On July 1, 1946, residents of the island of Bikini were gathered on a ship off the shore of Rongerik Atoll. They watched as the world’s fourth atomic bomb detonated over their home island. Their home was now a bomb site – covered in toxic nuclear fallout. Their island was now uninhabitable – but they did not know that yet.
During the 1940s, Bikinians had agreed to let the United States conduct a series of nuclear tests on their land because they believed they could return to their home once the testing ended. That wasn’t the case.
The tiny community began an existence of traveling from island to island in order to survive. Many of the islands that the Bikinians relocated to were too small and could not sustain agriculture needed to feed the people. The community had to be relocated five times in fifty years before settling on the Marshall Islands.
Now, the community faces even more challenges. The rising sea level and terrible storms occurring due to climate change have essentially rendered their homes unlivable.
Life on Kili is barely sustainable even when the conditions are at their best. In 1948, the Bikini islanders moved there after they realized they would starve if they stayed on Rongerik. Kili was attractive because the Bikini people could set up their own community there. But, the island was otherwise a disaster. There was no natural lagoon and therefore the islanders’ fishing culture all but disappeared. There was hardly any land for farming, thereby forcing residents to import food. Terrible storms and rough seas often postponed the shipment of food for months. Starvation was not far off.
Marshallese Foreign Minister Tony de Brum will meet with U.S. lawmakers this week to ask for a change in the terms of the monetary fund that was set up many years ago to help Bikini islanders resettle. As it stands now, the fund can only be utilized to help the islanders buy property in the Marshall Islands. Due to the harsh and worsening conditions, the islanders are giving up on the Pacific completely. Instead, they wish to come to the United States.
During an interview, de Brum stated that, “Kili [is] uninhabitable because of climate change.” Kili is the miniscule island where approximately 700 people currently live.
The Department of the Interior issued a letter last week in support for de Brum’s idea, recommending that the terms of the fund be amended to allow Bikini islanders to resettle here.
Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Esther Kia’aina stated that, “This is an appropriate course of action for the United States to take regarding the welfare and livelihood of the Bikinian people, given the deteriorating conditions on Kili and Ejit Islands in the Marshall Islands with crowding, diminishing resources, and increased frequency of flooding due to King Tides on their islands.”
The ball is now Congress’ court to approve the changes.