Course:FRST370/Climate refugees in Tuvalu: transferable lessons from the multi-stakeholder processes of community forestry

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Climate change is a major concern for nations within the Pacific Ocean. Low-lying countries, such as Tuvalu, are some of the most at risk for facing the realities of climate change. Facing immediate security threats to the sustainability of their populations; crop failures, food security, and freshwater scarcity are all rapidly growing[1] and citizens are continuously losing more and more land to the rising ocean levels.[2] All levels of people and government are working on ways to face the challenges that come with living on sinking land.[1] This case study investigates Tuvalu and how it is responding to climate change and the rising sea levels and temperatures. Looking at the land tenure and governing bodies and policies at both a local and global scale, along with the different levels of stakeholders, an assessment of the current state of climate change adaptation on the islands of Tuvalu is determined. Recommendations for future migration of the Tuvaluan people and the role of major climate change contributing countries are determined. Disaster response for Tuvalu requires world cooperation and assistance at local and institutional levels[1] as climate change is a global issue whose consequences are being faced by the people of Tuvalu.


A typical neighbourhood/community on Tuvalu

Located within the Pacific Ocean to the west of Australia, Tuvalu is a Polynesian country consisting of 9 islands: Funafuti, [3]Nanumea, Nanumaga, Niutao, Niulakita, Nui, Nukufetau, Nukulaelae and Vaitupu.[4] [2] The fourth-smallest country in the world, the total land area of Tuvalu is approximately 26 square kilometres, reaching a maximum of 5 m above sea level.[4] Classified as a least developed country by the United Nations, Tuvalu is a low-income country that is home to approximately 11, 000 people.[3]

The low-lying nature of the islands puts them at a high risk of climate change. Threatened both in the short-term and long-term, Tuvalu is one of the forefront countries facing the negative impacts of climate change.[3]  Rising sea levels and an increased number and severity of natural disasters such as cyclones and hurricanes are only some of the side effects of climate change threatening the livelihoods and safety of the Tuvaluan people. As a whole, the country of Tuvalu is at risk of "drowning" or "disappearing" altogether.[5] Migration may be the only option for many of the Tuvaluan people as their land becomes inhabitable.

Tenure arrangements


The people of Tuvalu have a long-standing connection to their land, which is demonstrated through their land tenure system, kaitasi.[4] Meaning “eat from the same land”, kaitasi is a familial system of tenure that gives any person who lives and or eats from a piece of land equal rights to govern that land.[4] Kaitasi allows for multiple landowners per area of land and requires that all landowners agree upon all decisions that impact said land.[4] Under this tenure, land cannot be sold but is able to be leased or exchanged.[4]

This system of land tenure was more successful historically compared to the present day. In the past, the islands’ populations were smaller compared to the amount of land.[4] Families lived and worked on the land together.[4] Sharing communal meals was part of their culture, and contributing to community feasts through food produced on their land showed signs of wealth and contributed to a sense of pride for the people.[4] In today’s society, the connection of the people to the land is weaker due to the economy shifting towards a more money-focused view.[4] This economy shift has changed the population dynamics of the islands with approximately 5,000 people of the 11,000 total population of Tuvalu having no Indigenous ties to the land, meaning they have no tenure rights to the land.[4]

Migration Pathways

As climate change-induced migration becomes a more prominent concern for the people of Tuvalu, the tenure agreements of nearby nations within the Pacific may result in problems obtaining land to build a new home. In the Pacific Ocean, between 65-99% of the land is managed through customary tenure systems.[6] Customary tenure land cannot be bought or sold, and can only be transferred to blood relatives.[6] Without familial ties to an area, the people of Tuvalu will have problems finding land in which they have the right to occupy and own.

The strong cultural and customary connections to land may pose another concern. Both the people of Tuvalu and of nearby nations may be unwilling to part with their land due to historical and cultural significance.[6] This may create problematic migration pathways and human rights violations, such as the case with the people of Vanuatu being forced away from their land as a result of a climate change-induced disaster in 2015.[7] The people of Vanuatu, similar to Tuvalu, had strong ties to their land and were forced to migrate to nearby nations against their expressed wishes, violating their right to prevent displacement.[7] The concern of violating human rights, such as the right to prevent displacement, is a concern for forming migration pathways for the people of Tuvalu as a result of the strong cultural ties and customary tenure of land on both Tuvalu and nearby Pacific nations.

