Lessons from contemporary resettlement in the South Pacific.

Author:Burkett, Maxine
Position:Forced Migration

Depending on the scale and distance of migration, a variety of challenges face both those moving because of climate impacts and the communities receiving these migrants. The lessons drawn from resettlements and planned relocations thus far--most notably in the Carteret Islands of Papua New Guinea--underscore the importance of adequate funding, careful planning, restoring traditional livelihoods, and ensuring voluntary community participation throughout the entire process. Critical hurdles persist, however, particularly for the most vulnerable communities within nation-states. This article explores the importance of adequate funding and identifies the dangerous and nagging impediments present, even as climate-induced migration advances in the adaptation discourse. With a focus on the Carteret Islanders' ongoing relocation and resettlement to the island of Bougainville, this article argues that communities may face economic development and political gaps. Economic development gaps inhibit communities' abilities to address redevelopment needs that elude appropriate classification for funding because they are neither strictly "climate" nor "development" categories. Additionally, political gaps exacerbate the challenges of accessing existing funding for local communities that are at odds with the national governments that purportedly represent their interests. These gaps compound the general lack of adequate funding for climate change mitigation and adaptation. Considering models for a new framework, this article explores the applicability of existing community-oriented funding regimes to address the political and economic development challenges that climate migrants face.


A politically contentious issue, climate change-related migration suffers from ambivalent recognition in many forums, including in legal, political, and international negotiations. The existence of the climate change migration phenomenon, however, at least for the kinds of relocation typical of small island atoll communities in the Pacific, is credible and verifiable. (1) Indeed, a number of communities are already well into the process of relocation--and for each, durable solutions are critical. (2)

This article focuses on the relocation difficulties facing communities that are currently moving as a result of climate forces, specifically in Papua New Guinea (PNG). A review of their plight reveals that two important gaps in assistance compound the inherent challenges of relocation and cause the nagging lack of funding for climate change action, generally, and adaptation, specifically. These gaps are either economic development gaps--in which communities cannot address redevelopment needs that, because they are neither strictly "climate" nor "development," elude appropriate classification for funding--and political gaps--in which existing funding is inaccessible for local communities that are at odds with the national governments charged with representing their interests.

This article first provides a brief background on the contested phenomenon of climate-induced migration and then looks at the specific instances of planned relocation in the South Pacific. Extrapolating from concerns of the Carteret Islanders of PNG, this article later explores the gaps in research and management that hamper relocation and may adversely affect successful, long-term resettlement. In the final part, it considers the perils and possibilities of current funding regimes and explores possible amendments to improve the odds of success for relocating communities. Considering sound models for a new framework, this article explores the applicability of existing, though smaller, community-oriented funding regimes and community-based adaptation generally as a paradigmatic framework to address the political and economic development challenges that climate migrants face.


While the movement of peoples as a result of climate change-induced pressures may be difficult to predict and clearly identify, certain types of movement are more straightforward than others. Because of the generally multi-causal nature of migration, there exists significant controversy regarding the ability to attribute the decision of individuals to leave their homes permanently and relocate due to climate change. (3) The uncertainties regarding the extent and magnitude of the changing climate, the elusiveness of a credible and consistent number of possible migrants, and the absence of a clear legal status and framework for those who might move--particularly across borders--compound the attribution uncertainties. The migration of small islanders due to sea-level rise, coupled with more devastating storm surges and king tides, however, is more certain. (4) Accordingly, researchers and climate migration skeptics have largely excluded this category of migrants from the more general and contentious debates surrounding the relationship between climate and migration or dislocation. (5)

Throughout the Pacific, efforts to relocate communities are currently underway that highlight the need for effective management and funding. Recognizing the existential threat to its territory and people, Kiribati has been developing a relocation policy it calls "migration with dignity." (6) The president of Kiribati has recently purchased arable land in Fiji to assist with food production, which is currently compromised in Kiribati by climate-related saltwater intrusion. (7) That land will also serve as a place to relocate some, if not all, of its citizens when it becomes necessary. (8) In the Solomon Islands, Choiseul--a township of about 1,000 people on Taro Island--lies less than two meters above sea level and is the first provincial capital in the Pacific to orchestrate a relocation with all of its services and facilities to be moved. (9) Threatened by storm surges and rising seas, and eager to move swiftly, the community consulted a team of engineers, scientists, and planners, and decided that, while implementing disaster prevention measures in the near term, it would concurrently construct a new town on an adjacent mainland and move communities in stages. (10)

While many hail the Choiseul relocation as a model for other provinces across the nation and the Pacific, there are remaining funding and management needs for a successful transition. (11) For this township and similarly situated communities, a variety of challenges face both those moving and the communities receiving them. The most common risks associated with displacement and resettlement processes include: landlessness, unemployment, homelessness, marginalization, food insecurity, loss of access to common property, and social disintegration.

The lessons drawn from resettlements and planned relocations thus far--most notably in the Carteret Islands of PNG--might help to ensure the most successful resettlement for communities that must relocate. Some 2,000 Carteret Islanders are in the midst of permanently resettling from their tiny islets in the Carteret Atoll to mainland Bougainville. Separated by a three-hour boat ride, the move to the mainland marks a significant departure for the islanders and an unprecedented challenge for the national and international infrastructure that must now fund and manage this kind of move. (12) In addition to coping with the devastation of the atoll due to rising seas, saltwater intrusion in freshwater wells and taro fields, an unprecedented occurrence and intensity of king tides, and accompanying erosion of culture for the "taro people," islanders have suffered from their own government's resistance to act and a lack of assistance from the international community. (13) In response, the Council of Elders initiated a plan for resettlement. Coordinating the move since 2006, Ursula Rakova is leading the permanent resettlement to Bougainville and, most importantly, attempting to ensure that the islanders will be self-reliant in their new home. (14)

The move toward self-reliance has been contingent not only on the removal of obstacles presented by various layers of government, including the national government, but also on the delivery of an adequate and more expansive view of climate-related funding. To craft their eighteen-step process--including community profiling and assessment, which resulted in the islanders owning land, initiating home building, and exploring sustainable economic development--Rakova relied on small amounts of seed money from the New Zealand High Commission in PNG and the nonprofit, Global Greengrants Fund. (15) Additional funds for critical items such as "education of the younger people, health facilities, economic opportunities for the islanders, and trauma counseling for the families that [we are] moving, as well as the host community" was not forthcoming from larger donors or PNG. (16) The bureaucracy and complexity of the process, for both international donors and the PNG government, have encumbered poorly endowed community-based efforts and stymied swift and effective strategies to relocate. (17) According to Rakova, donors objected to the first set of homes built, arguing for cheaper, less resilient houses. Furthermore, tens of thousands of dollars earmarked for climate adaptation for the islands and atolls of PNG could not be used for house construction, as it did not conform to prescribed categories for climate aid. (18)

The Carteret Islanders' experience vis-a-vis funding is not unusual, yet adequate funding is absolutely essential to address the challenges of climate-induced relocation. (19) It not only facilitates the necessary studies for proper planning, but also supports participatory processes critical for community engagement and, hopefully, a successful resettlement process with dignity and long-term self-reliance at its core.


The Funding Landscape and Its Current Shortfalls

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