Documentary photographer Vlad Sokhin has a knack for raising awareness of important world issues through his images. His first book, Crying Meri — a collection of hard-to-stomach portraits of battered women in Papua New Guinea — was dubbed a game changer for women’s rights in the country and used by the UN as an educational tool. His images of natural disasters, cyclones in Vanuatu and earthquakes in Nepal, have helped raised funds for World Vision. Now he’s tackling one of the biggest issues facing humanity: climate change. His long-term photographic project, Warm Waters, documents the impact of rising sea levels on the people living in and around the Pacific Ocean. The project has taken the Russian national to some of the world’s most obscure island republics, countries most people have never heard of, such as Tuvalu, Micronesia and Niue. Set 1,500 miles northeast of the tip of the north island of New Zealand in what really is the middle of nowhere, Niue is one of the largest raised-coral atolls in the world and is known as The Rock.
“Niue is unique,” Sokhin says. “In the Pacific, many of the countries are facing problems with rising sea levels because they’re so flat. That’s why I say their people are living on the front line of climate change. But Niue doesn’t have that problem because it’s quite elevated and they have a lot of land.”
Before it was called The Rock, Niue was known as Savage Island. The name is attributed to British explorer Captain James Cook, who tried to land there in 1774 but was scared off by spear-toting natives. Over the next half century, vast swathes of the South Pacific were divied up by the great sailing powers of Europe. But Niue kept all foreigners at bay, famously slaughtering the crew of a passing whaling ship in 1825.
When white men — missionaries — finally made landfall there in the 1830s, they brought with them a curse. Two in fact: influenza and syphilis. In accordance to local custom, Niue’s infected were sent to the bush to find a cure or perish. In the following years, this simple but effective form of quarantine also stymied a smallpox epidemic that killed only 100 Niueans — a fatality rate less than 3% compared with 20-60% in Europe. Only then was it realised that the Niueans’ desire to kill foreigners was not the mindless bloodlust of savages, but the national health policy of a nation with advanced medical understanding of the relationship between host and disease.
Stopping disease from taking root is one thing. Stopping ideas is another thing altogether. Within one generation, Christianity became the dominant religion on Niue. Within two generations, droves of young men began hitching rides on passing schooners in a bid to find fortune and adventure overseas.
Naive of the ways of the world, many Niueans walked right into the clutches of “blackbirders” — merciless slave traders such as Bully Hayes, who sold their wretched human cargo to plantations as far afield as Peru and Queensland. Other more fortunate Niueans returned home awash with liquor and cash, making the lure of travel shine even brighter. Gradually, women outnumbered men by almost two to one on the island.
Niue’s exodus ebbed and flowed like the tide over the next century, although the current depopulation can be traced to two events set nearly 70 years apart. The first was New Zealand’s annexation of the island in 1901 — an act of empire that had the unexpected consequence of making every Niuean a citizen of the wealthiest and most developed country in the region. The second was the opening of Niue International Airport in 1970, which reduced travel time to Auckland from a week by boat to a three-and-a-half-hour flight. Within another generation, the population tumbled from around 5,000 to less than 2,000, with Niue now ranked as the world’s second smallest country after the Vatican City.
Shaped like a giant wedding cake with steep cliffs plummeting into the sea, Niue doesn’t have any beaches, but it does have swimming holes and a bounty of marine life: pods of spinner dolphins, zebra-patterned sea snakes, bluefin tuna and, from July to October, humpback whales. Niue is one of the best places in the world to interact with the cetaceans.
“Because we have a reef that is just 30 metres offshore and very deep waters, the whales come right in and you can swim with them. They’re our biggest drawcard,” says Ira Merrifield, owner of the Niue Yacht Club, the “biggest little yacht club” in the world. “When the whales come in, the yachts arrive at the same time.”
Merrifield is among a small number of New Zealand-born and educated Niueans who’ve returned to cash in on the island’s tourism boom. The Rock welcomed 9,800 visitors last year, up from around 3,000 in 2009, according to figures released by the tourism office. “I was born in New Zealand, but my father was Niuean,” Merrifield says. “When I first came here 11 years ago I very quickly realised how special it was and, because of my family connections, all the doors opened for me and I was able to buy land. You know, tourists often tell me they think this place is paradise and they’d love to buy land here. But they can’t, only Niueans are allowed to.”
Yet even Niueans returning from abroad have experienced difficulty finding land as a result of fragmented land titles, multiple ownership claims and a 1964 act of parliament that states that Niueans absent for 20 years automatically lose their land rights.
