In 2014, the pacific island nation of Kiribati purchased 7.7 square miles of land of the Fijian island of Vanua Levu for a little less than $9 million. A nation of 33 low-lying atolls, Kiribati is one of the countries that’s most vulnerable to sea level rise. According to the government’s climate action plan, submitted to the 2015 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Paris, a substantial portion of Kirbati’s capital island, Tarawa, where nearly half of its 110,000 people live, could be inundated by 2050. Smaller outlying islands could disappear even sooner.
Then-President Anote Tong described the Fiji purchase as an insurance policy, telling the media, “We would hope not to put everyone on [this] one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it.” At the Paris summit, Tong thanked the government of Fiji for opening the doors to his people.
The purchase made international headlines, with Kiribati described as the first country to purchase land abroad specifically for relocation because of climate change. But it was a little more complicated than that. For one thing, since the purchase, there’s been little in the way of preparation for any mass relocation of Kirbati’s population. The administration that followed Tong’s is mostly dismissive of his plan. The government’s story on what the land was intended for also changed several times—sometimes it was described as for relocation, sometimes for agriculture to provide food security for Kiribati. The land itself consists of steep hills and mangrove swamps, not particularly suitable for either habitation or agriculture. It’s also already home to several hundred Solomon Islanders who have lived there since the 19th century.