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A Sinking Feeling

Written by Subject: World News
Halfway between Hawaii and Australia, the six atolls and three islands of the nation Tuvalu are struggling to keep their heads above water.  The relentless onslaught of the sea is inundating the land with salt water, threatening both plant and animal life.

If you've heard of Tuvalu, it is most likely through the Internet domain .tv or Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.  Mr. Gore alleged that the archipelago's inhabitants had been evacuated to Australia and New Zealand, which is news to the 11,000 people living on Tuvalu.  In fact, a new government building and hospital were constructed on Tuvalu just prior to the film's 2006 release.

That did not stop the Washington Times from repeating the claim on April 19, 2009.

The confusion stems from a 2001 plea from the government of Tuvalu for the refuge of Tuvalu residents.  Tuvalu petitioned Australia and New Zealand as the rising seas due to anthropogenic global warming threatened to swamp the archipelago, which has an average height of two meters above mean sea level.  Both Australia and New Zealand rejected Tuvalu's terms.

Unfortunately, for the government, the ocean surrounding Tuvalu (which had been rising at about 6 mm per year) retreated 2.5 inches from 1990 to 2001.  Since then, the sea has resumed it's climb up Tuvalu's shores, exposing the root systems of the vegetation that serves as the archipelago's primary defense against erosion.

At that rate, all vegetation on Tuvalu may die sometime in the next 100 years.

Sinking or Drowning?
At the king tide, during a storm with strong enough winds from a particular direction, the ocean waters can top the surface of the islands.  Such a confluence of events happened in February 2006.

The inhabitants, plants, and animals rely on rain as their freshwater source; it is a testament to how much rain Tuvalu receives that vegetation thrives despite periodic bathing in salt water.  However, that begs the question of whether the sea is rising to drown Tuvalu, or whether Tuvalu is eroding into the sea.

It should come as no surprise that there is no definitive answer to that question, yet, the current business model of the government of Tuvalu seems to hinge on it.

The Commonwealth
In 1974, Tuvalu separated from the Gilbert Islands and joined the Commonwealth as a sovereign nation in 1978.  Each of Tuvalu's eight inhabited islands have an island council, which come together to form a 15-member unicameral parliament for the archipelago. 

The primary industry of Tuvalu is agriculture with handicrafts and tourism a distant second and third.

The laws of Tuvalu seem to be written in a hierarchy of least to most restrictive.  Each section of the code describes the Tuvalu law, and then describes the more restrictive portions of the law as they pertain to each island in the archipelago.

It is clear (from the Tuvalu code) that the residents are expected to be strongly familial and definitely patriarchal.  As one would expect, this solves some social problems, and gives rise to others.

Property Rights
All real property in Tuvalu is privately-owned.  Individuals may own property, or the property may be held as Kaitasi, where it is family-owned and occupied with the patriarch as the nominal owner.

The first statement of the Tuvalu lands code is that "an owner controls the use of his property except...".  The rest of the code, of course, renders that statement all but meaningless.

The land holdings of an individual must be used in such a manner as to support that individual and his "issues" indefinitely.  The adequacy of a landholder's stewardship is ultimately determined by a land court.

If an "issue" complains of abandonment, the land court will take away property and grant it to the "issue".  All property is considered the inheritance of the "issues", and thus may be only sold or gifted at the discretion of the land court.  Inheritance may only pass to someone other than an "issue" if the landholder proves to the land court that the "issues" have neglected him in his old age, and then only to a nurse approved by the land court.

Women may purchase as much land as the land court approves, and may inherit up to their fair share from their father.  Landholders may gift limited plots and garden pits to their wives, with ownership reverting to the landholder's "issues" upon her death.

Through this land system, Tuvalu has seemingly enforced, for all residents, a social safety net in that the land is required to support the family and, should he find himself indigent, a resident may receive a land court grant from a resident who died intestate.

In practice, of course, this has left the residents of Tuvalu subsistence farmers and the archipelago falling into the ocean.

Subject to the approval of the land court, anyone, from anywhere, may lease land on Tuvalu.  However, the system of land ownership leaves the state of any lease in limbo as the contract may be broken at any time the land court deems appropriate.  While each plot has a nominal owner, in reality the ownership of the land is constantly in flux.

One can easily imagine leasing a parcel of this tropical paradise, mitigating the natural erosion, and constructing a comfortable residence or vacation villa.  However, with no certainty as to the leasehold, it is not surprising that such developments do not occur despite what must be tremendous demand.

The ownership flux is also a clue as to why the landholders themselves do not take adequate erosion control measures.  Diverting labor and resources from subsistence farming to land improvement would be expensive, but certainly a worthwhile investment in the future.  But, the ownership flux means it is possible (if not likely) that some other person will reap the rewards of the investment.  Thus, the risk/reward payoff tilts in favor of the ocean.

Culture Wars
The limited land of Tuvalu (26 square kilometers) has great value to the residents as their source of subsistence.  If property rights were secure, however, it could also command great prices.  Such a dramatic shift would also entail a sea change in the culture of Tuvalu.

If property rights were altered, at least to the extent that iron-clad leases could be executed, it is highly likely that an adequate capital influx could be generated to shore up the land, preventing its sinking and delaying its drowning.  However, with each influx of capital will also come an influx of culture, concentrating and infusing the indigenous culture.

The government of Tuvalu (and it's worldwide supporters) are taking a different tack.  They are attempting to preserve the Tuvalu culture by ceding the archipelago to the ocean, seeking refuge for the residents in other nations, and receiving retribution from nations responsible for global warming and the resultant sea rise.

At first blush, it would seem a tough proposition to fill.  IF they could prove a rise in sea level and IF they could prove the rise was caused by human actions and IF they could identify the humans which took those actions, they are entitled to reparations from those humans.  That's a lot of ifs, but there is no doubt that Tuvalu will receive wealth transfers from taxpayers around the world without proving any of them.

It would be nice for the residents of Tuvalu to retain their traditional way of life and their archipelago.  Unfortunately, on the present course, they are in danger of losing both.

The Roaring Mouse Gets the Cheese
At least two nations are already attempting to buy off the government of Tuvalu.  The Taiwanese taxpayers built them a shiny new government building in 2004, and Japan built a new hospital in 2006.  Not surprisingly, both structures were built to prevent flooding and erosion.

But, even the new hospital flooded the government with disdain from environmentalists.  In return for the building, the Tuvalu government supported Japanese whaling, eroding the support of passionate researchers and environmentalists trying to make the case that Tuvalu is sinking.

This illustrates the fine line the Tuvalu government must walk as international political entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, the future of Tuvalu is entirely predictable.  As the sea rises and Tuvalu erodes, less and less vegetation will grow, hastening the erosion and restricting the farmers' subsistence.  The residents of Tuvalu will leave until all that remains is the 15-member parliament and a secretary or two.

For their part, the government will subsist on handouts from the taxpayers of other nations, perhaps building new and additional infrastructure, but never allowing the infrastructure they truly need (erosion control) to be built as that would negate the source of their funding.

Eventually, the last inhabitants will leave Tuvalu, which will be only occasionally visited by environmentalists.  At some point, an enterprising libertarian will arrive at low tide and plant a flag in the wet sand, incensing the environmentalists who will resurrect the government of Tuvalu for one last hurrah, or the government of a neighboring island will claim the sunken archipelago as their own.

As the saying goes, all this has happened before.

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