“For many of those that come back, even if they have money, it’s difficult for them to find family land they can build on,” Merrifield says. “And if they’ve been away for a really long time, it’s also difficult for them to reconnect with their families.” She adds: “I’d say out of those who are like me, Niueans who come from New Zealand to live here, most end up going back.”
Land tenure is just one in a long list of obstacles that make it difficult for Niueans to return home, says Olah Jacobsen of the tourism office: “We do see some young people coming back, trying to rebuild some of the old houses and turn them into hotels. But we have other people who’ve come back and it hasn’t worked out for them.
“Why? I think it’s because Niue is a very hard-working place,” Jacobsen explains. “We have a saying in Niue ‘the willing will stay and the lazy will go’. In New Zealand, all you have to do is get a job and you’re set for life. You can feed your family and you don’t have to worry. But on Niue, even though I have a job, I still have to go out on the weekend to till the land. We can’t be dependent on the shops for our food because everything is imported and really expensive.
The willing will stay and the lazy will go
“We also have community obligations through the church and all the village activities that go on such as show days, women’s handicrafts and canoe races,” Jacobsen says. “It’s a good thing because it makes people come out of their shells. And the expatriates living here, they really get into it. But there’s not a moment in the day where you aren’t working for yourself or the community. It’s like a giant ant hill where everyone has to contribute.”
Niue is not just a hard-working place, it’s a “poor-man’s place”, too. Although it enjoys good rainfall, the island also experiences regular droughts and the soil lacks nitrogen, making farming difficult. Attempts to stimulate the agricultural sector are regularly upended by cyclones that wiped away every plantation on the island in 1959, 1960, 1979, 1989 and 2004. Meanwhile, an attempt to establish Niue as an offshore banking hub in the 1990s also went bust when allegations that criminal organisations were laundering money through the island saw Niue threatened with sanctions in 2002. Even sea birds tend to steer clear of The Rock as evidenced by the absence of guano (bird droppings) that were harvested by colonialists during the age of sail for the manufacture of explosives.
“It’s pretty much a grey area trying to figure out why so few of us live here, although a lot of it is attributed to the fact that we all have New Zealand passports that allow us to take up their social benefits,” Jacobsen says. “A lot of people have also moved to seek treatment for illness or for education for their kids, while others just want something different. There are a lot of push and pull factors — everybody’s are different.”
The debate about its causes notwithstanding, the effect of Niue’s exodus has been startling. There used to be six primary schools on the island, but now there’s only one. Churches, stores and homes now sit empty and in various states of disrepair, while entire villages have become ghost towns.
“You don’t really see people there,” says Sokhin. “On Sunday, for example, when Niueans are not allowed to work, I hardly saw a person in the capital village. I also visited another village in the north of the island where only three of about 25 houses still had people living in them. In the inland forest, there are no people at all.”
One place on Niue where Sokhin saw more people was the village of Vaiea. After talking to the locals, he learned they were all from the island republic of Tuvalu, a chain of coral atolls and islets 1,000 miles northwest of Niue. Only five metres above sea level at its highest point, Tuvalu is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change and is literally disappearing under rising sea waters.
“Fifteen years ago, the Niuean government was looking at ways to solve its problem of depopulation and invited about 100 people from Tuvalu to move there. Most of them settled in this village,” Sokhin says. “So it’s a very interesting story about migration related to climate change and other social issues in the Pacific.”
Tuvaluan migrants who’ve established themselves in Niue have been credited with making significant contributions to the country. Their numbers pepper Niue’s national football and rugby teams, while their legendary fishing skills keep the stores and restaurants stocked with fresh seafood. Yet some Tuvaluan migrants, who moved to Niue in the 1990s, stayed only until they qualified for full citizenship before jumping ship to New Zealand. So in 2005, when the Tuvaluan government appealed for Niue to take more of its people, the then-Niuean premier Young Vivian said the island would first have to tighten up its legislation. “That will mean they will have stay here for a longer period before they start exploring New Zealand citizenship,” the premier told Radio New Zealand.
But the New Zealand government thwarted the debate by passing a law decreeing that only Niueans born on the island on or before December 31, 2005, qualify for New Zealand citizenship. Those born on or after January 1, 2006, and Tuvaluan migrants, would have to wait in line at immigration like everybody else. It may be that the Niuean exodus is coming to an end; the country has experienced a small but significant net population growth and there are now 200 more people living on Niue than 10 years ago, plus a trickle of entrepreneurs returning every year.
“I met some Niuean people living in Australia and New Zealand, and they all said that 7they dream about returning home,” Sokhin says. “They miss the lifestyle and the calmness of the place.”