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A Warning from the Center of the World: Pacific Nation Kiribati Is Disappearing as Sea Level Rises

StoryJanuary 23, 2018
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At the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, we speak with former President Anote Tong about his desperate efforts to save his small Pacific Island state of Kiribati from rising sea levels from global warming, as told in the new documentary “Anote’s Ark.” Kiribati is a collection of 33 coral atolls and reef islands located over 1,000 miles south of Hawaii and nearly 4,000 miles northeast of Australia. It is home to 100,000 people. Already, an entire village was inundated, and its residents forced to flee, as the sea wall broke into a freshwater pond. Tong predicts his country will become uninhabitable in 30 to 60 years as rising tides displace more and more people, wash away infrastructure, degrade fragile coral reefs and disrupt the remote island’s food supply.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting from the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, as we turn to a new film about the devastating impact of climate change, particularly on the low-lying Pacific Island nations, in this case the island of Kiribati.

Anote’s Ark tells the story of the former Kiribati President Anote Tong’s desperate efforts to save his small island state from rising sea levels from global warming. He has compared his country’s future to the sinking of the Titanic. Kiribati is a collection of 33 coral atolls and reef islands located over a thousand miles south of Hawaii, nearly 4,000 miles northeast of Australia. It’s home to 100,000 people. Already, an entire village was inundated, its residents forced to flee, as the sea wall broke into a freshwater pond. President Tong predicts his country will become uninhabitable in 30 to 60 years, as rising tides displace more and more people, wash away infrastructure, degrade fragile coral reefs and disrupt the remote island’s food supply. As president of Kiribati, Tong promoted a policy of migration with dignity, encouraging residents with employable skills to move abroad. His administration also took the precautionary step of purchasing 6,000 acres on the neighboring island of Fiji in anticipation of the coming climate catastrophe. This is the trailer for Anote’s Ark.

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: Kiribati is in the center of the world. It’s right there—bang—in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So far away, so isolated, we thought it would be immune from the tribulations of this world. The issue of climate change remains the most pressing challenge for us in Kiribati.

ANTONIO MORA: Rising sea levels have already taken a village on one of your islands. Do you see the possibility of all the people from Kiribati one day having to leave?

REPORTER: [translated] Seventy-five people from Kiribati have been granted special visas to New Zealand.

PROTESTERS: What do you want? Climate justice!

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: For those of us on the front line, it really does not matter what is agreed to in Paris, because we will continue to go underwater.

NARRATION: A nation on the brink of disappearing.

INTERVIEWER: If it is a foregone conclusion, no matter what happens, what’s the point of a deal now?

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: Yeah, what’s the point? Well, we need to survive. What is going to happen to us is going to be the fate of the rest, who will follow.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the new documentary Anote’s Ark, which has just had its world premiere here at Sundance.

For more, we’re joined by, yes, the star of the film, the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong. He led Kiribati from 2003 to 2016. Also with us, the film’s director, producer and cinematographer, Matthieu Rytz.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! President Tong, let’s begin with you. What does your island face? And place it for us. It’s so beautifully described in the beginning of Anote’s Ark as the center of the world.

ANOTE TONG: Well, indeed, we are the center of the world. But, of course, as a—

AMY GOODMAN: But explain that.

ANOTE TONG: We’re in the Northern and the Southern Hemisphere, and we’re also on the east and the west of the International Date Line. There is no other country in the world with that distinction. So, we are really in the middle of the world.

But in spite of that, we are facing some serious issues with the onset of climate change. I must make it clear that it’s not an event that happens in one go. It’s not a sudden event, but a very slow-onset event. We read the science. We read the projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And they’re saying that, within this century, there will be a rising sea level of as much as one meter. OK, our islands are barely two meters above sea level, on average. So, we are the vulnerable of the most vulnerable.

And so, in saying that about Kiribati, I must also explain that a number of other countries in the region are in exactly the same situation—the islands of Tuvalu; the Marshall Islands; in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives; and, of course, other smaller communities. And so, this is what we are facing.

AMY GOODMAN: Sometimes I think when people think climate change, they think of polar bears. You actually went to the Arctic.

ANOTE TONG: Yeah, I remember reading an article in the National Geographic, when—during the early stages of my advocacy. And I saw the concern that was being expressed about the future of the polar bears due to the melting of the ice. But nothing—there was never any reference to people in our part of the world and what would happen to our habitat as a consequence of climate change. And, of course, I did have the opportunity to visit the Arctic. And I saw a polar bear. And, of course, we share the same fate as the polar bear.

AMY GOODMAN: Matthieu Rytz, why did you choose to make this film and call it Anote’s Ark?

