For many years people have been acquainted with the word “refugee.” Though it usually brings to mind wars, genocide and ethnic cleansing, more and more often it has been linked to climate change and natural disasters. We may now be entering the age of the “environmental refugee.”

For the last 15 years, Shuichi Endo, 46, has been fighting a hard battle to protect a tiny nation from being wiped out by rising sea levels. Tuvalu is located in the South Pacific near Fiji. Its 10,000 inhabitants make it the second-smallest country population-wise. The nine island group that comprise this small archipelago — only 5 meters above the sea level at its highest point — faces the danger of being swallowed up by the ocean if sea levels continue to rise due to climate change.

Until his fateful encounter with the country, Endo used to work as an architect with a major company. “What I really wanted to do was to design environment-friendly buildings,” he says. “Unfortunately, in the 1990s, the environment was the last thing big companies had in mind. That was very frustrating. Then in 1992, the first Earth Summit was held in Rio, and at that venue the name Tuvalu began to circulate. At the time, nobody had heard about these islands, so much so that I couldn’t even find a map of the country in Japan.

“When I heard about their plight, I wanted to do something to assist them, so I started planning. Finally in 1997, I was able to quit my job and opened a website design company.”

Endo kept thinking about ways to help Tuvalu financially, until he came up with the idea of utilizing an Internet domain to raise funds for the country. He saw the commercial potential of Tuvalu’s Internet domain “.tv” because many people associate those letters with “television.” So in 1998 he approached Tuvaluan authorities with this idea.

“Although they didn’t show interest right away, in 2000 the Tuvaluan government was able to lease the domain to an American company for $50 million in royalties over a 50-year period.”

Since then, Endo has visited the archipelago dozens of times, alone or with the team he has built in order to coordinate aid efforts. In the process he has established a nonprofit organization called Tuvalu Overview, whose main objectives are to promote public awareness of the situation in Tuvalu and find solutions to its problems.

“Not only, in the worst-case scenario, could the islands eventually become submerged,” explains Endo, “but even now the rising sea levels are threatening the quality of life of the local people. Flooding is a major problem. So-called king tides, in particular, cause certain areas to submerge a few times a year, which is enough to destroy crops in the region.

“The rise in the level of the sea causes coastal erosion — by more than 20 meters in the last 10 years in some areas. The brackish waters that result from seawater encroaching into the underground freshwater lens are damaging 60 percent of the nation’s staple food and making drinkable water scarcer.

“Equally problematic are the recurring droughts, which often deprive people of the food and water they need. That is why the Tuvaluans are running the risk of becoming some of the first environmental refugees in world history.”

Endo usually visits Tuvalu about five or six times a year for a total of up to four months. Apart from organizing eco-tours of the islands during the dry summers, he has been busy pursuing a number of projects.

One such project is an ambitious undertaking called “Build the Future with 10,000 Tuvaluans.”

“This project began in 2007,” says Endo, “Our goal is to visit all the nine island groups, which comprise the country, and meet all their inhabitants.” So far, they have interviewed and photographed 2,387 people, with the aim of giving each one of them the chance to be heard.

“Due to its size, this is a team project, and volunteers are always welcome. They pay for their own airplane ticket, but once in Tuvalu all their expenses are covered by the local authorities. We are always looking for volunteers as well as a staffer who can work at our office in Tuvalu for two or three years.”

The pictures that Endo and his team take are posted on their websites and exhibited both in Japan and around the world. “Ideally all this material will be presented in book form, once we find an interested publisher,” he says.

Like other projects by Tuvalu Overview, the “10,000 Tuvaluans” is aimed at creating a better understanding of life in the country.

“We also want to make it clear that climate change is not only something that could hypothetically affect our lives sometime in the future; this is something that is threatening people now and has to be dealt with immediately,” Endo says.

He talks about an innovative idea to avoid the worst that could happen to Tuvalu. “It is no longer a local problem. If the situation worsens to the extent they can no longer live in their own nation, it will inevitably lead to a national evacuation and international relocation. Virtually, a country, its people and culture are not something that can be simply moved to another place.

“As an alternative, the island council of Tuvalu wishes to study the feasibility of building a higher, larger artificial island in the area. The challenge is to find a culturally sensitive and environmentally sustainable way that satisfies people’s needs and does not destroy the nation’s natural environment as well as their way of life, which depends on it. Obviously, a series of environmental assessments and discussions need to be made if this is ever going to happen. However, if they can make an island about 10 meters high and large enough to contain all Tuvaluans, they may be able to avoid the worst-case scenario.”

One of the major changes that Endo has witnessed over the last 15 years is how the Tuvaluans’ way of life has been affected by globalization as well as the introduction of materialism and capitalism into the country.

“Most of them still lead more or less a life of self-sustenance, but the reality now is that life is difficult without money. Based on our interview results in one of the outer islands, while only 10.7 percent of the respondents had a paid job, 98.7 percent said they were happy with their lives. About 41 percent of the grown men listed the traditional men’s work such as fishing, plantation work and feeding livestock as the greatest enjoyment in their life. While they are gradually shifting toward somewhat more Westernized lifestyles, they still do very much value their traditional ways of living.”

Endo’s interest and love for a simpler, ecological lifestyle also prompted him to move to a mountain area in Kagoshima Prefecture.

“When I first went to Tuvalu, back in 1998, I noticed how many local people grew their own food, which is something we don’t do anymore in our industrialized countries. At the time, I realized how important and vital it is to create a society based on self-sustenance, especially in times when overconsumption and waste of resources are making our world less and less able to sustain our life.”

Since moving to Kagoshima two years ago, Endo has been busy getting used to this new environment and lifestyle. “I want to apply those principles to my own life, for my own good, to lead a life that does not harm others, and to promote understanding of sustainable living as well as the idea of low carbon society. It’s very interesting — from growing my own rice and vegetables to using firewood for my bath and stove, I try to avoid as much as possible the use of oil and chemical products. I’m still experimenting different ways to reach my goal and to prove with my own action that there are things you can do in your own way in order to live without destroying the Earth on which we live. Obviously there are many problems to solve along the way, but it’s very exciting.”

Endo also mentions the unspoken aspect of nuclear energy that could possibly pose a threat to Tuvalu. “Japan — the world’s third nuclear power (in terms of nuclear power generation capacity) before the (March 2011) accident in Fukushima — imports uranium and other necessary fuel from such places as England and France. These highly dangerous materials are transported by ships that pass below Africa and cross the Indian Ocean to reach Japan. However, Indonesia and the Philippines have vetoed their passage near their coasts. So the ships keep going south of Australia, then they come up to Japan through the South Pacific, which means they pass near Fiji and Tuvalu. The same thing, of course, happens when transporting nuclear waste to Europe.

“While nuclear energy is a highly critical issue for our country at the moment, we all need to be aware of who else suffers these potential dangers in order for us to maintain our high energy supplies. Nobody should benefit at the cost of somebody else’s well-being.”

For information on Shuichi Endo’s projects: www.tuvalu-overview.tv or www.yamano.tv

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