Renewable Matter # 12 / September-October

Kiribati's Lesson

by Mauro Panzeri

Natural paradises and remote islands in the Pacific Ocean hide more complex stories than an exotic postcard: for instance, disappearing atolls nearly submerged by water. In their book Kiribati, two travellers tell the story of an archipelago on the other side of the world.

 

 

Pacific Ocean, about 14,500 km from Italy: Kiribati, formerly known as Gilbert Islands, has been a republic since 1979 and geographically belongs to Micronesia. 717 square kilometres and 100,000 inhabitants, highly populated and plagued by high unemployment, Kiribati comprises 33 coral atolls rising just above sea level. Its people are mainly fishermen, sailors and farmers, half of whom live in Tarawa, the atoll where its capital is located. Contrary to what the hit and run paradise maps would lead us to believe, tourism is not the main source of income in Kiribati.

Let us go over its recent history: it was a British protectorate, a type of colonialism characterized by the overexploitation of resources and forced transfer of people to Nauru, 700 kilometres from Tarawa, to work in phosphate mines. Then in 1942 it was occupied by Japan that lost it soon afterwards in a terrible battle with the USA and finally in the 1960s more than 30 hydrogen bombs were dropped in the area. Not the simplest past for a paradise. 

Today Kiribati is facing a new and alarming problem. These Pacific islands must tackle the problem brought about by climate change: sea level rise caused by global warming and strong storms have jeopardized their fragile ecosystem and eroded their coastline letting seawater penetrate into the atolls thus contaminating drinking water and destroying crops. This is how Kiribati is slowly disappearing. Partly already submerged, in 20 years it will be uninhabitable and in 50/100 years it will disappear from maps for good. The name Kiribati has become famous the world over, discussed in major international summits, a vivid example and a powerful argument. This is its burden. It has become not only a controversial case but also one for which finding a solution is very difficult. A few years ago, former President Anote Tong bought 5,000 acres of free land in Vanua Levu on Fiji Islands (3,000 km to the South) with the aim of transferring its population in a gradual but highly costly migration, especially in human terms. Environmental migrants, another well-known topic. 

Attracted to these and other faraway stories, two young Italian designers, Alice Piciocchi and Andrea Angeli, decided to quit their jobs to cross the world and go to Kiribati. “We left Italy with the idea that we would find a nation in a state of emergency, scarred families with suitcases at the ready and a strong evacuation strategy shared at national level. But what we found was a completely different scenario” they write in the preface of their book which is now an account of their journey.

Kiribati. Cronache illustrate da una terra (s)perduta (Kiribati. Illustrated Chronicles from a Lost Land) is a book born after their long and certainly not touristy visit to Kiribati. In Kiribati the two foreigners, who are few and far between, met families, attended ceremonies, gathered notes, videos, photos, recordings while forging relations and friendships. Their aim was to be welcomed but also to be sensitive in order to listen, understand and document. Only when they came back did they decide to turn their experience into a book. It was well worth it, because Kiribati does not deserve to be just a textbook environmental case. The authors discovered, for instance, that the inhabitants are not worried about this emergency and have no clear idea of what the future holds. They lead a life that is both simple and difficult, surrounded by beautiful plants and fish, diet problems, aquifer pollution, obesity due to imported goods, ancient traditions and present impacts and poor communication. The book was inspired by 19th-century travel memoirs full of illustrations, narrative and legends: Kiribati is a light and gentle ethnographic volume, very contemporary but without a single photo, with elegantly coloured drawings and written as a simple personal diary; illustrated tables tell about people, dreams, architecture, rites, animals and fruits, water and the sky. Its beautiful infographics make it even more contemporary. Do you want to know Kiribati and its people? This is the book you have been waiting for. Illustrations in this article have been taken from the book. 

 

 

Alice Piciocchi and Andrea Angeli, Kiribati. Cronache illustrate da una terra (s)perduta, 24 ORE Cultura, 2016

All images ©24 ORE Cultura, 2016