The Pacific island nation of Tokelau is one of the most remote places on the planet, and, with the entire country sitting metres above sea level, one of the most under threat from climate change. Media creator Kate Whitley describes the journey to this vulnerable ‘necklace of small islands’.
In November 2017 a small group from Te Papa including scientists, curators, and media creators journeyed to Tokelau – a group of three, low-lying, coral atolls in the Pacific. Our remit was to collect cultural objects and intangible knowledge and stories relating to those items, with the aim to record the voices and views of the people in a very real and honest way.
The objects collected on this trip form part of a co-collecting initiative which encourages communities to play a greater role in representing themselves through telling their stories and selecting objects which reflect their cultural diversity. The initiative is designed to explore how these communities live with and responding to climate change, as well as exploring indigenous knowledge.
Our team set off from Apia, Samoa, on board our vessel, the Mataliki, following a brief dengue fever check and very rudimentary immigration procedures conducted in a small shed in the port alongside our vessel.
The ship delivers valuable supplies to Tokelau as well as ferrying passengers. Some of the young people we spoke to on board were returning home for Christmas from Fiji, where they are studying at the University of the South Pacific – a journey involving more than 24 hours aboard a ship and a flight from Fiji to Samoa. For the students, it’s a once-a-year trip and there’s a sense of happiness on board as they return to family in Tokelau.
Once aboard, the locals rushed to claim the mattresses on deck, where many of them spent the majority of the trip snoozing amidst a swathe of brightly coloured lavalava (sarongs), the preferred garment to sleep in. The smoking area was adjacent to the mattresses, separated not by walls but by a strip of red tape, so most of our party headed below deck to the air-conditioned bunkrooms.
Life on the ocean poses many challenges. Showering or using the bathrooms on board a constantly rolling ship is an art in itself, and mealtimes were a marvel to observe as the ship’s crew wandered around with a huge teapot full of Milo for the passengers. How they managed to pour hour liquids perfectly into a mug without falling over or scalding adjacent passengers is still a mystery.
As the islands of Samoa receded, vistas of endless ocean and vast skies provided ample time for contemplation, horizon-gazing, and cloud-studying. We strained our eyes for the slightest sign of a whale blowing or a fin or tail breaking the surface, but saw only a very occasional seabird and little else.
After more than 24 hours at sea, a small, low-lying atoll emerged as though a mirage. The first of three atolls that make up the New Zealand protectorate of Tokelau appears suddenly. It strikes me just how vulnerable and remote these islands are – a necklace of small islands in the midst of a vast ocean.
It’s difficult to imagine how the people of Tokelau cope with storm surges let alone with rising sea levels. The highest land is less than a few metres above sea level. At points around the atoll, there is only low-lying coral and sand separating ocean waters from the sanctuary of the lagoon within the atoll. Most striking was the width of the land fringing the lagoon – in some areas both the sea and the lagoon are clearly visible from the atoll, with only a football pitch-sized strip of land separating the two areas of water.
Despite the geographical isolation and the vulnerability of the atolls, they host quite developed villages and there is reasonable infrastructure including a hospital and large school on one island. Efforts to resist the increasing storms include sea-walls being built around parts of the atolls. Despite these efforts, locals speak of waves which wash over the island to the lagoon beyond, damaging crops and infrastructure and contaminating fresh water. In some areas, houses are raised on stilts with rainwater tanks beneath.
Once on the island we meet with the co-collectors; members of the community who describe what is being done to live with the effects of climate change, and who have selected objects for us to bring back to Te Papa. Tokelauans are warm, hospitable people who, although shy at first, are keen to share their stories. They proudly tell us of the efforts to resist the sea with the sea walls, and talk of the huge change to life the solar power station has made with electricity being available 24/7. A recent delivery of building materials means workers are busy developing what looks to be a new municipal building and houses feature televisions, computers, and fridges – all made possible with the advent of constant electricity. There seems to be a steady rate of progress, of industry.
Tokelauans remain optimistic about their future in spite of global predictions for rising sea levels which will spell disaster for the atolls. Some locals though, demand an answer. The teacher of the primary school, upon seeing us, asked us what is being done. She says her students are asking about their future.
What can we say? What will the future look like for Tokelauans and their children? The day we visited the sea was calm and the atoll appeared as though on a postcard, but the sea wall only seemed a temporary measure against an insurmountable problem. Perhaps this notice, posted on the side of a public building in Atafu is a message to us all: [A] Clean environment is the only way to survive.