Our next stop on our tour of Micronesia is the Marshall Islands. The Marshallese have only recently begun their relationship with Kava. But before that, let’s explore the islands history, its people, and their culture.
The Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands are a collection of over 1200 islands and islets, only five of which are actual islands. The rest of the Marshall Islands are encompassed within a grouping of 29 coral atolls (or 10% of ALL the atolls in the world). These islands and atolls form two groups: the Ratak Chain and the Rajin Chain (or the “Sunrise” and “Sunset” Chain. These two groupings resemble strands of pearls draped across the South Pacific giving the Marshall Islands their nickname of the “Pearls of the Pacific”.
With a landmass of only approximately square miles (and shrinking as will be discussed later), the islands themselves cover nearly one million square miles of the South Pacific. Located in the Micronesia region of Oceania, the Marshall Islands are just west of the international dateline and just north of the equator-roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
The 62,000 residents of the Marshall Islands live in a Democratic presidential Republic in Free Association with the United States. Their current President is Jurelang Zedkala. Much like the neighbors in Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of Palau, the Marshall Islands were once part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. This was a governing structure, or trusteeship, set up by the United Nations after World War II. Initially overseen by the United States Navy, it was handed over to the Department of the Interior in 1951. This was the case until October 21, 1986 when the Marshall Islands became the democratic republic we see today, with their own constitution as well as their own presidential, legislative, and judicial branches. Still held under the COFA (Compact of Free Association) relationship, the United States provides guaranteed financial assistance administered through the Office of Insular Affairs in exchange for certain defense rights. The U.S. treats these nations uniquely by giving them access to many U.S. domestic programs, including disaster response and recovery and hazard mitigation programs under FEMA.
Marshall Island History
The Marshall Islands first emerged 70 million years ago when volcanic cores erupted at presently extinct hotspots south of the equator. Around 40 million years ago the volcanoes began to subside. The islands were initially high volcanic islands. Over the course of the ensuing 40 million years, they slowly sank back into the ocean from which they came, propelled by their own weight. Eventually, microscopic organisms called polyps, which thrive in warm waters with high salinity, salvaged the remaining rim of what was once a volcano forming coral reefs. In time, portions of the reefs which broke water began to accumulate oceanic debris from nearby islands which over time formed land. With botanical seeds transported by birds and ocean currents, 5,000-6,000 years ago small islets had taken form, giving us the Marshall Islands as we see them today.
Most likely owing to the harsh atoll environment with a minimal amount of livable and arable land, the archeological record of the early settlers is sparse at best. Very little is known of these early settlers, and most of their history is mere supposition based on evidence from surrounding island chains. One important and controversial find happened on Bikini Atoll. Carbon dating of an early settlement placed the first arrival of man approximately 4,000 years ago. These settlers are assumed to be of Micronesia decent, comprised of mostly of Melanesians, Filipinos, and Polynesians.
Cultural values and customs make Marshallese society unique. Land is a focal point for social organization and all Marshallese have land rights as part of a clan. The clan is essentially extended family held together by a common interest in the land. The clan owes allegiance to the tribal chief, and is supervised by the clan head. The chiefs have ultimate control of such things as land tenure, resource use and distribution, and dispute settlement. The clan head supervises the maintenance of lands and daily activities. The clan workers (family members further removed from the chain of land ownership) are responsible for all daily work on the land including cleaning, farming, and construction activities. The society is matrilineal and, therefore, land is passed down from generation to generation through the mother.
The Marshall Islands and Global Warming
For years, the government of the Marshall Islands has been concerned with the issue of global warming. A major study on the impacts of climate change and sea level rise in the Marshall Islands was commissioned in the early 1990’s and was completed by1992. Led by a team from Harvard under contract with the Marshallese government, the reports findings are discussed below.
The physical characteristics of the Marshall Islands would give any visitor the best indicator as to why the government is so concerned with sea level rise. The Marshall Island’s approximate1225 islets in 29 atolls are scattered over nearly one million square miles and have an average height of 7 feet above sea level. The highest land area is on Likiep Atoll, where the elevation reaches a maximum altitude of about 21 feet. Fragile coral reefs fringe the atolls, and serve as the only line of defense against the ocean surge. The clearance over the reef in the sections that are covered by water is usually no more than a couple of feet. In other places the reef is only barely submerged.
The Marshall Islands lie in open ocean, and the islands are generally very close to sea level. The vulnerability to waves and storm surges is at the best of times precarious. Although the islands haven’t been free from weather extremes, they are more frequently referred to in folklore as “jolet jen Anij” or “gifts from God”. The sense that the Marshall Islands are a God-given sanctuary away from the rest of the harsh world is hardwired into the Marshallese culture. However, given the physics of wave formation and the increasing frequency and severity of storms, the Marshall Islands are at an even greater risk. The relative safety that the islands have historically provided is in jeopardy. One response to the current trends would entail an evacuation on a national scale.
The Marshall Islands and Kava
As we have found in most atoll environments, Kava is not native to the Marshalls. Thankfully for the Marshallese, the current Kava renaissance has brought the drink to their shores. And as their culture of one of strong familial clan ties, Kava has found its way into both the ceremonial and social lives of the Marshallese. We know this will provide the people of the Marshall Islands some relief, but no amount of Kava can stop the seas from rising. To do this, it will take an effort from every region on the globe. If not for you, won’t you do it for the peaceful people of the Pearls of the Pacific?