U.S. Fulbright

Climate Change in Kiribati, a Small Pacific Island Nation

April 6, 2016
Michael Roman-1

Michael Roman, 2010-2011, New Zealand, at the New Zealand Fulbright Commission in Wellington

In 2010, I had the honor of receiving a ten-month research grant to study the lives of I-Kiribati living in New Zealand. The I-Kiribati are citizens from the Republic of Kiribati, a small Micronesian country located in the Central Pacific Ocean. Their islands, consisting mostly of low-lying coral atolls, rise just inches above sea level, and are under severe threat from higher tides and stronger storms. The purpose of my study was to gain an understanding of migrant experiences in New Zealand, in preparation for possible large-scale relocation due to climate change.

I first went to Kiribati as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 2000 and was “adopted” by an amazing host family.  In 2005, some members of this family moved to New Zealand. There, they lived amongst a large community of I-Kiribati migrants. I lived with my family throughout my Fulbright year and gained an intimate view of their lives in New Zealand. I experienced their joys, sorrows, and challenges on a very personal level. They were not the only ones facing challenges though. Back in Kiribati, our friends and family were struggling with surmounting impacts from climate change.

Michael Roman-2

Abarao Village, South Tarawa: Ten year time lapse (Photo Credit: Michael Roman)

At the end of my Fulbright year, I returned to Kiribati to see the rest of the family. The situation had become much worse since I was there, just two years prior. Remnants of fallen seawalls were everywhere, causing more people to live on smaller plots of land. Despite worsening conditions, many refused to even think about migrating to another country. Highlighting the connection to land in Kiribati, elders and youth stated their allegiance to their land, “We would rather die in our land than in someone else’s.” The connection to Kiribati land is so strong that even those in New Zealand felt an obligation to return to their ancestral lands for their final breath.

Michael Roman-3

Amy Kataotao, 6 in South Tarawa, Republic of Kiribati (Photo Credit: Raimon Kataotao)

My Fulbright experience further exposed me to the very real worries, fears, losses, and the hopes of those living on the frontline of climate change. My connections to and empathy for the I-Kiribati grew stronger throughout my time there, and inspired me to do more to help Kiribati share its story.

In partnership with other I-Kiribati friends, I began a social media campaign to spread the word about Kiribati. Since 2015, Humans of Kiribati has gained attention from international media outlets, local journalists, movie producers, radio talk show hosts, foreign governments, and everyday people from all over the world.

Kiribati became my second home through Peace Corps, and with the help of Fulbright, has turned into a vocation. If you are thinking about applying to Fulbright, I say do it!  You will not be the same when you return, and that is a good thing!  Our world now needs more globally-minded citizens than ever before.

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  • Reply Karalee January 4, 2017 at 2:38 am

    Hey Michael, I’ve studied a good bit about Kiribati and am very interested in the island’s future living conditions. It’s fairly difficult to find information on the first-hand impact that climate change is having on Kiribati’s inhabitants. I’m interested in graduate-level research of global warming and consequent sea level rise. I’m interested in reading more about your research and findings. Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Reply Mike Roman April 25, 2017 at 9:01 pm

      Hi Karalee!

      I am sorry I am just now responding. If you have Facebook, please message Humans of Kiribati and I will get back to you!

  • Reply Ryan Clancy July 12, 2017 at 4:09 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Thank you for posting this.

    I’m in the process of applying for a Fulbright in the South Pacific Islands and am interested in hearing more about your experiences in Kiribati. Feel free to email me at the provided address. I look froward to speaking with you!



    • Reply Mike Roman September 1, 2017 at 12:01 pm

      Hi Ryan!
      Email Humans of Kiribati on Facebook!
      Hope to talk soon!

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