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Tension in Paradise

Global Warming and Western Culture Threaten Laid Back Island Life

by Tom PriceSpecial to CorpWatch
December 3rd, 2002

Faulopa islet. The conservation of Funafuti.
Faulopa islet in the Funafuti Conservation Area.�Karie Henderson


Dawn comes quickly to Funafuti, Tuvalu's main island, which rises only a few feet from the warm Pacific Ocean some 400 miles north of Fiji. Tuvalu is like many places brushing up against development, simultaneously simple and complex. Island life hums along here, a small place where everyone knows everyone else, where children ask visitors names, and remember them days or weeks later. Shoppers amble down one of two main roads, stopping at a bakery in someone's house for a fresh loaf of bread. They pass coconut and banana trees whose ownership is so widely known no one picks from another's tree.

Familiarity and intimacy produce trust. A visitor to the island can walk into a cooperatively run store, rent a bootlegged video and, after paying, leave without giving their own or the video's name. It's understood it will return in due time.

At the edge of the calm lagoon on this narrow island, groups of children play at fishing, armed with a line, bits of coconut, and a machete. Older kids watch after their younger siblings. After a while something different about the way they play comes into focus: none of their games have winners and losers.

Land, Culture and Climate

Amid the lush idyll, there is an underlying unease among many people here. Their culture, even the very land beneath their feet is changing, as the rising tides of global warming and western culture wash hard against their shores. "I am worried about my children and grandchildren," says island chief Siaosi Finiki, talking about climate and cultural changes. "The west is so strong, young people get ideas."

One of those ideas is the need for cars. Once a month a cargo ship pulls into harbor with more vehicles -- in July seven cars, and a few dozen motorbikes, were unloaded. The roads of Funafuti were first paved in April of 2001, cutting a trip from one end of the island to the other from a few hours to 20 minutes by scooter. Heading out to the far reaches of the island traffic creeps along. The government instructed road crews to build massive speed bumps to cut down on accidents. Now cars and SUVs crawl slowly over these obstacles; most never get out of second gear.

The ship also brings durable western goods, newly in favor here, and the refuse they generate. Paani Laupepa, Assistant Secretary for the Environment, spends what little free time he has from his work on global warming dealing with the growing issue of solid waste. The problem is increasing on the tiny atoll where rising incomes and western tastes are running headlong into a finite amount of land. Further complicating things, Funafuti is pockmarked with massive "borrow" pits gouged out of the coral ground by US Army Corps of Engineers to build the airstrip which now dominates the island.

Decades later the pits sit empty, filling with fetid water and jumbles of garbage. Appeals to the US to fill them in, restoring valuable pastureland, have been rebuffed. US officials say the agreement was made with the British when Tuvalu was a colony, and pass the buck to Westminster Abbey. Neighboring Fiji has offered an entire mountain to be used as fill, but without a way to move the soil it remains unaccepted. The south tip of Funafuti is now a massive garbage dump, which occasionally burns, sending out smoke plumes that are visible for miles.

Tuvalu's response reflects what happens when traditional island frugality meets the semi-permanent waste of development. Garbage is now sorted, with a chipper plant near the runway shredding green waste, and combining it with pig waste to create garden compost. Things that won't break down, like glass and plastic, are crushed, bundled, and thrown into the abyss of the borrow pits, the durable goods of the west in effect filling in for the earth that was "borrowed."

Climate Change

The recovery and retention of the land is crucial to Tuvaluans. "We are so attached to our land, it is the very basis of our existence. It is very hard to make the decision to upset that bond," says Laupepa, referring to rising seas and their potential to force mass relocations, adding, "I see that we might have to come to that."

The effects cloud even national successes, like the Funafuti Conservation Area across the lagoon. There the islet of Fualopa is swirling with sea birds, sixteen species in all, all the more striking since not one lives on the populated islands. But beneath the waves are faded trees of coral. Warmer waters attributed to climate change have tinkered with the microclimate the coral needs to survive, "bleaching" them to death. The structures are still there, but the life is draining from them.

The ocean is central to every life here, and much of life continues as it always has. Sunset finds families bathing and gossiping in the flat, warm water of the lagoon. Nights on Funafuti are quiet-the satellite TV link has been broken for years, though few seem to mind. Families and friends amuse themselves with making music and singing, or perhaps watching a video.

The excerption to the self-entertainment rule comes during the three nights a week when the cinder block and chain link Matagi-Gali bar is open, where drinks are sold in six packs, and no one bats an eye when Blondie's "the tide is high, but I'm holding on" blares over the loudspeakers. Police sit outside on their scooters, making sure everyone gets home without trouble.

Walking home along the runway, shapes come into view. As the largest open space in the country, the runway also serves as an open-air bedroom on warm nights. Many are still awake. With only 14 letters, almost half of them vowels, the Tuvaluan language has a lilting, rolling quality, and the voices resonate with a vaguely familiar sound, like a voice half heard in a room next door. Often, theres laughter in the darkness.

Thinking of sleep and dreams, reminds one of Laupepa's words about the hopes and aspirations of his people, whose dreams he wants Americans to know.

"The message for people in America is very simple: there are human beings out there, whose dreams, whose visions of a future happy life with their children is being threatened by the way you Americans live, by the way you Americans consume, by the way you Americans produce things," explains the Assistant Environment Secretary.

"Please, take a moment and look at how you live, look at the policies of your government, and do something about it. Because if you do something good for the environment. You are taking that step of helping another human being achieve his dream of living happily ever after with his children in his homeland."

After spending eight years working as a conservationist on Capitol Hill, Tom Price returned to his home town of Salt Lake City. He now works as a freelance journalist covering environment, culture and travel.