9 Sep 2023

Advocacy group joins forces with Banaban community to highlight struggle

1:27 pm on 9 September 2023
Justice for Banaba exhibition in Auckland, New Zealand in February.

Justice for Banaba exhibition in Auckland, New Zealand in February. Photo: Supplied / ICAAD

Amid fears of more mining on the already decimated Kiribati island of Banaba, the residents there, and Banabans on Rabi Island in Fiji, have been receiving help from the international advocacy group, ICAAD.

The new phosphate mining plans are now in abeyance after an outcry over Banabans being shut out of the decision making.

ICAAD, or the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination, is a small agency with, according to its website, some high powered legal support.

Erin Thomas, ICAAD's New Zealand-based representative, said the agency has been working in the Pacific for about a decade, supporting groups at the grassroots on issues such as climate change and human rights.

ICAAD initially became involved with the Rabi Island Community Hub. Rabi is the Fiji island to which Banabans were moved to by Britain after the almost complete destruction of Banaba by Britain, Australia and New Zealand in the first half of the 20th century.

"We started working with the island community hub in a way that we always begin partnerships, by chance and obvious alignment," Thomas said.

"It became clear that that history of displacement of the Banabans and dispossession and the neglect of human rights, is a critical space for advocacy on Rabi, as well as providing an important lesson to the world as we think about climate displacement.

"This is how we connected on our bigger project around the right to life with dignity, which is focused on expanding legal protections for those displaced by the climate crisis."

She said ICAAD wants to make sure the Banaban story is heard by decision-makers in the region and that their demands, which are so often relegated are met with action.

Over the past two or three years the critical issue for the several hundred people who remain on Banaba has been a lack of water.

It is an island with no rivers and for hundreds of generations, like some many Pacific atolls, relied on the water lens beneath the island, into which water has been filtered through the coral base.

But the years of phosphate mining wrecked this lens.

ICAAD director Erin Thomas

ICAAD director Erin Thomas Photo: Supplied/ICAAD

There had been only cursory efforts to resolve the issues, with desalination units sent but often breaking down and the people resorting to contaminated tank waters.

On Rabi the issue is the absence of the Council of Elders, which, until the Bainimarama administration suspended it, had given the island a degree of autonomy. In recent years an administrator appointed by the government in Suva has exercised this political power and he was the person who signed off on Australian miner Centrex renewing phosphate mining on Banaba.

The Centrex bid is now on hold after the outcry but Banabans want to see fundamental reform to ensure something like this doesn't happen again.

An elder from the Banaban community on Rabi, Toanuea Taratai, said they want the Council re-established. But first there is a need to urgently review the colonial era Banaban Settlement Act.

"Banabans have citizenship rights to both Kiribati and Fiji, and can hold dual citizenship. However, in practice, these rights are difficult to secure and are poorly upheld by the governments involved," Thomas said.

She the Banaban situation has fallen through "the cracks of jurisdiction with no one really wanting to take responsibility, whether it's the Fiji government, the Kiribati government, or the colonial powers who mined Banaba itself, the UK, Australia and New Zealand."

She said ICAAD is developing a policy brief after hearing from the community and are looking at issues like reparations for the destruction from mining.

Thomas said, as it stands, only states could contest something like this, "that would require Fiji or Kiribati to bring action on behalf of the Banabans".

"What we've seen with recent developments, including this mining agreement that was signed very undemocratically and illegally, given the obligations of the Fiji government to provide for Banaban governance, is that falling between the cracks is more the norm and sort of represents this continued pattern of colonialism that Banabans are experiencing on Rabi and around the world.

"So there's been a call to review the Settlement Act, which is the Fijian legislation, allowing for governance of Banaban affairs by Banabans living on Rabi, which also obviously impacts on Banaba itself and those living overseas."

She believed there is a fear of history repeating itself and the Australian mining company taking advantage of the same issues that have been in place.

Thomas wants to see the Kiribati government making a far greater effort to help the people on Banaba.

Thomas wants to see the Kiribati government making a far greater effort to help the people on Banaba. Photo: Supplied / ICAAD