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Our People on the Reef
Jane Resture

The swaying palms
the gentle surf
lapping upon the sand.
A gentle breeze
so keen to please
 slowly gusts across our land.
Our island home
 is all we have known
 as centuries rolled by.
Our island people stood alone
 on reefs so barren and dry.

But as years go by
we wonder why
the shoreline is not the same.
The things we knew
as always true
somehow do not remain.
The breakers break on higher ground
the outer palms are falling down.
The taro pits begin to die
and the village elders wonder why.

For what is happening to the beautiful isles we know?
Tuvalu, Kiribati and Tokelau
the Marshall Isles
that place of smiles
The rising sea will reclaim our ground
nothing but water will abound
our people forced to leave for higher ground.

While far away they pour their fumes into the clear blue sky
not knowing and never caring why
the world is beginning to die.
So land of our forebears despite how much we cared for you
the time will soon be when we must bid you adieu.

about this poem

The earth is warming, causing sea levels to slowly rise and storms to become more violent.  Sea levels are rising because (1) water expands when it warms and therefore takes up more space, and (2) the warmer climate is melting polar ice caps and mountain glaciers, adding water to the world's oceans.

People living on low-lying coral atolls such as Tuvalu, Kiribati, Tokelau and the Marshall Islands, have recently seen many of their beautiful islets disappear underwater, swallowed up by the rising sea.  They have also seen alarming changes on their larger islands.  Ocean tides now reach higher up on shore so that when storm surges occur, waves break into homes and other buildings prompting evacuations of people. 

Freshwater supplies needed for drinking and agriculture lie just below the surface of the atolls, and become easily contaminated by rising ground salt water and by flooding from storm surges.  When this happens, islands can become unfit for human habitation long before they are completely covered by the rising sea.

Because global warming is expected to increase in the future, sea levels are predicted to rise even more and storms to become even more violent.  This fact, coupled with the inability of the international community to adequately reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that cause global warming, means that low-lying atolls and their inhabitants face a dim future.

The author of this poem points out another problem: while the logistics of resettling people to other islands may be relatively simple, "the longer term impact of resettling people whose ancestral and spiritual roots are buried so deeply in the ground [of their native atolls] is yet to be fully comprehended."

The terror caused by rising sea levels and its displacement of atoll peoples from their lands and properties is a homeland security issue for island nations.  In an address before the United Nations Security Council, the representative of Tuvalu recently stated that "our national security is threatened by environmental degradation emanating from outside the country. Here I refer specifically to the environmental impacts of climate change and sea level rise and the loss of biological diversity [from overfishing]. The impact of climate change has the potential to threaten the survival of our entire nation."

The author of Our People on the Reef, Jane Resture, was born on Kiribati and has lived on several other Pacific atolls.  She holds a PhD in Anthropology with a specialization in Pacific Island Studies, and has received two knighthoods for her work in the preservation of Pacific Island heritage.

For more information about climate change and a review of the scientific evidence for it, see the July 20, 2005 statement by the President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, made under oath while testifying before the United States Senate Subcommittee on Global Climate Change and Impacts.

Photographs:  Marshall Island girls by Jared Alessandroni (USA); King tide on Kiribati, February 2005, by Greenpeace.


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