Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Unusually low tide © Larry Raigetal

Climate Change and Its Impact on the Culture of the Remote Outer Islands

Yap is one of four island states in the Federated States of Micronesia, boasting 134 islands spread across nearly 1,000 kilometers of ocean in the Northern Pacific. Four main volcanic islands make up Yap proper. As the westernmost state and lowest elevation, Yap’s geography creates a natural vulnerability to earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, storm surges, and droughts from the impact of El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO).
Stretching to the east of Yap through the wester islands of Chuuk state are the central Caroline Islands. People from these atolls are commonly referred to as reimetau, which means people of the ocean. As tiny low-lying atolls, the outer islands are at even greater risk to natural disasters than the main islands. Fresh water comes from a shallow lens beneath the islands or is harvested from rain catchments. Interisland travel is very limited; only two of the nineteen inhabited islands have airstrips that can consistently be reached by a nine-seat plane (a third island’s airstrip regularly floods), and most rely on an infrequent field ship. With their remote location, the people are dependent on subsistence living, following traditional fishing and harvesting practices and using local materials for building and sailing. Food production requires a great deal of skill and healthy resources. While major weather events such as typhoons have always caused setbacks, the islanders have ways of preparing, such as burying and fermenting breadfruit.

It’s a challenging existence, but very self-sufficient and rich in culture. The outer island inhabitants make up a little less than half of the total population of Yap, which was 11,377 during the 2010 census, and have unique practices and three language groups (Ulithian, Woleaian, and Satawalese) from the Yapese inhabiting the main islands. While there’s always been some movement of outer islanders to the main island, and increasing in the past decades, most has been by choice and preference, as people seek more flexible educational, employment, and medical opportunities. In times of need, there’s a strong traditional relationship of Yapese, who own most of the land and resources on the main islands, of supporting outer islanders staying temporarily. The majority of the outer island community, however, have returned after temporary stays, and many never leave the atolls.

Young Waa’gey boys learning to sail © Larry Raigetal
With climate change increasing, all of that is changing. An increase in sea level in the outer islands means saltwater intrusion into taro patches, the main food crop and makes the freshwater lens too brackish for drinking. Islanders who are intimate with the seasonal calendar for breadfruit are dismayed by the trees now fruiting too early or late, and dropping before reaching maturity. Fisherman have observed fish spawning changes and coral bleaching resulting in more marine life loss. Natural threats are exacerbated with stronger and more frequent typhoons and surges that don’t allow enough time for recovery in between events. Typhoon Sudal hit in 2004, and the aftermath triggered many families to migrate to Yap—and stay. This was repeated with the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan a few years later in 2013. Moving to the main islands has now become a necessity for many, and those remaining behind have struggled to maintain the same way of life.

The Yap government, recognizing the new trends in migration and the effects of climate change, purchased several settlement areas for outer island communities on Yap’s main islands. In just a decade, these areas have grown from a couple of households to fully fledged villages, some with a greater population than that remaining on the islands from which they came. Since these areas traditionally didn’t support such numbers, many lack well-thought-out development, and there are a host of environmental and socio-economic challenges. The growing communities place new burdens on local resources.

Waa’gey, a non-profit community-driven organization, was established and chartered by the state of Yap. Its mission is to assist various communities throughout Yap who are facing an array of social, environmental, and economic issues. It aims to identify and integrate with existing systems, issues of concerns, including environmental, educational, and cultural, to suggest appropriate ways of addressing these issues and inspire community involvement and continuity. Its vision is: Using Traditional Skills to Confront Tomorrow’s Challenges.

Waa’gey believes that the ancestors who made these islands their homes have also, over many generations, mastered the most suitable yet sustainable ways of living on these islands. Their skills and knowledge transformed into technologies, and applications of these technologies were not only simple and practical but conducive to the environment in which they lived and depended. Theirs was a true stewardship system designed to sustain future generations by caring for mother earth. Waa’gey is dedicated to keeping traditional practices alive, including skills of seafaring, weaving, handicraft making, and sustainable methods of using resources such as local fish traps by engaging our elders, who can pass these vital skills on to the younger generation, especially as climate change forces islanders to relocate, altering social structures and these traditional practices.

Learning sustainable fishing © Larry Raigetal
In 2016, Waa’gey embarked on a mission to carve a sailing canoe and with their indigenous knowledge of celestial navigation sail to the 2016 Pacific Art Festival. The voyagers also used a woven pandanus sail from their island. The sail was autographed by the entire community and displays a bold message highlighting the impact of climate change on these islands. The aim was to promote awareness of the impact of climate change on small islands that are scattered in the large body of ocean, the Pacific. That sail has taken a journey of its own following the festival. It was showcased in Hawaii; New York during the Ocean Conference; Hamburg, Germany, at the peripherals of the G20 summit; and now Sydney at the Australia National Museum. The pandanus sail, along with a short documentary film; will hopefully be back to Lamotrek island to complete its journey.

Women are key to the success of our efforts to keep cultural values and indigenous knowledge. While the avenues of planning and the target training might differ for men and women, both were equally involved in the implementation. In many way, women’s traditional role in preserving culture is more prominent than it is for men, as women are the keepers of the knowledge and are likely to be more stationary than men.
Women are now even more vulnerable than men to the loss of culture exacerbated by climate change and migration. Traditionally, there were women’s huts—places of refuge, rest, and learning for women. This provided a safe environment where elderly women could teach the younger generation how to weave lava lavas and handicrafts, along with personal and family care. After Typhoon Sudal, many of the remaining women’s huts were destroyed and not rebuilt in the outer islands with the stress of recovery in the face of climate change. While there are some community spaces for women, the multi-generational learning sanctuary wasn’t completely duplicated in the settlements on Yap’s main island. Waa’gey provides a venue for knowledge sharing, and women are able to use the skills learned to provide everyday household items for their family as well as handicrafts that can generate income.

While for some higher islands, the impact of climate change may be an issue of tomorrow, for the reimetau, it is happening right in front our eyes, and it is real. Changes of weather pattern, rising seas, and drought among others, are of serious concerns. It is also our belief that much of our culture is tied to our lands, and when the lands is submerged, we will be forced in the near future to relocate as we have started to. At center of our concern is the risk of losing our culture and thus our identity. We are taught by our great navigators that in determining our course to our island of destination, we must look back to our islands of origin and get the bearings right. Only then will we know under which star we will sail to find land. This same metaphor applies as we go on our voyage in search of higher lands and retain our identity as people of the ocean.