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Rising Sea Threatens Traditional Leadership in Kiribati

A Maiana Island village and its council of elders celebrate the former president of Kiribati Anote Tong (center), and his wife, Meme Tong, in the gathering space known as the maneaba. Maneaba refers both to the structure and the traditional Kiribati leadership system.

Surviving on an isolated, infertile island is tough—but managing the scarce resources needed for thousands of families to survive on that island is an even greater challenge.

The people of Kiribati have done so for centuries through the village maneaba, the consensus-based village leadership system. This is where the council of elders, te unimane, meet to make decisions for the village and distribute responsibilities and resources amongst families.

But with urbanization increasing and the sea level rising around Kiribati’s low-lying islands, this ancient traditional system is under strain.

The functioning of the maneaba relies upon small, tight-knit communities. Westernization and migration from villages to cities is already taking a toll on the traditional system, many i-Kiribati say. But with scientists predicting sea level rise of over a meter by 2100, the encroaching water might significantly reduce the islands’ drinking water supply, kill staple food crops, and increase the population’s dependence on commercially imported goods. These changes could prompt wide-scale migration to larger countries like Fiji, Australia, or New Zealand in the coming decades.

Migration is seen as a last resort, but if it occurs, the maneaba system might disappear completely, explained the former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong.

“Will [the maneaba system] survive? ... Beyond Kiribati, I think the possibilities for [preserving the maneabas] would be further challenged, because it would be in a much wider melting pot. If it’s going to be done, you would virtually have to isolate your community within the larger community, and that’s not going to be possible,” Tong said. “I think there are aspects of it which can be preserved, but for the most part I don't think it will be possible.”

Natan Itonga, an artist and Former Cultural Officer at Te Umwanibong, the National Cultural Museum of Kiribati, has dedicated his career to preserving the maneaba system. But, like Tong, he is concerned that a wide-scale migration would significantly disrupt its role in community life.

“[The maneaba], for me, is the only model object of intangible cultural heritage that can preserve all of our traditional skills. The maintaining of the maneaba preserves these because all of the community members contribute,” Itonga said.

The narrow atoll islands of Kiribati are vulnerable to any change in sea level rise.

"To migrate to another country or another island would be ignoring or abandoning your heritage."--Natan Itonga Tweet this

Within each maneaba, every family clan, known as a kainga, has a particular role. Some families are designated speakers for the community, and some are in charge of garlanding new visitors to the village with the traditional woven floral garland. Each family has a proper place to sit under the maneaba, and whenever there is a community meeting, all of the families contribute to providing the food for the gathering. Full community participation is essential for the success and survival of the village, Itonga explained.

“To migrate to another country or another island would be ignoring or abandoning your heritage,” he continued. “If we move to another place, it would be totally different.”

Janice Cantieri is a journalist and researcher from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who will be documenting the stories of displacement and adaptation between the Pacific Island nations of Kiribati and Fiji. She will follow 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 using a combination of written stories, images, and video.

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