Administrative arrangements


In 1916, Tuvalu was annexed as a British Colony, becoming an independent nation and a part of the British Commonwealth in 1978.[4] Tuvalu is a democratic country with a sole Prime Minister as head of government.[3] The leaders of Tuvalu are guided under the 2006 Leadership Code Act.[8] The Leadership Code Act sets out standards for good governance of the land and guidelines for the conduct the leaders must follow both regionally and internationally.[8] An ombudsman commission, consisting of one chief and two commissioners was created alongside the Leadership Code Act for enforcement and to hold leaders liable to the act.[8]

Climate Change Policies/Initiatives

Climate change is a global issue and concern and follows global policies set by global organizations and collections of countries and nations. Climate change policies have changed and evolved over time. Major policies impacting climate change and induced migration of island states, such as Tuvalu, include:

1992: UN Earth Summit[9]

  • Set out emission reduction targets for developed and developing states
  • Developed states, for the most part, failed to meet
  • Australia, Canada, New Zealand increased emissions significantly
  • The UK nominally reduced

2010: Conference of the Parties (‘COP16’) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (‘UNFCCC’)[10]

  • Agreed to initial steps to strengthen climate change migration efforts and help developing nations protect themselves from climate change impacts

2011: Nansen Conference on Climate Change and Displacement[10]

  • Norwegian government facilitated multidisciplinary dialogue and improve global understanding of environmental disaster and climate change displacement

2012: Nansen Initiative[10]

  • Norway and Switzerland pledge to address legal protection gaps regarding the cross-border movement in the context of disasters and effects of climate change
  • Focused on building consensus among states on the principles underlying protection agendas going forward without developing new legal standards

2013: Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage Associated with Climate Change Impacts[10]

  • Addressed loss and damage associated with the impacts of climate change in developing countries who are at particularly high risk

2015: Global Consultation, endorsed Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons[10]

  • Integration of policies and practices by states and regional organizations into own normative frameworks, taking into account individual circumstances

2015: Paris Agreement[11]

  • Goal to reduce global temperature rise to below 2 degree Celsius pre-industrial levels with the aim towards 1.5 degree Celsius through a reduction of greenhouse gas emission
  • Individual countries set own emission goals to help meet the global goal

2016: Platform on Disaster Displacement[10]

  • Assisted the implementation of the Agenda for the Protection of Cross-Border Displaced Persons

Affected Stakeholders

Indigenous Communities (High Interest, Medium Power)

The Indigenous communities of Tuvalu have a deep connection to their land.[4] One of the three pillars of Tuvaluan culture, the land has been valued above all other possessions and was a symbol of wealth and strength.[4] Having their identity, culture and livelihoods all deeply rooted in their land ownership and use.[4] As climate change alters sea levels and temperatures on a global scale, the Indigenous communities of Tuvalu are at great risk. Forest-dependent, and having the customary land tenure of their land, the Indigenous communities are a high-interest medium power affected stakeholder group. Highly interested in protecting their land and the connections to their identity, culture, and livelihoods it has, their main objective is protection against the changes caused by global climate change. Having customary tenure of the land that has been passed down through generations as a result of the familial tenure system[4], gives the Indigenous communities power and control over all local land-use decisions on their land. However, as climate change is a global issue, they do not have the power to make the global changes needed to combat the future loss of their land. They have power on a local scale, but not the global one, giving them medium power in relation to their land overall.

Local People (High Interest, Low Power)

Similar to Indigenous communities, the local people of Tuvalu rely on the land for their livelihoods.[4] Having the land provide jobs, food, and housing to the local people who live there, they are highly interested in what happens to the land as it impacts their ways of life. Their main objectives would be to protect the land from the changing climate to protect their homes and lives they have created on this land. As almost half the people living in Tuvalu are non-native, having no familial ties to the land they have no rights to the land.[4] Lacking rights to the land means they have little power in terms of land decisions on both a local and global scale.

