Wading through a warm shallow stretch of the South Pacific, soft coral sand underfoot, Chief Maso Sambolo pointed out submerged sections of what used to be the heart of his island. To our right, a volleyball court. Ahead, a community hall. And, scattered right across this narrow channel, passed over by children in dugout canoes, the wood-framed homes of about 20 families, vanished but for a few pieces of timber still lodged in the sand.
The Solomon Islands bear the name bestowed by a sixteenth-century European explorer with stereotypical preoccupations – the Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira, who set sail in 1567 from Peru, driven by Inca tales of gold emanating from the oceans to the west. After 8,000 miles at sea he hit a group of islands and, in a fit of excitement at gold traces in their volcanic hills, dubbed them the Islas Salomon after the prodigiously wealthy biblical king.
The name now carries an ironic tinge: this chain of over 900 islands, stretching between Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, is the poorest country in its region (with little mining to speak of). And now it faces a new challenge – sea level rise, at a pace greater than almost anywhere else on earth.
Global warming has sent the oceans surging higher, with ice sheets and glaciers melting and sea water gradually expanding as its temperature climbs. In the Solomon Islands the rate has been three times the world average, with the sea rising around the archipelago at nearly a centimetre per year. Scientists have not yet nailed the reasons why the rate is so fast here. But as the University of Queensland's Simon Albert — one of the few academics who has studied the subject deeply — told me shortly before my visit, the country offers a vital window into the effects of sea level rise, at a scale the rest of the world will experience soon enough.
For Maso's village of Nuatambu, the impact has already been profound. Maso is a large man who speaks in a mellifluous baritone, and when he laughs it’s not a private expression of amusement but a whooping celebration to which everyone in earshot is invited. He has followed a long line of ancestors to head this island settlement, just off the northern coast of Choiseul, the westernmost of the Solomons’ six major islands. He took charge of Nuatambu aged 33, in 2014 – the year the water finally closed over its sandy central section. Maso found himself the leader of two islands, the first chief of a transformed, divided Nuatambu, with many of his people now dispersed along the thickly forested northern edge of the mainland.
The Solomons have been inhabited for at least 6,000 years, but have been a single political entity for a tiny fraction of that time. Over the preceding centuries, fighting between tribes produced a fragmented scattering of highly isolated cultures, their settlements hidden in the hills for protection against invasion and headhunters. One 1943 journal article catalogued six different languages on Choiseul, which then had a population of about 4,000.
By then, however, inter-tribal violence was over, forsaken in the wake of nineteenth-century missionaries who converted virtually the entire population of the Solomons to Christianity in a matter of decades. Across the archipelago, people descended from the mountainsides to the far more accommodating coastal regions. Tiny warlike communities, concealed high in the forest, became fishing villages with burgeoning populations, trading peacefully within and between islands. But in places like Nuatambu, people are now being forced back to the hills.
At 77 Peter Navala is the oldest man in Nuatambu, and one of the last residents of the low-lying sandy section on what is now the western island. When we met he wore a bright blue shirt that matched the hue of his lively eyes, above sharp cheekbones that cut back towards the thick white curls at his temples. Peter was living with his son's family in one of the few remaining houses still standing on this flat beachfront section of the island, built on wooden stilts with thatched walls of dried leaves, a canoe lying in the space beneath it. But beyond the house's corrugated metal roof, I could see the new home Peter's son was building, clinging to the hillside amid soaring forest that, from this distance, formed a near-uniform blanket of tropical green.
Convincing the last residents of the sands to move to the hills has been Maso's biggest mission during his five years as chief. The erosion is continuing unabated, with the shoreline of this amputated western island moving steadily towards Peter's home and the handful of others still standing near it. The king tides of December and January rise higher each year, sometimes flooding the whole area. It's no longer safe there, Maso says. Better that the last residents move now, to avoid becoming suddenly homeless when the ground beneath their houses gives way.
It will be difficult up on the hill for an old man when the rains come and the paths turn to mud, Peter reflected. But he did not question the necessity of moving. The division of the island, the canoes cruising over the old village, the astonishing speed with with the transformation happened, serve as an insistent, daily reminder of the sea's threat. "The waves come cuttem off this island, make island in two," he said in the pijin dialect of English that serves as the Solomons' lingua franca, gently shaking his head and half-smiling in bemusement at an event for which nothing in a long life had prepared him.
My journey to Nuatambu began with a dawn flight from Honiara, the national capital, on a 20-seater propeller plane which took me to Taro, the provincial capital of Choiseul. There I chartered a small boat with a 40-horsepower outboard motor, which carried me eastwards for four hours through bouncing waves and cold piercing rain. To our right extended the silent northern coastline of Choiseul, draped with closely crowded trees that stretched towards high volcanic ridges, interrupted only occasionally by small clusters of houses.
