As a young girl, Ursula Rakova dreamed of becoming a nun. “All I wanted was a blue dress and a white veil,” she says. The cloistered life was not to be, but the determined South Pacific islander has built her own ministry of sorts: She is helping her people relocate from the sinking Carteret Islands to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, 53 miles away—or, as Rakova puts it, “three to five hours by open banana boat.”
For almost 30 years the residents battled rising waters by erecting seawalls and planting mangrove forests. But global warming, combined with underwater volcanic activity and shifting tectonic plates, has doomed their efforts. The islands are flooded from November to March, and ocean water constantly washes over the surface. “Where we used to grow our gardens, we can now paddle our canoes,” Rakova says. Experts predict that the horseshoe-shaped atoll could become uninhabitable as soon as 2015.
Rakova’s family owns its own island, Huene, where for generations they have caught marlin, clams and crayfish along the coral reefs that ring the Carterets. But Huene will be long gone before Rakova, who is separated from her husband, can pass it along to her eight-year-old daughter.
The same scenario is playing out allover the Carterets, which are now a parody of paradise. Salt water has destroyed crops and contaminated wells. Uprooted trees litter the beaches and mosquitoes breed in fetid swamps. Citizens of the once bountiful islands have resorted to raiding their neighbors’ gardens and squabbling over scrawny bananas. Rakova has witnessed land disputes in her own family.
In 2003, Papua New Guinea ordered an evacuation of the islands, creating one of the world’s first populations of so-called environmental refugees. But the government’s efforts were beset by delays, so in 2006 tribal elders tapped Rakova, who had worked in social administration on the mainland, to coordinate the migration of the islanders to Bougainville. She answered the call by creating an NGO (nongovernmental organization) called Tulele Peisa (“riding the waves on one’s own”). As CEO, Rakova hosts information sessions and secures building sites. She also plans to build a new school for already relocated children, and she’s helping their parents learn to cultivate cash crops, such as cocoa and coconut (something Rakova already does on her own new land to help raise money for the move).
Rakova is in a race against time. So far, she has helped relocate five families to Tinputz, Bougainville, on land donated by the Catholic Church, and she’s found a plantation where she wants to settle another 83 families. Building new homes costs between $5,000 and $7,000 per family, Rakova estimates, and she needs $155,000 for the next phase of the migration. Within the next three years, she plans to move the remaining 1,700 people who want to leave the islands.
Despite her successes, Rakova lives in constant fear that a tidal wave will wipe out the Carterets before everyone has left. Still, she is happy that there are at least some islanders who, having been safely moved, will carry on traditions and family lines. She has mixed feelings about leaving for good. “My ancestors are all buried there,” she says of Huene. “Even after the last tree is gone, my daughter will know that her roots are on the reef. But this decision is about survival.”