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Trying to Save an Endangered Islands’ Cultural Heritage

By Meghan Shea, Stanford University

Along a pier in San Pedro, Calif., a small fishing community brings in their catch each day, the salty breeze mingling with the smell of fish. This, says Bauea Crosby, is the only place nearby that reminds her of home.

Crosby is a high school and community college teacher in nearby Concord. But for her, home is thousands of miles away in the small island nation of Kiribati, a place unknown to many of her students. The Republic of Kiribati, a tiny dot in the center of the Pacific Ocean, comprises 33 atolls and reef islands, with a total land area roughly a third of the size of Rhode Island and an average elevation of only 6.5 feet above sea level.

Credit: flickr

The permanent population is just over 100,000 people, about half of whom live in the capital of South Tawara. With its many low-lying atolls, Kiribati is widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable nations in the world to sea level rise, one of the biggest impacts of climate change. If carbon emissions continue at their present pace, sea levels are projected to rise by 3 feet or more by 2100, which would make most of Kiribati uninhabitable.

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Some of its citizens are already attempting to claim “climate refugee” status in other countries. While many I-Kiribati have left their homes in search of opportunities abroad, these scattered islanders are grappling with the notion that the birthplace of their cultural identity may no longer exist in their lifetime.

Federal grants to move entire communities, like the one recently allocated for Isle de Jean Charles, La., can provide families with physical land, but can they preserve a way of life?

Crosby fondly considers herself the grandmother of the I-Kiribati people in the Bay Area. In 1992, Crosby and two friends created the unofficial Kiribati Association of California. In the more than a decade since, the Kiribati community in the Bay Area has grown. Every July 12, hundreds of friends travel from across the West Coast to attend a celebration of Kiribati’s independence.

Emblematic of the community’s evolution in the U.S., the festivities include traditional 4th of July staples alongside breadfruit and coconut dishes, all snacked on by a throng of friends and relatives in colorful sarongs called lava-lava’s. Last year, the Kiribati ambassador even joined the party and brought a special gift from the (now former) President of Kiribati, Anote Tong -- the first flag that Tong flew when he was inaugurated.

Bauea Crosby stays in touch with friends and relatives over Facebook. Credit: Meghan Shea

Even with the work she is doing in the Bay Area, Crosby worries that the culture both in California and back home is shifting.

“It is already changing: the music, the dances, and even the songs,” Crosby says. “It’s affecting me psychologically when I stop and think, because I am a really proud I-Kiribati person, and to see my culture disappear . . . My wish is for it to not be in my lifetime. Because it will be too sad to think about it.”

But watching her grandkids zoom around her living room underneath intricate fans and mats she’s brought back from the islands, Crosby maintains hope. “The [I-Kiribati] people are really resilient,” she says. And Bauea, constantly working to preserve a microcosm of her culture in the Bay Area, fosters that resiliency. 

Meghan Shea is a junior at Stanford majoring in Environmental Systems Engineering, with a particular interest in the intersection of climate science and ocean science.