Today, I visited the village of Naviavia in Fiji. It’s a relatively unremarkable little village, not unlike most others on the island of Vanua Levu. But, when the island nation of Kiribati purchased 20 square kilometers of land across the river, the village was plucked from obscurity, and placed right at the center of an international controversy.
Kiribati is a nation in the Pacific, composed of 33 islands, mainly coral atolls just a few feet above sea level. Anote Tong, the president of Kiribati at that time, said that the land was purchased for the purpose of possibly relocating the entire population of Kiribati due to the effects of rising sea levels.
This land purchase made big headlines around the world, but I’ve never seen a particularly good photo of the land. I was curious to see what it was like, and I figured the people of Kiribati are curious as well.
According to the local Anglican pastor in Naviavia, the government of Kiribati has given farmers from the village permission to farm some of the land. They’re currently cultivating taro and coconut. One farmer from a nearby village who accompanied me to the land said that the soil was very rich, and didn’t require fertilizer.
“What can you grow on this kind of land?” I asked him.
“Everything!” he said emphatically.
So the land is certainly not worthless, but could it be used to relocate the entire population of Kiribati?
There are about 100,000 people living in Kiribati. The 20 square kilometers of land near Naviavia could theoretically hold that many people, but transforming the undeveloped mountain terrain into homes for that many people would be a monumental task.
To put things in perspective, the population of Vanua Levu, the Fijian island where the land is located, has a population only slightly higher than that of Kiribati at about 135,000. If the entire population of Kiribati moved to the land near Naviavia they would undoubtedly overwhelm the local infrastructure.
With a great deal of development, a few thousand people could probably live on the land and cultivate crops. Perhaps the land could even function as the seat of the Kiribati government in absentia, when and if the islands do become uninhabitable do to sea level rise.
For many years, the Anglican Church owned the land, and the village of Naviavia, a small community of ethnic Solomon Islanders were allowed to live and farm on the land. After the land was purchased, the village of Naviavia was restricted to a small plot of 125 hectares.
Many in Kiribati believed that they would need to displace the people of Naviavia in order to make use of the land, but it appears as though the government of Kiribati is willing to work with this community. Indeed, their local farming knowledge will likely be extremely helpful in cultivating the land.
The real challenge may be in acclimating a few thousand citizens of Kiribati to the environment near Naviavia. This is mountainous terrain many miles from the ocean. The foliage is thick and treacherous. I slipped and fell on wet grass numerous times while traipsing through the bush.
Tempting a few thousand I-Kiribati to move to this mountainous terrain to live a completely new lifestyle may prove difficult.