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A Crowded Refuge

The dolphins drew the sea people to Fanalei, an uninhabited strip of coral sand and squat mangrove trees perched in easy reach of South Malaita, one of the larger islands in the eastern Solomons. They came in dugout canoes from their homeland 80 miles north, where the language was Lau, a tongue unintelligible to the Sa’a speakers on the forested mainland near their new home. 


Those bush people, as the Fanalei islanders call them today, had been slow to exploit the stunning abundance of dolphins in their waters. That was to ignore a gold mine in Malaita, where dolphin teeth were used as currency to secure a bride or settle disputes. 


So the northern newcomers set up their outpost on Fanalei and began slaughtering dolphins in their thousands: forming semi-circles of a few dozen canoes from which they banged rocks together under the water, driving the panicked beasts into the muddy shallows, where they were wrestled into submission and beheaded.


Over the ensuing centuries, the Fanalei islanders maintained a delicate coexistence with the bush people, at a time when the Solomon Islands’ fragmented tribes were riven by fighting. Sa’a villages hired Fanalei’s potent fighters to perform contract killings of rival leaders, granting pieces of land on presentation of the heads. These missions shored up Fanalei’s precarious food supply, as they amassed a hilly plot on the mainland on which to grow crops that would supplement their fish diet.


The islanders never thought of building homes on that land, unpleasantly muddy in the rainy season and plagued by malaria-carrying mosquitoes. But now they have been forced into a dramatic reassessment. Sea level rise has carried off the densely populated southern end of the island, including its Anglican church, of which only the concrete foundation still remains. Most of the residents of that vanished northern section have now moved to Fouele, a new settlement built on the islanders’ mainland plot, dividing the community for the first time since their arrival from North Malaita.

The eroded southern shoreline of Fanalei © Simon Mundy

For a few months at the start of each year, the men of Fanalei and Fouele come together for what appears to be, from all the information I’ve been able to find, the single biggest dolphin hunt in the world, with over 1,600 kills in 2013. That’s nearly triple the most recent annual tally from the Japanese village of Taiji, the most notorious hunt among global dolphin campaigners, which started its annual hunt this week.


But while the dolphin hunt has never been more fruitful, the community pursuing it is riven by stress and crisis. Aside from a couple of older men with a going-down-with-the-ship mentality, all the remaining inhabitants of Fanalei seemed to be eyeing an escape to the mainland. Among them were Kingsley and Suzanne Ouou, a couple in their mid-twenties with two small children, who spoke to me outside their home on the western side of the island. Like Fanalei’s other houses, it was built on stilts for protection against high tides, and its walls and sloping roof were of thatched leaves harvested from the region’s luxuriant sago palms. 


Kingsley’s teeth were stained blood-red from betel nut and his Lau conversation was punctuated by sharp intakes of breath, like he’d been punched in the stomach, a sound that signified assent. Erosion was accelerating on this side of the island as well as in the south, Kingsley said, and the December king tides seemed to rise higher each year, causing increasingly severe flooding. 


The shoreline was directly below his house’s far edge, the sand reinforced with small boulders. Further down the tiny coast, villagers had built a makeshift sea wall of metal bins filled with rocks. Sitting cross-legged on a wooden bench outside his house, Kingsley evinced no confidence that these measures would buy them much time. 


Kingsley viewed the prospect of life on the muddy mainland with resignation rather than enthusiasm. Suzanne was far keener. Island life can be tough for the women of Fanalei, who typically come from other parts of Malaita, and are expected to fetch water from the mainland during the long dry season, paddling back and forth bearing plastic jerry cans. “I had no idea about all these problems before I married Kingsley,” said Suzanne, a quietly humorous character with her hair tied in a bun. “Maybe in the future, this place will be completely washed away and the only option will be to move to the mainland.”


But for those still living on Fanalei, that option cannot be taken for granted. Under the stress of sudden migration, the community’s relations with its neighbours are fraying.

 

Down a muddy path on the fringe of Fouele, perched by a swamp and almost hidden among the mangrove trees, Elias Pilua had built his new house, the old one having been destroyed by the same king tide that wrecked Fanalei’s church. The mainland house was built in the same style as those on Fanalei, raised on posts fashioned from tree trunks, but it was much further from the waves, and Elias was no longer troubled by fears of erosion. Instead he had a new concern.


