Carteret Islands

Since 2012, the Sustainable Communities Committee has been in contact with leaders from the Carteret Islands. This is a small community living off the coast of Papua New Guinea, who are undertaking the process of permeant resettlement to Bougainville, PNG, due to rising sea levels and the effects on their island homes.

The nature of the support requested by the Carteret Islanders has changed over time; originally a project involving the construction of toilet blocks was scoped out, however, the provision of supplies for the new community, such as life jackets and hospital beds, has been more successful in getting ideas into action.

Formerly referred to as ‘The First Wave Project’, our committee has learnt a lot from our continued support of the Carteret Islanders. We continue to be in contact with community leaders and are working in partnership with Donations in Kind to provide items the community greatly need.

The First Wave: The challenges of starting a new international project

We never expected it to be a holiday!

The people of the Carteret Islands, off the coast of Bougainville, an autonomous region of Papua New Guinea, are in trouble. Due to inundation by rising sea levels, the six coral atolls that form their island homes have become almost uninhabitable and some of the Islanders have already started to move to a new settlement at Tinputz, about 60 km south of Buka, the capital of Bougainville. They have become, as it were, climate change refugees.

When the Rotary Club of Doncaster was invited, back in YEAR, by the people of the Carteret Islands to help them find funding for their relocation to the island of Bougainville, we realised very early on that we needed to go there to find out for ourselves and to discover how we could best help them. We knew there would be challenges in such a journey, but we didn’t expect it to be as challenging as it proved to be. We hope that in sharing our story, of what is now called The First Wave Project, we can motivate and caution other Rotarians looking to embark on their own overseas project.

Our small party travelled to Bougainville in September 2012. We prepared well for our journey: we registered the project with RAWCS (who gave advice and travel insurance cover); we made careful plans (including health, safety and evacuation); we drew up checklists, and we sought advice from experienced Rotarians who had worked in the Pacific region. However, despite all this preparation, things did not always go smoothly; we had to change our departure date twice, one of the team members left his passport behind in a plane (we did recover this thankfully before the next flight) and when we arrived in Bougainville, our hosts changed our itinerary. Instead of a sedate, one-hour road journey to the township of Tinputz, we travelled by sea in an open, six-metre-long boat, arriving very wet and bedraggled. Hardly the arrival we had planned.

The following day, our plans were changed again. We were invited to travel to the Carteret Islands, 86 km across the open sea, in the same small boats. Although unexpected, this proved to be a remarkable experience as we got to see, first-hand, the dire predicament of the people on the islands. We learnt that sea water washed across the islands shin deep with every king tide, leaving the soil so salty that the villagers could no longer grow crops. The 2,500 people on the islands lived on a monotonous diet of fish, rice and the occasional coconut.

Our plans were to change again when a storm blew up stranding us on the islands for three days. As a result, when we did return to Bougainville after a rough sea crossing, we did not have the time to travel to the capital, Buka, to meet with government officials to hear their perspective on the situation. We decided then to spend our remaining time getting to know the wonderful people of Tinputz who have welcomed the Carteret Islanders to their township, as well as the resourceful Carteret Islanders themselves who have started to build a small community and sustainable plantation in Tinputz on land donated by the Catholic Church.

The Carteret Islanders’ story is one of determination, courage and resourcefulness. Rotary has already helped the Islanders with an outboard motor and lifejackets for a fishing boat, computers, sports equipment for the schools and gardening tools for the new settlement in Tinputz. We have been asked to find additional funding for toilets in the new village in Tinputz, as well as books, computers, hospital beds and other essential items for the people on the Carteret Islands.

We are planning a second visit to Tinputz to research the best toilet system for the new village, but this planning has been beset with its own challenges; communication has been difficult, because of cultural and language differences and poor Internet connections, and our two main contact people have been hard to contact, as both travel frequently to remote areas.

We realise now that this is going to be a long-term project. However, even in these early years, we have learned some valuable lessons. Firstly, all the research and planning we did before travelling to Bougainville was essential, although we needed to be prepared to change our plans, according to the circumstances. Secondly, as a volunteer in another country, we had to fit in with the local ways of doing things and in their time. Things can’t be rushed; it’s all about showing respect for a local culture and their ways of doing things. Thirdly, voluntary organisations, such as Rotary, can’t just travel to another culture and tell the local people what they need and what they need to do. It is about building partnerships with and empowering local people, not trying to dictate the terms.

Our first trip to Bougainville for The First Wave Project was certainly no holiday. However, despite all the careful planning, there were many challenges and we had to be prepared to deal with these as they arose. In the end, it all came down to some basic principles: plan carefully, be adaptable, show respect for local culture and try to assist others to achieve the changes they want, not what you think they need.