ONTONG JAVA ATOLL UNDER THREAT
DS photojournalist Ben Knight has just returned from a lengthy climate displacement monitoring mission to one of the world’s most isolated and least visited atolls. Ontong Java is located across some 500kms of ocean to the north of Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. The isolated atoll receives visits from a supply ship only once a month (and occasionally two months without notice!), and has received only a handful of long-term researchers. Elders on the atoll told Ben that from recent memory only two other foreigners have stayed on the atoll as long as he had.
Some 3,000 Ontong Javanese are facing extreme hardships generated by the worsening combination of rising sea levels, ever-increasing coastal erosion, severe food insecurity, salt water inundation in taro crop swamps and social tensions exacerbated by the absence of a chief or committed government to govern the atoll. While superficially reminiscent of what many who have never been to an atoll may see as a ‘tropical paradise’, a closer look reveals a people longing to retain their unique language, culture, and traditional way of life, but that are increasingly desperate in their attempts to continue a life on the atoll.
Carrying out scores of interviews, Ben found virtually everyone he talked to had thought seriously about moving somewhere else, with most expressing wishes to move to Santa Isabella island to the south-west. Previous plans to relocate the community to a piece of land in southern Malaita have largely come to naught, and had it proceeded, would almost certainly have failed for a range of reasons.
The world is largely unaware of the tragic plight facing the people of Ontong Java. To rectify this, DS will work in the coming months on a variety of projects and initiatives to support the atoll communities so that their extraordinary stories and pleas for support can be heard across the globe. As all climate change eyes begin to look to Paris for solutions to the worsening climate crisis, the people of Ontong Java are already enduring extreme climate hardship. Please check back in at our website in the coming weeks and months to view the publications, media stories and films we are now preparing. In the meantime, a small selection of some of Ben’s photographs are included below.