Elias Pilua © Simon Mundy

Elias’s T-shirt was so muddy from his crop field that it was difficult to discern its original colour. He guided me up a slippery path, hacking at undergrowth with a long blade, into the hills where the villagers grew their crops, wide green leaves bursting from mounds of red earth on slopes that seemed absurdly steep for agriculture. The crops were mainly cassava, yam and taro, the sweet fleshy tuber ubiquitous in the Solomons, grown almost entirely for a family’s own consumption. Small amounts of sugar cane and banana were also grown, which might be sold to outsiders for money that could be used to buy soap and cooking oil. This cash income was meagre – Elias’s monthly average of about 30 US dollars was typical.


Even this precarious lifestyle was under threat, said Elias, a wiry man in his mid-40s with careful English honed by two years of theology studies in North Malaita. As Fouele had grown, it was facing increasing hostility from some in the neighbouring communities. “They tell us that we are not from this place, we are not owners of this land, and we should not be working it,” he said.

Children in Walande © Simon Mundy

A few miles to the north, another group of Lau speakers had found a happier relocation story. A century ago the island of Walande had been built in shallow offshore waters from coral blocks by northern migrants repelled by the damp malaria-infested mainland. Its destruction by the waves had been almost absolute: all that now remains is a narrow spit of sand and pebbles, a few yards broad and no longer than a tennis court, with a forlorn scattering of rotting wooden posts at one end. Fortunately, the Walande islanders had acquired a large plot on the mainland in 1949 from the local chieftain Mou Paine, for seven large pieces of shell money, two hundred dolphin teeth and ten shillings in pounds sterling. A copy of the contract survives, and the Walande people now live on the land with no opposition from Mou Paine’s descendants. The new village was clean and well tended, with a new primary school under development for its noisy army of blond children.


But unlike their Walande counterparts, the Fanalei people had no formal record of their acquisition of their land, and they had faced a series of legal challenges from Robert Tehena of Kalona, a nearby Sa’a village. He claimed that their new settlement had expanded far beyond whatever territory they had rightfully acquired, onto land that had been owned by his family for countless generations. Most recently he had issued a complaint seeking to block the construction of a new community hall, which was proceeding nonetheless. The centre of the village, on a raised clearing closer to the sea, was filled with the noise of hammers and an electric sander. A dozen of Fouele’s men were inside the emerging hall, smoothing planks and installing window frames, piling mounds of cement. 


While the villagers had decided to forge ahead with the hall — it was on land they already occupied, and they were reluctant to forsake a rare government grant — they were nervous about testing Robert’s patience by expanding their territory, which they said was now too crowded to accommodate more arrivals from Fanalei. The chronic dispute was casting a thick shadow over any plans for the village’s future.

 

The journey to Robert’s village took me northbound with an outboard motor along the fringes of the sprawling mangroves, then deep inside them, paddling now through water a few inches deep, between the black roots that probed above the surface like alien tentacles. Next a half-hour on foot through the forest, past a single house containing a dozen members of an extended family, the silence otherwise unbroken but for the squeaks of crickets and the belching of the mud that oozed between my toes and at one point entirely swallowed the lower quarter of my right leg.


When Robert came out to meet me in the centre of Kalona, a scattering of houses on a grassy hilltop carved out from the forest, it was as though he were deliberately playing up to the villain’s role in which he’d been cast by the Fouele villagers – hunched and scowling, a heavy machete in his right hand. But he was eager to explain his position, vanishing to reappear ten minutes later with a yellow binder full of legal documents.

Robert Tehena © Simon Mundy

Even before half the Fanalei people came to live on the mainland, he said, the community had been trespassing on his land. His documents indicated the law was on his side. He had taken the case to a panel of chiefs, where his claim to the land was upheld. He had since obtained an eviction order, but had not enforced it. He felt pity for the islanders, he said. He knew they had nowhere else to go. But why should he be the one forced to pay for their resettlement, he asked, by giving away his most valuable asset?


If climate change was the cause of the Fanalei exodus, Robert’s share of the blame is smaller than most, his carbon footprint negligible compared with my own or any Westerner’s. Like most Malaitans, he’s not even connected to an electric grid. He was willing to sell the land for a fair price, he said. And since the villagers’ subsistence economy left them with virtually no cash to buy it, he added, the most just solution would be for the world’s rich countries — the biggest drivers of the problem — to supply the funds. As I noted in a previous post, international climate-related aid has not yet focused on relocation projects, with the largest chunk of funding going to clean energy projects in developing countries.


“Those countries are responsible, but they are not taking responsibility,” Robert said. In Fouele too, villagers proposed this as a logical answer to their predicament, perhaps their best hope of escaping the legal limbo undermining their attempt to rebuild their community. It was a rare point of agreement between the two sides – and one that I felt in no position to dispute.