Takuu atoll is located about 250km North East of Bougainville and is part of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville which is in turn part of Papua New Guinea.
Takuu is made up of a string of islets on a reef around a central lagoon. The people live on an islet called Nukutoa which has two points, each with a men’s house, known locally as Taloki and Sialevu. The largest island in the atoll is just next door, and is known as Takuu. This is where the gardens are.
There are a number of clans on Takuu and one paramount chief (Ariki). Everyone on the island is closely related, usually more than once, especially if marriage or “in-law” ties are counted. There are strict rules about who a person can marry, according to clan membership.
The children of the atoll are all taught in English at the local school until the end of their primary education. At this point they must leave the island to complete high school. Given the difficulty of getting money to pay fees, this is a difficult thing to accomplish. Despite the challenges, the island has a large number of expatriates and can count three PhD graduates amongst them.
The participation of teenage students in off-shore education is probably contributing to the decrease in the numbers of people practising the traditional religion and culture, including dances and songs. There is now a strong church presence on the island and women in particular are adherents to the various denominations.
Takuu is part of a larger geopolitical context. Both Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Region of Bougainville are largely still operating as a subsistence economy (some estimates say up to 80%). This means there is little available capital and very little of the kinds of infrastructure (phone lines, postal service, internet, plumbing, rubbish collection, regular delivery of goods for sale, free schooling) that people in the West are able to take for granted. Arguably the lack of tax income makes it very difficult for the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) to offer a regular service of any kind. This is one of the reasons that the local service boat is always delayed and sporadic in its departures to Takuu (as well as the four other atolls in the region).
Climate change is making itself felt on the island in a variety of ways. Parts of the gardens are becoming salty and this means that many families are losing part of their giant taro crops, creating food security issues. The loss of taro also makes it difficult for families to participate in the many ceremonies that require a contribution of taro, which impacts on the reciprocal and egalitarian nature of the community.
The community have built up seawalls around the majority of the island to protect against erosion. However these walls are causing sand to be deposited into the lagoon instead of up onto the atoll, making the erosion worse. During the big flood of 2008, debris from inside the walls was washed out and over the rest of the island, creating mess and causing some injuries.
The flood was a terrifying experience for the people on the atoll – there was no early warning of the danger and it was some weeks before a boat with relief supplies could be sent. Oceanographer John Hunter has estimated that flooding will happen much more often as climate change progresses. Some community members are concerned that next time there is a disaster of this kind the island will be wiped out.
The ABG wants to move atoll dwellers to the mainland and make it possible for them to begin cash cropping on a local plantation. However the necessary land purchases and complex negotiations with local landowners following the Bougainville Crisis of the 1980s and 90s are making the process extremely slow. This, coupled with the 2008 flood has caused at least some members of Takuu’s community to lose faith in the Government’s plans. They remain stranded on the atoll, adapting to the vagaries of the service boat’s schedule and waiting to see if they can relocate at the earliest opportunity. So far there is are no concrete plans to either move the Takuu community or help them remain safely on the atoll.