Sun, Dec 13, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Seeking a refuge from rising tides, Marshallese flee to Arkansas

About 6,000 Marshallese have settled in Springdale thanks to an agreement that lets them live and work in the US — but does not provide welfare benefits

By Nick Perry and Kelly Kissel  /  AP, MAJURO ATOLL, Marshall Islands

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.

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