Photo: Karen Apricot
The Isle of Jean Charles off the coast of southern Louisiana is home to the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indian tribe, and thanks to rising sea levels, their land is disappearing faster than playing cards in a magic act. Overall, the state has lost about 75 kilometers of its coastal region each year, and the tribe has been labeled the first official climate refugees of the western world.
“What you see of the island now is just a skeleton of what it used to be,” says tribal council member Chris Brunet.
According to National Geographic, climate refugees are “people who must leave their homes and communities because of the effects of climate change and global warming.” The Red Cross estimates there are approximately 36 million climate refugees fleeing areas like Bangladesh and the Maldives; regions that hover just a few feet above sea level, and are thereby vulnerable to higher tides. That number is expected to increase to 50 million by 2050.
According to the 2010 Sundance film Climate Refugees, alterations in climate and weather are leading to larger problems, like border conflicts and violence. Many analysts agree that the war in Syria is likely caused in part by spiking temperatures and the resulting drought in the Middle East. Many seeking new homes in neighboring lands have encountered bloodshed and anger from those unwilling to share their already limited resources and supplies. The Pentagon is now looking at climate change as a national security risk; a risk with a proven ability to invoke fighting among nations.
Hoping to thwart conflict at home, Washington, D.C. is awarding the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe with nearly $50 million in federal funds to aid in their relocation efforts. Tribal Chief Albert Naquin has been trying to secure these funds for nearly 13 years. In that time, approximately 98 percent of the land his people call home has disappeared. Naquin says his people have inhabited the island for nearly 200 years, but the island’s 22,000 acres have since been reduced to a mere 320, and only 25 houses remain fully intact and occupied.
Discussing the prospects of the funds, Naquin explained, “I’m very, very excited. Now, we’re getting a chance to reunite the family… They’re excited as well. Our culture is going to stay intact, [but] we’ve got to get the interest back in our youth.”
Pat Forbes, executive director of the Louisiana Office of Community Development, says, “This $48 million grant will allow the state to help them resettle their entire community to a safer place with a minimum of disruption to livelihoods and lifestyles. Together, we’ll be creating a model for resettlement of endangered coastal communities throughout the United States.”
The move could occur as early as 2019, and the tribe will retain ownership of the land following its dispersal. Despite this news, scientists are labeling their experience as the first of many for several U.S.-based coastal communities. In Alaska, for example, temperature alterations have affected approximately 180 villages, and the Yupik community of Newtok could be completely underwater by 2017.