Maso happened to be standing by the eastern island's wharf when I arrived, inspecting work on the frame of a new village hall to be built on its hill. He had no objection to my staying for a few days and studying the situation, but this was a matter that would need formal approval from the community. In line with protocol, he blew a large conch shell to summon a meeting, and I stood on the wharf explaining my plans to a semi-circle of about 40 villagers, men to my left, women to my right. The initial response was dubious. Nuatambu's people viewed the erosion to their island as a consequence of climate change driven in countries far larger and wealthier than theirs, which had done nothing to assist them. Some of them saw no prospect that talking to me would help matters. At the end of the meeting, however, the verdict was that I could stay and hear the stories of this beautiful, damaged place.
The sceptical welcome chimed with the name of the settlement, which translates as Forbidden Island (tambu, or taboo, is a word found in various South Pacific languages, and was incorporated into English after James Cook’s voyages of the 1770s). During my four days in Nuatambu I heard amazing tales of the place’s history, most of them impossible to substantiate. When people still lived up in the hills, a few people told me, this was a site for human sacrifice, strewn with carefully placed severed heads. Later, legend has it, the island became the centre of production for kesa - hollow discs carved from thick clam shells that served as currency across Choiseul, and are still used to seal marriage agreements and settle disputes. The knowledge of how to make kesa was already long forgotten in 1943, according to that old journal paper. Islanders told me the currency had been made by a foreigner called Pong — dubbed Pongo by locals — who had stayed in Nuatambu for a couple of years, centuries before. A stranded Chinese craftsman? Pongo, I was told, had got rich from his production of kesa, and died leaving a stash of gold somewhere on the island that has still never been discovered. A couple of locals confided that the chief reason they were nervous about outsiders poking around was the risk of losing this buried treasure.
For all the richness of Nuatambu’s oral history, nothing in it is more dramatic than the events of the past decade. The central section had been shrinking slowly for years, the sea steadily rising up its delicate slopes, but the erosion picked up pace around 2011. One by one, the buildings at Nuatambu’s heart gave way as the water spread beneath them and washed away their sandy foundation, their supporting stilts leaning and straining toward final collapse.
The home of Weary Barivodu and her small grandson was one of the last to fall in 2014. Weary had seen the disaster coming and had already built a new house up on the hillside. When her home on the sands started to give way, Weary began moving her belongings to the new dwelling, but not quickly enough. The old house’s final collapse came suddenly, with a large wave that swept away a valuable axe, some treasured sewing patterns, and a trove of kesa. “I cried,” Weary said in the Kirunggela language spoken by a few thousand people in this eastern part of Choiseul. “It was a very sad moment.”
What happened next was no less distressing. Weary found herself trapped in a dispute with her new neighbour, a cousin who insisted that she had no right to the land where she had built her refuge. Unable to tolerate the hostility, Weary moved across to the mainland, where she now lived in the home of her sister, who was away working as a teacher in another village. In a loose blue sleeveless blouse, her hair rising in dense grey curls, she sat on the raised veranda of that house, the distant sound of children’s voices permeating the palms dangling orange-skinned coconuts. But before long her sister would retire, and return to live in this small home. Weary had no idea where she would go then.
Weary’s land dispute seemed to reflect a broader straining of Nuatambu’s community bonds by its sudden physical division. My penultimate day in the village was a Saturday, the sabbath for the Seventh Day Adventist faith brought to the country a century ago by Australian missionaries, and to which the whole of Nuatambu belongs. The small beach on the eastern section had become a parking lot, crowded with slim canoes of varying sizes, each carved from a single tree trunk. Up a steep muddy staircase formed by the roots of ancient trees, the church crowned Nuatambu’s eastern hill, commanding a view over miles of coastal waters underlaid by sea grasses and coral gardens.
“It is good to see you all here,” said Gandly Galoghasa, one of the village elders, as he began the morning’s sermon to the crowded church. “The sabbath is the only time we all get together, now that climate change has scattered us.” The church activities continued throughout the day, with upbeat hymns sung in well-practised harmonies, concluding at sunset with a loud, fervent call by one senior figure for volunteers to assist in the renovation of the village school. Such community work has always been a central part of village life in Nuatambu, but by all accounts the turnout has been slipping since the island’s division. People just spend less time together now that they need canoes to see each other, Maso said. The attendance at his village meetings has dropped, too, with many of those now living on Choiseul unable to hear the conch shell’s call.
Gandly was among those who had been forced to the mainland, his old home long since lost to the waves. One day we walked to the site where it once stood, the ocean lapping above our knees. The water was littered with the bleached remains of large fallen trees; children were splashing and playing amid them, their shrieks carrying far across the bay. The kids were spending much more time in the water, I was told, now that there was so much less flat space on land. For them, all this must seem normal, Gandly reflected. They would never quite understand what had been lost.