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Kiribati's Tides Threaten the Link Between Land and Memory

Members of Itaake Teuria's family show me where their house, breadfruit and coconut trees, and fertile soil used to be. After a severe high tide, all that remains is a sandy beach.

“When I look at that place, I remember my wife. Now the waves are washing it all away.” As Itiaake Teuria talks, his eyes well with tears. “It’s sad if you see where we used to live. Now you can only see the ocean and the beach.”

Teuria’s wife passed away this year of natural causes, but soon afterward, Teuria, 70, lost the land where they spent more than 40 years together to the rising seas. The king tide that struck Kiribati in February hit Raweai, Teuria’s village on Marakei Island, especially hard. The fertile soil on his property was washed out to sea, leaving only a sandy beach.

King tides are extremely high tides that strike twice a year. In recent years, they have been growing increasingly severe as the sea level rises. When the February king tide struck, Teuria’s home and all of his food-producing breadfruit and coconut trees were washed away into the sea.

For families like Teuria's that live primarily subsistence lifestyles, the changes in the sea level are especially difficult. But the hardest part for Teuria wasn’t losing his trees or his home, but the loss of his only remaining connection to his late wife.

“For me, I feel a great loss,” Teuria said. “I built a house there with my wife, we started a life there. Everything that we built was from our own energy. We had children, we watched them grow up there.”

Itiaake Teuria's property was washed out to sea this year, along with all of his food-producing breadfruit and coconut trees.

“Our kia-kias [local houses], our kitchen, everything washed away. The only part left is just beside the road,” Teuria said. “The land is all beach, no soil, and it’s right where the waves are now. We were forced to leave because we had no other choice.” After the tide, Teuria moved inland with his wife’s relatives. Living there “is at least close to our land, but it’s a great loss,” he said.

In Kiribati, a family’s connection with its land is extremely intimate and touches every aspect of life, including love. Even the language expresses this link: kain abau, the phrase for one’s spouse, roughly translates to “you belong to my land.”

In nearby Rawannawi Village, another widower, Maneteata Ruotaake, 69, shared a similar story—he lost both his wife and most of his land this year.

Maneteata Ruotaake, 69, lost all of his fertile land in the most recent king tide. Even so, he has no intention of moving.

“The waves came and took everything away, and I’m left with only this piece of land. My trees over there—they’ve all died," he explains, motioning. "The land here is all beach now.”

Most of Ruotaake’s children have moved to Makin or Tarawa Islands, but he has no intention of leaving Marakei Island. “I won’t go there because my wife is buried here, and I want to be buried with her,” he said.

“Even just going to Makin, another island still in Kiribati, is hard for me, because [Marakei Island] is where I know I belong, my roots are here,” he said.

The remains of Maneteata Ruotaake's home.

Today, Ruotaake’s main concern is that the sea will continue to erode most of the land in Kiribati. "If you ask me, it is so hard for me to say that my land will one day disappear, but I see it happening every day.

Losing the islands to a rising ocean, he says, will change the lives of his children and grandchildren.

What threatens us is the sea. I love the sea, because it provides us with food, it’s part of our lives,” Ruotaake explained. “But now, we see it as something that will take away the most important part of our life, which is the land. Land here is the most precious thing. It’s where you build up your home, raise your children, and live your life.”

Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who is on a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship to document the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She is following the stories of the Banaban Islanders, residents of a phosphate island in Kiribati, who were displaced to Rabi Island in Fiji by the British Phosphate Commission in 1945 and have been separated from their ancestral homeland for the past seventy years. She will also follow the stories of i-Kiribati on the Tarawa Atoll, who are currently facing the possibility of migration and displacement to Fiji and elsewhere in the Pacific as the sea level continues to rise and inundate the low-lying islands, which are only 2-3 meters above sea level. She will be telling the stories of the Kiribati people, their culture and heritage, while also documenting the adaptations, challenges, and innovations they have developed in response to the changes they have faced.

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