American Polynesia, Rising Seas and Relocation

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tags: climate change, global warming, Polynesia



Laray Polk is an American writer and artist. In 2013, she co-authored a book with Noam Chomsky, Nuclear War and Environmental Catastrophe (Seven Stories Press).

Abstract: In the next 30 to 50 years, rising sea levels caused by global warming will subsume low-lying islands in the Pacific Ocean. Inhabitants will have to relocate, but there are few choices. Among nations (with the exception of Fiji and New Zealand) there is little preparation for the inevitable migration of Pacific Islanders. Which nations should commit to the processes of equitable relocation? The following article will address this question through historical context and colonial occupation; current legal debates surrounding climate change and maritime migration; and the potential rights of “deterritorialized” states, such as retention of exclusive economic zones. Historical context includes an examination of U.S. insular territories in the Pacific and the continued exercise of presidential authority over island possessions.


There are strong arguments to be made that the United States has ethical obligations to assist Pacific Islanders as sea levels continue to rise, with assistance taking many forms. The U.S. is obligated namely because it is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the largest carbon emitter historically; it has extensively tested atomic and hydrogen bombs and biochemical agents in the Pacific Ocean (Marshall Islands, Christmas Island, Johnston Atoll); has commercially profited from the Pacific ecosystem since the early days of whaling; and in addition to American Samoa, Guam, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, possesses eight insular territories referred to as “United States Minor Outlying Islands.”

The U.S. Minor Outlying Islands are Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Islands, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island. (A ninth minor outlying island, Navassa Island, is located in the Caribbean Ocean, near Haiti.) Around these insular territories is an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines the EEZ as “the zone where the U.S. and other coastal nations have jurisdiction over natural resources,” such as fisheries, energy, and other mineral resources.

When the zones of the eight minor outlying islands are combined with those of American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands, it forms a U.S. EEZ in the Pacific Ocean of 2.2 million square miles.2 The United States, seen in this light, is not a distant observer to the Pacific Islanders’ plight but an invested neighbor with shared history; a history defined in large part by commercial exploitation and continuing military entanglements.

American Polynesia

The U.S. Minor Outlying Islands in the Pacific are small, low-lying formations of more biological use to birds and sea turtles than humans, but they have considerable strategic value. The islands are often referred to militarily as “picket fence” outposts. Most have airstrips, three have seaports, and two have lagoons that can accommodate seaplanes.3 Seven of the eight territories, however, didn’t begin as military acquisitions; American citizens claimed them under the U.S. Guano Islands Act of 1856.4 In the beginning, what could be found on the surface of “guano islands” had economic value. In the 21st century, economic value is in the control of their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.

The Guano Islands Act “legalized” the taking of islands by American merchants in search of seabird guano, a powerful fertilizer used to enrich depleted agricultural land in the United States.5 The best guano (huano) came from Peru’s Chincha Islands, but American entrepreneurs grew impatient with what they perceived as an unfair monopoly. The 1856 act supplied the means to bypass the Peruvian marketplace by allowing U.S. citizens, such as Alfred G. Benson and James W. Jennett, to create their own guano empires in the remote reaches of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. And it gave the U.S. President authority “to employ the land and naval forces of the United States to protect the rights of the discoverer or of his widow, heir, executor, administrator, or assigns.”

Sixty-four noncontiguous island territories in the Pacific were claimed under the act, which provided an opportunity to reinvent plantation culture abroad as disagreements over slavery were reaching a boiling point in the continental United States.6 Guano extraction on isolated islands was disproportionately performed by Pacific Islanders, and overseen by white supervisors. As Jimmy M. Skaggs writes in The Great Guano Rush, there was no 19th-century job “as difficult, dangerous, or demeaning as shoveling either feces or phosphates on guano islands.” Whether laborers were contracted, coerced or outright kidnapped, there was no means for escape once sequestered on remote islands. And while most “American guano mining operations were unquestionably more humane” than those on Peru’s Chinchas Islands, “none were pleasant.”7

Once divested of guano, some islands were planted with coconut palms for the production of copra, which went beyond the original intent of the act (i.e., allegedly to facilitate a supply of affordable guano for the benefit of American farmers). Over time these small insular possessions became stepping-stones for larger ambitions. According to Gregory T. Cushman in Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World, “U.S. claims under the 1856 Guano Islands Act represent an important landmark not only in the history of U.S. imperialism but also for the place of remote islands in global geopolitical history… In later years, these islands took on new geopolitical importance as coaling stations, relay points for undersea telegraph cables, and eventually as air bases.”

“By the end of World War I,” writes Cushman, “nearly every insular territory in the Pacific Basin except on the southern rim was theoretically subject to some distant government.”8 The U.S. territorial realm, in this Pacific mosaic of foreign powers, is known as “American Polynesia.” ...

Read entire article at Asia-Pacific Journal

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