia for polluting the planet and endangering his nation. He didn’t get far, as he failed to be reelected before the suit could be filed. In 2004, Tuvalu sent representatives to the United Nations in New York to plead their case, at a cost of $1.5m. They made progress within the bureaucracy, but very little outside it.
What can be done for Tuvalu? The nation may be doomed. There is little to be done to save the land from the waves but the people and their culture can be salvaged. Yet the World Bank have launched a very minor project to deal with Pacific island problems and that mostly concerns the far larger – but also imperiled nation of Kiribati. It has no interest in funding the relocation of Tuvaluans.
Tuvalu is a microcosm of what will happen to the rest of the world. Its people are growing fat and diabetic on imported foods. They have adopted car culture, western dress and complacency in quick-time. Underneath that, they seem a nation with the same desire to survive and thrive that we all harbour. Yet forces that they cannot control will conspire to prevent this. Human forces such as the miserly distribution of relief funds and the expansion of capitalism into the tiniest economies are making this worse. They are losing skills, community cohesion and valuable time as “development” kicks in. Outside observers can point to the totally accidental internet windfall and the very temporary prosperity that it has brought.
This money has only justified the marooning of the Tuvaluans, and has enabled nations guilty of climate crimes to evade responsibility for the relief of a nation.
Not enough people are willing to face the reality of national extinction. This is being measured. Every year around Funafuti island, the sea has risen 5.7mm for the past thirteen years. For a country with a high point of five meters, this will soon pass the dividing line between life and death. The tragedy is, not enough people are willing to accept that such a line exists. As the twenty first century matures, Tuvaluans will not be alone – but will we ignore other peoples as we have ignored them?
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