Q&A with Ursula Rakova, Climate Activist for the Carteret Islands

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Ursula Rakova was born on Papua New Guinea’s Carteret Islands in the Southwestern Pacific. She and her community are among the world’s first climate change refugees. Frustrated by inaction on the part of the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government, Rakova’s community took matters into their own hands and formed Tulele Peisa in 2006, which means sailing the waves on our own. Rakova was asked by her elders to lead this local community organization through an unprecedented experience: relocating the entire island community of the Carterets to the safer ground of Bougainville, which is 80 kilometers, or up to five hours away by boat.

pp ngSince then, Ursula has traveled the world to warn about the very real effects of climate change, and explain how sea surges have destroyed the crops and livelihoods of her people. Forced from their ancestral lands, the Carteret Islanders are relocating to three separate communities on the mainland. As Executive Director of Tulele Peisa, Ursula coordinates this process, an intricate plan which includes exchanges between host and islander communities to ease transition and reduce tension, an income generation program in cocoa production, and building new homes for families to resettle.

“We are being forced from our ancient island homeland to the mainland, where we must start new lives and find sustainable means to produce our food and survive. I want to make sure that my people have a future life for generations to come."

Rakova, a pioneer of PNG’s environmental movement

WD:  How has your experience as a pioneer of the environmental movement in Papua New Guinea helped prepare you for this massive undertaking?

Ursula: My elders called on me to lead Tulele Peisa and organize the relocation of the Carteret Islanders when it became apparent that the PNG government was not going to come to our assistance. I think that my professional background in public administration and development has helped me to build the international alliances necessary to move this work forward.  Because of climate change I am going to lose my island, the island I was born on, the island that is my inheritance through the matrilineal line of the Carteret Islanders. But I will not lose my people and my community.

WD:  You have traveled all over the world speaking about the challenges facing your community.  Has your action plan helped to guide other communities facing climate-related migration?  What kind of feedback do you get from populations in similar circumstances?  Is there a growing alliance of vulnerable Pacific communities?

Ursula:  We have developed an 18-point plan for successful community relocation that grew out of our own community experience. There are other small atoll communities off the coast of Bougainville that are now seeking to join with us and are beginning to create their own relocation plans. Others in the Pacific have looked at different options to preserve their land and their cultures; each island nation is different. We know how difficult it is to face leaving your land and heritage. That is why we have followed a step-by-step strategy to insure that our relocation will be on our own terms and will provide a thriving future for our people.

WD:  As a woman leading Tulele Peisa, what are some of the challenges you have faced within your own community, or those of your hosts?

Ursula: I break all the taboos because I can’t waste my time crawling around.  Some people don’t like me because I get results. They are more concerned with protecting their own status rather than taking care of the people.

WD: What about the cultural differences between the host and resettling communities? Have there been any surprises during this transition? How is the relationship between host and migrant community?  

Ursula:  When we started planning our relocation to mainland Bougainville, we were very aware of the legacy of civil war that still lingers in the region. Considerable research taught us that Carteret Islanders are actually related to Bougainvillians through a common ancestry. We use this communality to emphasize the connections between our two communities.  The exchange programs were very successful. They helped our hosts to understand the difficulties we were going through and made them more receptive to welcoming us into their community. We have a long way to go to fully integrate into the host community, but we are making many small, positive steps forward.

WD: How about the status of the Bougainville Cocoa company that you created?  Is this endeavor functioning and creating livelihoods for your fellow islanders?

Ursula:  We are still at the beginning stages with Bougainville Cocoa but now have our own cocoa bean refinery and have planted over 30,000 new cocoa trees on our land in Tinputz.  The Finnish government has supported the development of our cocoa production.  In 2015, we shipped 3000 tonnes of cocoa beans to Europe.  Our goal is to reach 30,000 tonnes per year.

WD: What is the status of the migration from the islands?  

Ursula: There are four settlements planned that will eventually house more than 100 families or, approximately, 1700 people. The rest of the islanders wish to remain on the atoll until the end. One settlement of ten houses has been completed, accommodating about 100 people. These settlements are being built on land parcels of former cocoa plantations in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea that have been deeded to Tulele Peisa by the Catholic Church.

WD: What are the reports from those who have already settled on the mainland?  Have they succeeded in growing crops or engaging in livelihoods to support their families?

Ursula: The residents of the first settlement in Tinputz are very grateful for the food security of the new community, in contrast to their lives on the atoll where food is quite scarce. They are optimistic about the new opportunities available to them on the mainland, particularly the opportunity to earn income from cash crops. Each family has their own plot where they can grow food for the family and also produce excess to be sold in the road street markets that dot the landscape in Bougainville. Collectively, the community is re-planting the cocoa crop and has already sold some small amounts to international brokers.

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