Valentino Keimbar hides from the intense heat in the shade of a breadfruit tree, waiting for his basketball game to begin. It was supposed to start a couple of hours ago, maybe three, but time matters little here on the Marshall Islands.
Keimbar would love to stay on this tiny string of atolls in the vast Pacific Ocean — which he considers a precious gift from his ancestors — but he fears hotter weather and rising seas could soon force everyone to go and that many might choose an unlikely place about 10,000km away. For more than three decades, Marshallese have moved in the thousands to the US’ landlocked Ozark Mountains for better education, jobs and healthcare, thanks to an agreement that lets them live and work in the US. This historical connection makes it an obvious destination for those facing a new threat: global warming.
Keimbar, 29, last year traveled to the Arkansas city of Springdale seeking medical treatment for his six-year-old son. Now he is considering moving permanently to secure a solid future for his children.
“Probably in 10 to 20 years from now, we are all going to move,” he said.
Climate change poses an existential threat to places like the Marshall Islands, which protrude only about 60m above sea level in most places. King tides, when the alignment of the Earth, moon and sun combine to produce the most extreme tidal effects and storm surges are getting worse, resident say, causing floods that contaminate fresh water, kill crops and erode land. As a result, some Marshallese think an exodus as inevitable, while others are planning to stay and fight.
Marshallese Minister of Foreign Affairs Tony de Brum is a vocal advocate for keeping global warming to a minimum, a position he pushed in Paris this week, seeking a way to limit fossil fuel emissions.
Growing up on the lagoon, de Brum said he loved catching rabbitfish off Enebok Island, which was lush with coconut and breadfruit trees. However, in recent years, the small, uninhabited island has slipped beneath the water. At low tide, all that remains is an exposed pile of rocks that snags flotsam: a black sandal, some frayed green rope, a coconut sprouting a green shoot.
In July, lagoon waves whipped up by unusual winds swept a large yacht within a few feet of his bedroom window and then beached it nearby, he said.
Even a small rise in global temperatures would spell the demise of his country of 70,000 people, De Brum said.
While many world leaders in Paris want to curb emissions enough to cap Earth’s warming at 2°C, De Brum advocated a target that is 25 percent lower.
“The thought of evacuation is repulsive to us,” he said.
“We think that the more reasonable thing to do is to seek to end this madness, this climate madness, where people think that smaller, vulnerable countries are expendable and therefore they can continue to do business as usual,” he said.
The Marshallese who choose to leave have settled in Hawaii, Oklahoma and the Pacific Northwest, but Springdale has the most on the US mainland and has taken on a special significance. Their numbers there have expanded to 6,000, nearly one-tenth of those who remain back home.
Some jokingly call it “Springdale Atoll” and there is even a Marshallese consulate, the only one on the mainland US.
The pioneer was a man named John Moody, who moved in 1979 seeking an education and stayed for a job at Tyson Foods, one of the world’s largest processors of chicken. Family and friends followed and the population of Marshallese swelled after 1990.
“Arkansas is the land of opportunity,” said Josen Kaious — from the Marshall Islands town of Laura — who has lived in Springdale before and plans to move back next year.
“You can help your family, and do whatever you want,” he said.
Marshallese consul general in Springdale Carmen Chong Gum said that while people still move for better jobs and healthcare, some are now citing climate change as a factor.
Gum works in a two-story building just off downtown’s main street. It is decorated with a US map with push pins marking where Marshallese live, a bulletin board listing job opportunities and posters depicting medicinal plants and tropical fish found in the Marshall Islands.
Her people now even have their own newspaper. The first edition, published this fall, was written entirely in Marshallese and featured half-page advertisements for Marshall Islands political candidates, because Springdale residents can vote absentee.
Many candidates spent months campaigning in Springdale. One was Alfred Ned, who hoped to pick up votes with his pledge to convince Japan and the US to clean up the trash they left on the islands during World War II.
Gum said she tries to help people understand what is expected of them in their new country: Enrolling their kids in school. Not parking on the grass. Not making too much noise. Paying their utility bills on time. She said people tend to be much more relaxed about enforcing rules on the Marshall Islands.
There are also more serious challenges for those who move. While the agreement with the US allows Marshallese to live and work in the US, they do not automatically become citizens and most are not eligible for welfare. That can result in hardship for any who suffer a serious illness or lose a job.
Life is sometimes hard in any case.
At the Tyson poultry plant where she works, Daisy Loeak has about two seconds to scan each freshly killed Cornish hen that comes down the production line to decide if it is of premium quality. Any flaw like a bruised wing or a broken leg means it should be sold at a discount.
She routes the hens onto conveyor belts before they are packed into boxes and flash-frozen. Out of 300 workers at the plant, Loeak is one of about 120 Marshallese. She moved to Springdale in 2008 with her grandparents, who traveled to the US for a funeral and ended up staying.
“It’s Chickendale, not Springdale,” said Loeak, whose real name is Daisina, but who adopted a version that is easier for Americans to pronounce.
She wells up with tears as she talks about rising sea levels and says she misses her homeland.
“In the Marshall Islands, it’s just more carefree,” she said. “You go where you want.”
Those who stay face their own challenges. At the Rita graveyard in Majuro, where many of his relatives are buried, Carlon Zedkaia in February watched as a king tide swept in and washed up against the base of gravestones, collapsing some and exposing human remains.
The tide flooded his nearby home and he worries one day it might sweep right across from the sea to the lagoon, flooding all the land. He is upset about the damage to the graveyard and worries there will be no place for him to be buried there.
“It’s not our fault that the tide is getting higher,” he said. “Just somebody else in this world that wants to get rich.”
Poet Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner said the world needs to save her islands to save itself — that if the atolls are allowed to slip beneath the waves, the rest of the Pacific and the US coastline would be next.
“What will happen to our culture? What will happen to our stories? What will happen to thousands of years of history?” she said. “What will happen to the next generation? They won’t know where they’re from. They’ll be rootless. They’ll just be wandering. And I don’t want that to happen at all.”
In August, the 600 residents on the small island of Kili effectively raised a white flag after the island was repeatedly buffeted by storms and flooding, sometimes cutting off residents completely from the more populous atolls.
The islanders are descendants of the Bikini atoll residents who were moved to make way for US nuclear testing after World War II. They are now petitioning Washington to allow them to spend their resettlement trust fund money abroad, an option that would allow them to move to Arkansas or anywhere else they choose.
The US seems amenable, said Jack Niedenthal, the Bikini trust liaison, but has yet to take the required Congressional action. While he would fight to stay, he sees an eventual evacuation of the Marshall Islands as almost inevitable, Niedenthal said.
“In the end it’s like 60,000 people against 8 billion,” he said. “And I don’t know how you get the rest of the world to change their habits.”
For some, the notion of exactly what constitutes a homeland is becoming fluid.
Sheldon Riklon, a Marshallese doctor who lives in Hawaii, said he has always wanted to return home to serve his people.
However, after visiting Springdale last year, he has expanded his definition of the Marshall Islands to include Arkansas and is considering moving there instead. He is encouraged by the potential of the Marshallese youth, many of whom are succeeding at school. In addition, the friendliness of Arkansas might in the end be the thread that connects it to home, he said.
“It definitely wasn’t what I expected. I mean, besides the weather. It really opened up my eyes to the kindness of people there,” he said. “It’s really similar to the Marshallese lifestyle, and the way of dealing with visitors, in that they were very welcoming.”
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