Interested Outside Stakeholders

The nine islands of Tuvalu, Funafuti, Nanumea, Nanumaga, Niutao, Niulakita, Nui, Nukufetau, Nukulaelae and Vaitupu, have little in the way of tradeable natural resources.[2] Lacking economies of scale to support a tourist industry, there have been few tourists, and no resorts, boutiques, backpacker hostels or package tours.[2] This lack of tradeable resources means that there are not many interested stakeholders who are looking to make profit from the islands of Tuvalu. Unlike many islands and archipelagos in the Pacific with a strong presence in imaginings of island exoticism, Tuvalu has been almost untouched by the tourism and culture industries.[2] Tuvalu's lack of easily exploitable natural resources destined for external markets attracts little in the way of foreign investment.[2] Its fishing rights are licensed to Taiwanese vessels but with no large internal market, the boats bypass the islands and sell their catch elsewhere.[2] Although internationally mobile, the small absolute number of Tuvaluan people travelling around the world is insufficient for them to make a significant impression on host communities.[2] There are no large migrant communities of Tuvaluans anywhere, except in New Zealand, where their numbers are officially around 2600.[2] After independence, and before the explosion of the climate change discourse, attention turned to Tuvalu; it was framed as little more than a sovereign curiosity, interesting mostly because of its remarkable smallness.[2] Characteristics of Tuvalu in development discourses tend to present the islands as intrinsically poor in natural resources, offering few opportunities for development and economic self‐sufficiency.[2]

The red markings in this image show the area in which the various islands of Tuvalu are found and their size relative to their surroundings.

The disappearing island phenomenon has produced different imaginative geographies.[2] In the image of the climate refugee, fleeing the disappearing islands, islanders are positioned as something to fear and/or control, even if empathetically, in climate change discourse.[2] Tuvalu has become a ‘global showcase’ of renewable energy through efforts of French environmentalists to eliminate fossil‐fuel use on all its islands, which tend to summon a romanticized space where islanders live in harmony with ‘nature’ at the same time as biofuel initiatives are developed and implemented.[2] These French environmentalists are interested stakeholders because their livelihoods are not affected by the islands' conditions.Tuvalu is concrete evidence that climate change is real; it is a country predicted to disappear in 50 years.[12] Alofa Tuvalu is a French ENGO that is using Tuvalu to educate the population of the entire planet in consuming less in order to attain a global, sustainable equilibrium between consumption and production.[12]

Even though interested environmental stakeholders are trying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this may not be the most efficient way to help the local people of Tuvalu due to the extremity of the circumstances. A distinctly neoliberal cost‐benefit analysis of the disappearing islands led an Australian bureaucrat to state that an evacuation of small island states might be more efficient than forcing industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions.[2]

Interested stakeholders also include WWF, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace. Tuvalu does not have much in terms of natural resources to export, therefore interested stakeholders mostly include NGOs and ENGOs. In narratives of some international environmental organizations, Tuvalu is recruited to prompt non‐islanders to act on climate change issues.[2] WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund), Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have harnessed Tuvalu's image to draw attention to the islands and the planet's climate change impacts simultaneously in climate change campaigns.[2] The disappearing island image is prominent, yet it is planetary salvation, and not the protection of Tuvalu in and of itself, that is frequently at the core of such campaigns.[2] Environmental journalism on Tuvalu also uses the islands in service to a larger purpose.[2] Representations of Tuvalu as a laboratory for global climate change are constitutive of an unequal relationship, projecting Tuvalu in terms of cosmopolitan hopes and anxieties.[2]


Perceptions among Tuvaluan civil society are often strongly rejecting of the reductionism of climate refugee narratives.[12] The prospect of migration coupled with a designation as a refugee is perceived as denying Tuvaluans the right to subjectivity and voice as an equal citizen of the global community.[12] Government discourse on climate change in Tuvalu, on the other hand, is often characterized by self-identification as vulnerable, a strategy that captures the seriousness of climate risks, and draws attention to the need for international responses.[12] This discourse can be distinguished from that of the international ENGOs and media in the way that it emphasizes political, cultural, and territorial rights.[12]

A woman from Tuvalu speaking about the threat that climate change poses to her culture and traditions.

