Insubmersible: Life in Tokelau, the Most Remote Country in the World
Photographer of the British Panos Pictures agency. Was born in Russia, lives in Dakar, Senegal. Works with the UN, UNICEF, Amnesty International, Oxfam, and ChildFund. His work was published in The Guardian, National Geographic, GEO, International Herald Tribune, The Atlantic, The Global Mail, Internazionale, Stern, Le Monde, Paris Match, Marie Claire, BBC, Sydney Morning Herald, Russian Reporter, Vokrug Sveta, and Takie Dela.
— Tokelau is one of the smallest and most remote nations in the world. Consisting of three coral atolls in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 580 km north of American Samoa and covering a mere 10 square kilometers in combined surface area, it can only be accessed via a lengthy fortnightly boat ride from Samoa. Much of the territory’s land is no more than a couple of meters above sea level making making it particularly susceptible to the greatest threat facing small island nations across the Pacific region: climate change and rising sea levels.
Over the past decade, tropical storms have been bettering the tiny landmass, causing flooding and extensive damage to property. In February 2005, Cyclone Percy, a category 5 storm, inundated all three atolls which form rings around lagoons and were lashed by waters from both sides, submerging villages. Seawalls built to stem floodwaters were simply washed away. As sea water levels rise, Tokelauans are seeing the limited ground beneath their feet disappear into the ocean.
The territory’s 1,500-odd inhabitants, who hold New Zealand passports, rely heavily on aid from New Zealand which makes up a large part of the government’s annual budget. According to the CIA’s List of Countries by GDP, Tokelau has the smallest economy of any country in the world. Exports of copra, stamps and handicrafts bring in some revenue but large amounts of imported foodstuffs, building materials, and fuel consume any import earnings. Fishing licenses are another form of revenue but these have been jeopardized by warming sea temperatures that are bleaching coral reefs and disrupting fish habitats.
Tokelau plans to become the first country in the world to generate all of its electricity from renewable sources, with over 90% coming from solar panels and the rest from locally produced coconut oil.
Yet while the country leads the way in sustainable living its tiny territory is threatened by erosion and rising sea levels that have started to impact on subsistence agriculture which is increasing the amount of food the country needs to import from abroad.
I have wanted to visit Tokelau for many years. Ever since I started working in Oceania, I have been trying to find out how to make it possible. Despite the fact that it is an overseas territory of New Zealand, everybody needs a visa to come to Tokelau. I tried to get a visa in 2015, but I failed. In 2016, I was working for UNICEF, and the Fund wrote a couple letters for me. They helped me not only to get a visa, but also permissions for all three atolls — to get ashore and take photographs there.
In March 2016, I finally took a ship, and after more than a day on the water we arrived at the first atoll, Atafu, where I spent half a day. Then, we picked up some passengers, and spent the night sailing to the middle atoll, Nukunonu. We spent the night there, and after one more day, got to the main atoll, Fakaofo. I disembarked there with all my luggage, and they promised to pick me up in a week. I ended up staying for two weeks, because the ship didn’t show up.
Tokelau has a life with a very specific pace. There are about 250 people living in the main village of Atafu atoll, and you can walk around the islet in five minutes. The houses are build close to each other, sometime at arm’s length. People spend their days either working or fishing and going to church. I visited during the Easter week, and during that time many ceremonies took place, everybody was busy getting ready for Easter celebrations.
I was able to join the nighttime communal fishing: it is organized to replenish the stocks. All men take part in it, and they bring back large and small fish, as well as sharks. The catch is distributed between all the families of the atoll, and the young, the old, and even babies and guests receive equal portions. Tokelau is probably the only country in the world that has succeeded in building communism. Everything belongs to everybody. People receive some symbolic salary from the New Zealand government, and otherwise they all help each other.
Various sports are also popular in Tokelau, people play volleyball or rugby all the time. On Sunday nights, women play cricket. Everything is solar-powered on Tokelau, people even don’t switch the lights off at night, as there is more than enough energy. Every islet of the atoll has its purpose — for instance, the two large islets are residential. One of them has the infrastructure, including the bank, the Internet provider, antennas, hospitals, and a power substation.
There are two islets allocated for cemeteries, and there is an islet that became a pig farm — people take a boat there every day to feed their pigs. Other islets serve as vegetable gardens or picnic spots. Life here in general looks like a tropical heaven. Very few tourists get here: Tokelau citizens try not to advertise their country, because they are trying to protect their children from the outside influence and to live inside their small community.