AS the country’s low lying islands went under the water due to sea level rise, those affected have been forced to relocate to higher grounds.
But for the villagers on the atolls of Ontong Java, Malaita Outer Islands, there are no higher grounds for them to escape.
With their islands just three metres (10 feet) above sea level, there’s nowhere else to relocate.
Mitigating the effects climate change had brought on their lives was all that was left for them to do as they take on the challenges of the times.
For many years, the Polynesian islanders depended on the sea for their survival. On their islands, Kakake grew well and was their main staple.
But in the last three decades, the very sea the islanders depended on for centuries turned against them as sea level rise washed away their coastlines and inundated their farmland.
With sea level rise, the villagers found it difficult to cultivate the land due to increasing soil infertility, while the water table had become contaminated by salinity.
Soil fertility became problematic.
As food shortage sets in, the situation became critical for the more than 2,000 islanders.
With no air service and irregular shipping from Honiara, reports of malnutrition and hunger started to filter through from the islands.
That was when the Anglican Church of Melanesia’s (ACoM), through its Climate Change Programme, decided to step in.
Since 2010, ACoM had worked with the islanders to address their food security needs.
With relocation not an option at that stage, all that the islanders, in partnership with ACoM, could do was explore ways to ensure food is available for the people on their land.
Jasper Bonie, former head of ACoM’s Climate Change Programme, was the man in charge of the project.
“When we first set foot on Ontong Java, we found a critical food shortage there,” Bonie said in a previous interview I did with him.
“Virtually, there was no food growing on the islands,” he added.
In 2011, the Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change (PACC) programme decided to carry out a pilot project on Ontong Java.
PACC is a regional initiative of the Secretariat of the Pacific Community aimed at promoting adaptation measures that will increase the resilience of communities against the impacts of climate change,
When PACC moved to Ontong Jave, it found a perfect partnership in ACoM’s Bonie, who was already familiar with the local landscape.
Together, they teamed up with the locals to find the best solution to the acute food shortage on the atolls.
“One of the food crops we decided to introduce on the islands is the Santa Cruz taro, which locals in Temotu referred to as ‘selfish taro’,” Bonie, himself from Santa Cruz, said.
“I chose Santa Cruz taro for our trials on Ontong Java because I knew it grew well in sandy soil,” he added.
“Today, this taro species had grown so well on the islands that it has now replaced kakake, as the staple there.
“The communities there love it so much that they decided to give it their own name – ‘sweet taro’.”
Bonie said since PACC went to Ontong Java in 2011, their work on the islands was having a positive impact.
“The introduction of Santa Cruz taro is one of the success stories of PACC on the islands of Ontong Java.
“Bread fruit, which is one of the fruit trees we’ve introduce to the islands under PACC’s food security measures, are also growing well and are now bearing fruits.”
Under the PACC project, a number of different planting and cultivation approaches were carried out by the team in Ontong Java.
Bonie explained the key method was the use of Atoll Permaculture, which is a form of agro forestry.
“Atoll Permaculture uses multi-layered system of fruit and nut trees, root crops and vegetables that make use of limited space and resources.”
The PACC project ended in 2015, but the islanders are now continuing to grow their food using the methods introduced to them.
Former PACC coordinator Casper Supa attributed the success of the project in Ontong Java to the farmers.
“The farmers worked really hard to ensure the trials were successful despite the poor condition of the soil,” Supa stated.
“We also provided them water tanks which they stored rain water and used to water their demonstration plots.
“So I commend the farmers for making the project a success,” Supa said.
Janet Ape grew up in Ontong Java and witnessed the damages climate change brought to their home over the course of the last three decades.
When the PACC project was introduced to the people of Ontong Java, Ape quickly got involved.
She was one of the mothers who actively participated in the demonstration plots and saw the success of the newly introduced farming methods.
“The PACC project was a life-saver,” the mother of two said.
“The project helped us to plant the new taro species that was brought over from Temotu province, and which is now our main staple.
“The project also introduced to us new fruit trees, such as bread fruit, which are now bearing fruits and providing a source of food to our people,” Ape said.
With the food shortage on the atolls addressed, there’s no hurry for the islanders to move.
But like many Ontong Javans, Ape was fully aware sea level rise is not stopping.
According to the Pacific Climate Change Science Programme, the sea level near the Solomons has been rising by eight millimetres per year compared to the global average of 2.8 to 3.6 mm.
Ontong Java islanders knew one day, they will have to move.
Question is: where are they going to be relocated?
Initial plans to relocate the Ontong Javans to the main island of Malaita failed.
People there prefer to move to Isabel Province instead.
But whether the Melanesian people of Isabel, whose way of living far differs from the Polynesian inhabitants of Ontong Java, will accept them or not is another issue.
By OFANI EREMAE