Options the People of Tuvalu Have in Terms of Relocation

Migration in and of itself does not constitute the scandal of climate change from a Tuvaluan perspective, rather it is the prospect of permanent loss of land and self-determination, particularly if there is no forthcoming compensation for these losses from those who caused the damage.[12] In the eyes of Tuvaluans, permission to cross a western border as a refugee falls far short of climate change remedies required: extensive, immediate reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, and significant legal and financial action to redress lost livelihoods and self-determination if emissions reduction is not achieved.[12] The people of Tuvalu are not yet adjusted to the fact that they will most likely become climate refugees unless immediate action to reduce greenhouse gasses is taken. For the process of relocation to be successful, the people of Tuvalu must be aware of the reality that they will most likely be displaced and will need a new place to call home. More problems arise when the question of which nations are responsible for providing land for the people of Tuvalu to resettle comes up.

There is a general positive duty to protect the basic human rights of others.[13] The nationalist attachment theory accepts that greenhouse gas emitting collectives bear responsibility for the coming territorial deprivation, but those collectives are not required to restore the status quo ante by offering the islanders new territory.[13] The world contains an industrialized mainland state, whose members have developed a shared attachment to all the territory it controls.[13] Due to GHG emissions, the mainland state is responsible for the islanders’ plight, the islanders are aware of this and decide to lay claim to parts of the mainland state’s territory, in order to re-establish territorial sovereignty when their island sinks.[13] Although the mainlanders recognize a duty of reparation, the costs of upsetting their territorial attachments are found to be unreasonably high.[13] Instead of ceding territory, they, therefore, offer the islanders a mere right of immigration.[13]

Why should climate refugees be offered territorial sovereignty over a new geographical space?[13] Why is it not enough to put some other type of rights on the table, such as immigration rights or rights of intra-state autonomy?[13] It is hard to deny that the refugees have a right to reestablish full territorial sovereignty.[13] Before the sea swallowed their land, they did not merely live as a minority with some degree of collective autonomy within an encompassing state, and nor did they live as migrants scattered about.[13] The refugees may be willing to exchange their right to a new territory for a different arrangement like an intra-state autonomy within a larger state; the mainlanders are at liberty to place alternatives on the table but refugees have a right to re-establish themselves as a territorial sovereign.[13]

Other Issues that Arise

While Tuvalu is a place largely without political violence, absolute poverty or disrespect for human rights, the population faces many challenges quite apart from climate change: harnessing and managing extensive fisheries resources; coping with the impacts of global economic downturns for the significant part of the population employed as commercial seafarers; overcrowding in the capital; and lack of employment on the outer islands.[2]


Territorial rights are rights of the jurisdiction (to make and enforce the law) on a territory, to control its natural resources, and to control movements of persons and goods across its borders.[13] People may change the territory to conform to their preferred ways of life and identity but their preferences may also adapt to the opportunities offered in their geophysical surroundings.[13] The result is the development of a distinct territorial attachment shared by the collective’s members.[13] People have a significant interest in being left free to determine the shape of their own lives, therefore there is a moral reason for non-interference with the existing attachment.[13]

The Power of Local People

There has been a failure on the part of the most powerful emitters to address the climate change issue.[2] There have been only small efforts to switch to renewable energy, and inaction is often justified on the basis of uncertainty and excessive cost.[2] Tuvaluan government and community representatives have been vocal advocates for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the international political arena.[2] Arguing that their populations face a serious inequity, members of parliament, diplomats and community leaders repeatedly highlight that Tuvaluans face significant climate change impacts and yet make little contribution to the rising fossil fuel use that causes them in the first place.[2]

Tuvalu demonstration COP15

The Tuvalu delegation at the Copenhagen Conference of Parties (COP) in 2009 mobilized the symbolic force of their islands' vulnerability to sea-level rise to press for a legally enforceable global commitment to a maximum of 1.5° Celsius global average temperature increase.[2]Their position received good media coverage and was supported by many civil society representatives in Copenhagen.[2] However, no legally enforceable limits to GHG emissions were reached.

Tuvalu once drew little international interest in comparison to the attention it has received over the last decade in climate change discourse.[2]

The Role of NGOs in Tuvalu

NGOs have a particular role in Tuvalu, as they use the island to bring awareness to the climate change crisis.

