The Carteret islanders are moving. Virtually all of them. They are being forced to relocate their entire society, and give up much of what makes them unique as a people. Not because of war, famine or disease, but because of climate change.
The Carteret islanders did not choose to be poster children in the worldwide debate over global warming, yet they are among the first climate refugees in a trend that could affect as many as 250 million by mid-century, according to the UN. This is perhaps surprising for a culture that doesn't really have a cash economy, roads or an airstrip. They rarely use electricity, live in huts with sand floors and survive primarily on seafood they harvest themselves and vegetables they grow in gardens. Their home is a small line of atolls in the Pacific, off the northeast coast of Papua New Guinea.
Yet the plight of the 3,000 or so Carterets is slowly gaining international attention, thanks in part to documentary filmmakers Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger, who are in the process of making a feature film about these people called Sun Come Up. A shorter version of the film-in-progress, entitled The Next Wave, recently won the Jury Prize at the Media That Matters film festival in New York City. From the looks of the short film, and the feature trailer, the story seems to be beautifully, and powerfully, told. The story of the Carterets is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming, and perhaps prescient of things to come.
I recently sat down with producer and director Jennifer Redfearn, to ask her about the film and these early climate refugees. The film was shot by director of photography and co-producer Tim Metzger, mostly in mini-DV and HDV, with some Super 8 for effects.
URTH Guy: Can you tell me a bit about the culture of the Carteret islanders?
Jennifer Redfearn: They live in island communities spread across six islands. They don't have a cash economy for the most part. There are no roads or airstrips, and they live off whatever they can grow or fish. They live in huts made of local wood, with floors of sand. They also have a rich tradition of dance and singing, which is closely tied to what they're doing at the time. They are moving to another community, Bougainville, 50 miles away.
What languages are they speaking in the film, and how did you get that great music?
They have a local language, Halia, which appears in the film. Many of them can also communicate in Pidgin. The singing that you hear in the film I had recorded live during a welcoming ceremony there.
What problems do the Carterets face that are forcing them to move?
They have faced a number of problems, and they are trying to move everyone out of the area as fast as possible. Back in December they had very bad high tides that covered their land. Their wells are now inundated with saltwater, making them useless. They do have some rainwater collection tanks, but they've also been facing a drought. Their gardens -- where they grew root vegetables and other staples -- were ruined by the rising seas, some turned into breeding grounds for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Coconut trees have been uprooted. They have unpredictable weather now. The elders used to be able to predict the seasons, but now they can't. Since they fish out of hand-dug canoes, it can be dangerous for them to venture out if the weather is unpredictable. Because of rising seas and erosion, their islands are also shrinking, while their population has been rising. [It now takes only about 15 minutes to walk the length of the largest island.]
How is the relocation going? At one point in the footage you've released a man from another village criticizes the Carterets, accusing them of being lazy and just "laying in the sand." Is there a lot of opposition among the communities where they will relocate?
People often ask about that man when they see the short film. I dont think he intends to sound demeaning. His response is as that of an elder speaking to the younger generation as a way of warning them about some of the challenges they might face.
They're both moving people and trying to raise awareness. There are many difficulties, however, such as needing to integrate into the cash economy in their new home. The Carterets had tried to migrate a few other times in the recent past, but those times failed. The first time was because of civil war in the region. I filmed the islanders on a tour of surrounding communities, during which they tried to build relationships. Some of the other people were candid about the problems, while others were welcoming. One woman said, "We have to help these people."
In that region the people are largely defined by their land. Women are the landowners, and people take their group identity from where they live. Now the Carterets are loosing that identity. It's especially hard for the elders, many of whom feel they are loosing their culture with the land. [One clan chief told her he would rather sink with the islands than leave.] With many of the younger people there is more of a sense of opportunity, of building something new.
But they need more money to be able to finish the move.
Have they received much help from the international community?
Well there has been some press about them, including in the New York Times. The Carterets aren't waiting for the international community, however, or just moping. They have ideas for new businesses and building things. It shows part of the resilience of the human spirit, and you see that in the film.
Do you hope your film will put a human face on the plight of climate refugees?
Sometimes I think that these figures [such as the UN estimate that 250 million people will be displaced by global warming by mid-century] don't really mean anything to people. Our film shows what is happening to 3,000: actually 2,500 to 3,000, since there is no census and no consensus of how many Carterets there actually are. It shows firsthand people who are impacted by climate change. We hope it can be used for dialogue: how are we going to protect dignity and culture of these people? Further, it will become more clear that global warming is a major security issue in many parts of the world, since most conflict is disputes over resources, and those are going to get more scarce.
We wanted to get the film finished before December's climate talks in Copenhagen, but that isn't looking very doable at this point, since this is an independent production. But we may still try to get parts of the film shown there.
It's heartening that so many organizations are working toward awareness on climate change now. To me it seems like people are really paying attention. On parts of the tour that the Carterets did to other villages they even showed An Inconvenient Truth.
What does the title of the film, Sun Come Up, refer to?
It comes from "San Kamap," a Pidgin word and the name for the government boat that delivers supplies to the islands. It means "sun rise" and signifies the hope of the next generation. They're taking matters into their own hands. It's a tragedy, but it's also hopeful story. On the tour with them there were really sad moments, and moments that were really fun, with dancing and joking.
In order to finish Sun Come Up, the filmmakers need to raise additional funds. The have set up a secure online donation site, through the sponsor Women Make Movies. Some of the proceeds raised will also be given directly to the Carterets to help with their relocation program. Please logon and donate today!
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