MATTHIEU RYTZ: So, I went to Kiribati in 2014 as a photojournalist documenting the global issue of the rise of the sea level, and I met with President Tong. And directly, I was amazed by—I mean, by the man, but also by the mission he has, as a head of state, to save his entire nation. So I started a discussion with him and the government to basically start, you know, a feature doc, character-driven. So I’ve been following President Tong then for like the next two years.

And why the title? I think the title is obviously metaphorical. It’s not biblical. It’s more like metaphorical, about what can be—what can a nation, what can a people keep with them when they’re losing their entire land? So, that’s a very real concern I have for this movie. And I think it’s a global—it’s a global and universal story. I mean, it’s going to happen globally, and people, with climate change, are going to lose their land, massively. And the question I raise in this movie is like: What can remain? Like, you know, the connection to the land, the spirituality, the culture? What can people take with them when they’re leaving their homeland?

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from Anote’s Ark, featuring our guest, the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong.

PRESIDENT ANOTE TONG: Our islands will be gone. And so, if we cannot build resilience, if we cannot build the islands or find somewhere else to live, we have to go somewhere else. Whether this is a good thing or not, but the reality will be, if we leave Kiribati, then our ability to retain our culture as being distinct, our tradition as being distinct, will no longer be very easy.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the former president of Kiribati. And for those of you who are wondering, Kiribati is actually—well, it’s spelled—one might say Kiribati, but pronounced “Kiribas.” Anote Tong, the former president from 2003 to '16, as well as Matthieu Rytz, who is the director of _Anote's Ark_. We don’t have much time—and I don’t mean that in the sense of the clock is ticking here on planet Earth—but if you can talk about what you’re seeing in Kiribati and what your unusual response has been, buying land in nearby Fiji so that the people of Kiribati can move?

ANOTE TONG: Well, the challenge is something that really has escaped much of the focus of the international attention. And that was my concern when I started speaking at the United Nations General Assembly in 2004. The focus was on terrorism. It wasn’t on the issue—economic development issues. And nobody was talking about what was coming, which I had read from the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And so, what they were projecting is quite serious for us. Nobody else, at that level, at that high political level, was too concerned about it. And so I had to keep pushing to get some focus of attention to that, because I could see that given the rise, the projected rise in sea level of about a meter, really serious for us. Maybe not serious for countries with mountains, but we don’t have mountains. And so, we had to—for me, it was a rush to try and get an urgent attention, a focus of attention, on the situation that we would be facing in the future.

In terms of what we are experiencing, we—over the years, we’ve been experiencing storms, very minor storms, because we’re outside of the hurricane, the cyclone belt, but the tides and what have you. And over the years—as you mentioned in your opening statement, there’s a village which I used to visit as a small child. And it’s no longer there. What is left of that village is a church sitting in the middle of the ocean, the sea, when the tide comes in. The village has relocated.

AMY GOODMAN: President Tong, you’re here in the United States, where the president of the United States, President Trump, has called climate change a Chinese hoax. Your response to him? And what message do you have, president to president?

ANOTE TONG: Well, I think it’s—I don’t know. I’m reading the science which is coming forward. I have no other information to indicate otherwise. And so, for me, when it’s a matter of survival for our people, especially the future generation, even a remote possibility, even a 5 percent possibility, that it is not a hoax, I think it’s got to be taken seriously. I think it’s important. It’s too important to speculate that it may or may not happen. As I say, if it’s a—if there is a 5 percent possibility that it might happen, then we should begin to take measures, from now, because we understand how vulnerable we are.

And I think given what’s coming forward, the knowledge that is coming forward on the science of climate change, we know what’s causing it. We think we know what’s causing it. It’s being denied by, no doubt, the interests which I believe are being threatened by all of this. But here we are. And I have often been in discussions with other leaders, who argue, before—leading up to the Paris Agreement, they argued that a 2-degree rise in temperature was too—a delimitation that would be too damaging for their economy.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to have to leave it there. Five seconds. Final thought?

ANOTE TONG: OK, and—but, for us, it’s a matter of survival.

AMY GOODMAN: A matter of survival. Anote Tong, former president of Kiribati, and Matthieu Rytz, director of Anote’s Ark.

And this note: The 2018 Oscar nominations have just been announced. Among the top nominees, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, Dunkirk and Mudbound. The nominees for best documentary, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, which tells the story of the only U.S. bank prosecuted in relation to the 2008 financial crisis; Faces Places by French documentary filmmaker Agnès Varda, JR; Icarus; as well as Last Men in Aleppo and Strong Island, which recounts the murder of the director’s brother and the judicial system that allowed his killer to go free.

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