Fish or Flee? Tough Choice for Kiribati Angler (PHOTO ESSAY)

Feb 18, 2011

By Brian Reed

Making ends meet in the waters off of Kiribati. (Photo: Brian Reed)

A tiny island nation in the Pacific with an average elevation of only six and a half feet, Kiribati is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels resulting from climate change.

Last fall, reporter Brian Reed spent 30 days on the ground in Kiribati (pronounced KEER-ih-biss), filing dispatches for National Public Radio that put a human face on a populace at the beachheads of climate change.

In this exclusive photo essay, Reed introduces TakePart to fisherman Tekaai Kauabanga—a man torn between the customs and traditions of his island nation, and the promise of a more secure home for him and his family in New Zealand.

Tekaai Kauabanga teaches accounting to high school students.


He lives on a remote outer island in Kiribati, a tiny country scattered across the central Pacific Ocean. His island is called Abaiang, and you can walk across the it, from the ocean to the lagoon, in just a few minutes. 


Tekaai and his family mostly live a subsistence lifestyle.  He raises pigs:


Though sometimes the piglets misbehave.


He picks breadfruit, a starchy staple food that grows in trees.


And, of course, he goes fishing.


Until a few years ago, Tekaai says, he didn’t think much about climate change. 
“But now, we experience there’s a very big change in climate,” he says.  At the school Tekaai used to teach at, the well water would get salty, making it undrinkable. Over time, he’s seen seawalls that protect roads and houses washed away by storms and high tides. Droughts are longer, he says, and that’s taken a toll on his garden. When I visited him, it rained for the first time in about three months.
“We are lucky; you brought rain!” he told me.


It’s important to note that scientists aren’t able to attribute these specific changes to global warming. The specifics are, however, the types of changes scientists expect global warming to cause, and that’s enough to have Tekaai concerned about the future.
“We worry,” he says. “Life will be complicated.”
He and his wife, Merekita Takaieta, have decided to try and move.
They’ve applied to the Pacific Access Category (PAC)—a lottery that chooses 75 people a year to migrate from Kiribati to New Zealand. PAC isn’t specifically aimed at climate migrants. In fact, Tekaai says the main reason he and his wife want to move is so their son, Kauabanga Tekaai (yes, his name is the inverse of his dad’s), can learn English and get a better education. 
But, Tekaai says, “The second reason is we know there’s a change in the sea level, and that’s why we want to move. We want our kids to, you know, we want them to [be] comfortable.”


Tekaai’s family wasn't chosen in last year’s PAC lottery.  He says they’ll keep trying until they are.


All photographs courtesy of Brian Reed

Brian Reed was the first Above the Fray fellow of the John Alexander Project. In December 2007, at just 26, Alexander passed away unexpectedly from heart failure while on assignment for Koppel on Discovery in Chongqing, China. In his memory, the John Alexander Project was created to send promising journalists to cover under-reported stories from locations abroad.

Earlier this week, TakePart profiled Alexander and Reed in a piece that also celebrates the role played by journalists in shedding light on distant corners of the globe.

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