Last month, the Telegraph reported that the Kiribati Cabinet was negotiating a land deal with Fiji to begin relocating its population. The majority of atolls and islands that make up the Republic lie just 2m above sea level. A severe and in its immediacy unique ultimatum, climate change threatens the disappearance of low-lying States. Yesterday,  Australian Network News charged Pacific governments of failing to face up to their countries resettlement needs. The land being negotiated they report, is for agriculture not relocation. But even if the Kiribati Government has backpedalled on its original statement is this a sign of political cowardice or political nous? And given the controversial rise of land acquisition deals in developing countries by foreign governments (looking to ensure food supplies for their own people) does this provide a new angle to the debate over when foreign land deals should be opposed or supported?

Let’s start with what we do know. Kirbati, along with other low-lying nations in the South Pacific face particularly acute climate risks. The thermal expansion of the ocean, melting ice caps and glacial retreat are causing the sea level to rise. According to UN/ISDR Kiribati could be uninhabitable by the 2050s. Long before the islands actually disappear. Saline intrusion, or salt water bubbling up through the ground, contaminates freshwater and destroys crops. Six months ago, New Zealand and Australia had to ship emergency supplies of drinking water to alleviate an acute shortage in Tuvalu. Combine saline intrusion with coastal erosion, storm surge and an increasing number of tropical cyclones and the enormity of the challenge SIDS already face is unambiguous.

According to reports, President Anote Tong is keen to make plain this is an issue of last resort. While the Telegraph and the Huffington Post report exclusively on relocation ambitions this BBC article does a better job of making clear that, above all else, this is a private land transaction. The negotiation is for approx 6,000 acres on Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu. The Kiribati Government will draw up a development plan for the purchased land. Vegetables, fruit, meat are to be reared and grown for export to Kiribati. A landfill project might provide employment for a small number of the I-Kiribati but the president suggests 500 people at most. There is widespread speculation that the ultimate intention is to resettle people but the message from the Kiribati cabinet is not yet. Is this evidence of a failure to face up to resettlement needs? I’d argue not.

Firstly, the resettlement of people is an inherently difficult and often damaging process. It should be an issue of last resort. But contrary to that positioning it demands considerable advance planning, preparation and resource if it is to uphold the rights and meet the needs of those being moved. Those moved tend to be the most vulnerable; the people who the UK Government’s Foresight report calls ‘trapped’ populations. Secondly, looking to resettle your population in different country is a deeply political and difficult negotiation. If Anote Tong is being quiet on the details, it’s likely a sign of diplomacy rather than cowardice. Whilst the long-term ambition might be to move people, it is a difficult headline for Fiji. The details of whether l-kiribati’s retain their citizenship to Kiribati or acquire new citizenship rights is one example of many legal challenges ahead. Finally and perhaps most importantly it is not what majority of people want. Kiribati is strengthening its sea wall defences and training up citizens to increase their eligibility for labour migration schemes. The Pacific region has a long-standing history of migration. Schemes like New Zealand’s Recognised Seasonal Employment Program (RSE) and The Pacific Access Category (PAC) while hailed as model frameworks in climate change and displacement context have limited application at present. Year on year PAC has failed to fill its small quotas (75 Tuvaluans for example) because of strict eligibility requirements. Most people fail to meet the grade. An issue that needs to confronted if up-scaling labour migration schemes are to help prevent displacement and avoid resettlement. [For a detailed analysis read Fanny Thornton’s paper here]

So given that the details of this deal will require delicate negotiation should we as civil society know when to take a back seat? I would argue now is not the time for noise on Kiribati’s relocation ambitions but that does not mean we should turn our heads. The announcement that the land is for agricultural export raises questions about the detail of arrangements we are likely to see negotiated as climate change takes hold. The direct appropriation or long-term lease of land in developing countries to private investors for profit or foreign governments for food security carries significant costs for local populations. Though acquisition deals vary the core lessons are that land tenure security, transparency, meaningful local stakeholder participation and civil society oversight are essential to limit negative repercussions for local people. The availability of unused arable land is only going to decrease. Even today, it is rare to find. Whether the appropriation of foreign land for agricultural purposes by states on the frontline of climate change, with limited options, is less contentious than the lease of foreign land to exploit low production costs is not yet clear to me. But I’d welcome others thoughts. The answer will no doubt lie in the detail.

Blog author: Hannah Smith. All views expressed are the authors own

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