Tuvalu has become a ‘global showcase’ of renewable energy through efforts of French environmentalists to eliminate fossil‐fuel use on all of its islands.[2] NGOs use this approach because the image painted by the situation in Tuvalu is somewhat romanticized; where islanders live in harmony with ‘nature’ at the same time as biofuel initiatives are developed and implemented.[2] Tuvalu is unquestionably solid evidence that climate change is real and NGOs use the 'story of sinking islands' to attract an audience and bring awareness to climate change. This is beneficial for Tuvalu because more awareness is attracted to the problems that they are facing. This romanticizing of the story of the people of Tuvalu is also beneficial for the NGOs because they can use it as a platform to educate and inform more people about the direct consequences of climate change. For example, Alofa Tuvalu is a French ENGO that is using Tuvalu to educate the population of the entire planet in consuming less in order to attain a global, sustainable equilibrium between consumption and production.[12]


A sign at a climate protest.

Climate refugees who have been forced to migrate off their land due to environmental conditions deserve to be awarded land to reestablish their communities and nation by the largest polluters. The nation of Tuvalu has a value for total greenhouse gas emissions of 5.24 kt of CO2 as of 2012.[14] This accounts for less than one percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, for which China, the European Union and the United Sates account for more than half of total global emissions.[15] The people of Tuvalu are not responsible for the loss of their land; their land is being engulfed by the ocean because of the actions of the biggest polluting countries. Therefore, the biggest polluters should be responsible for providing funding, aid and land to resettle for the climate refugees of Tuvalu.

Currently, top polluting countries are not obliged to provide aid, funding or land to climate refugees. Because of the lack of accountability from top polluting countries, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) plays a leading role in the Global Protection Cluster for protecting and assisting people who are forcibly displaced inside their countries and cannot return safely home.[16] If the top polluting countries are not directly required to provide land or forms of aid, they must be held accountable in other ways such as providing funding to organizations such as The UN Refugee Agency.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Bryant-Tokalau, Jenny (2018). Indigenous Pacific Approaches to Climate Change. Springer International Publishing.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 2.27 2.28 2.29 Farbotko, Carol (2010). "Wishful sinking: disappearing islands, climate refugees and cosmopolitan experimentation".
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Smith, R.; McNamara, K. E. (2015). "Future migrations from Tuvalu and Kiribati: exploring government, civil society and donor perceptions". Climate and Development. 7: 47–59.
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  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Constable, A. L. (2016). "Climate change and migration in the Pacific: options for Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands". Regional Environmental Change. 17: 1029–1038.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Wewerinke-Singh, M.; Van Geelen, T. (2018). "Protection of climate displaced persons under international law: a case study from Mataso island, Vanuatu". Melbourne Journal of International Law. 19: 666–702.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Oppong, N. (2016). "The twists and turns of institutional innovation in small island developing states: the case of Tuvalu". Commonwealth & Comparative Politics. 54: 23–45.
  9. Wewerinke-Singh, M.; Van Geelen, T. (2018). "Protection of climate displaced persons under international law: a case study from Mataso island, Vanuatu". Melbourne Journal of International Law. 19: 666–702.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 Philip, T. (2018). "Climate change displacement and migration: an analysis of the current international legal regimes deficiency, proposed solutions and a way forward for Australia". Melbourne Journal of International Law. 19: 639–664.
  11. Rogelj, J.; et al. (2016). "Paris Agreement Climate Proposals Need a Boost to Keep Warming Well below 2°C". Nature. 534: 631–639. Explicit use of et al. in: |last2= (help)
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 12.7 12.8 Lazrus, Heather; Farbotko (2012). "The first climate refugees? contesting global narratives of climate change in Tuvalu".
  13. 13.00 13.01 13.02 13.03 13.04 13.05 13.06 13.07 13.08 13.09 13.10 13.11 13.12 13.13 13.14 Angell, Kim (2017). "New territorial rights for sinking island states". European Journal of Political Theory.
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  15. Friedrich, Jahannes (April 11, 2017). "This Interactive Chart Explains World's Top 10 Emitters, and How They've Changed". World Resources Institute.
  16. "Climate Change and Disaster Displacement". The UN Refugee Agency. March 2019.

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