Filemu and Farewell?

By Jheri St. James


When this writer gets the file on a participant country, some time will have passed, with so many countries to write about. In the case of Fiji II and its simultaneous collections from Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru, about five years went by, so looking at what happened those many years ago is especially fascinating.

Mr. Brian Siler of the U.S. Embassy in Fiji collected soils from Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru. A later email indicates his willingness to also gather precious dirt from the Solomons, Vanuato and Micronesia. Mr. Siler is one of the few multi-collectors for the project, and we are so very grateful! We note that he says in regard to his efforts: “Gary, I didn’t realize that the samples needed to be taken from significant sites. In the cases of Nauru and Tuvalu, this isn’t a problem since its phosphate mines are what Nauru’s all about and, in Tuvalu’s case, there are no significant sites, just the place, perhaps the first country to be swallowed by the sea because of climate change, so sand from the beach seems ‘significant.’ . . . In the case of Fiji, I collected from the site of the Great Council of Chiefs’ new complex, the Bose Levu Vakaturaga Complex. In Tonga’s case, I gathered within sight of the royal palace, though outside the fence. That’s as close as a commoner would get really and be able to collect soil.”

Thank you Brian Siler! This is a rich trove of soils from an endangered area, Oceania.

The Fiji II file, the main file for this Oceania collection, has a 3-page Permit to Receive Soil, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which is an unusual form. Also the Origin and Value Declaration, which says the soils from Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Nauru have a total value of $25.00. Value is certainly a subjective, fluctuating abstract. These soils rest proudly among the other 193 countries’ soils, with each country’s flag flying by its jar. And to us, these soils are beyond measure in value, priceless.

Fiji, Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru are all island countries in the area of the Pacific Ocean known as Oceania, formed through volcanic activity started around 150 million years ago.

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Tuvalu Beach


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Tuvalu Beauty


“Mr. Simpson: An explanation would take more time than I have right this moment, but I have your three samples sitting on a bookshelf in my office, which I will vacate on July 10th (2008). Do you still want soil from Tonga, Tuvalu and Nauru? Let me know and we can start sorting out how to get the samples to you.”

And so begins another of the many experiences of the kindness of strangers bringing the Common Ground 191 project to fruition.

Tuvalu girl

Woman of Funafuti (1900)

Tuvalu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands (named for an English politican), is ocated in the Pacific Ocean, midway between Hawaii and Australia, comprising four reef islands and five true atolls. Its population of 10,544 makes it the third-least populous sovereign state in the world with only Vatican City and Nauru having fewer inhabitants. Tuvalu is the fourth smallest country in the world, Larger only than Vatican City, Monaco and Nauru. The islands came under Britain’s sphere of influence in the late 19th century and were administered by Great Britain from 1892 to 1974. Tuvalu became fully independent in 1978 and became the 189th member of the United Nations in 2000.

Tuvalu’s small population is distributed across nine islands, five of which are atolls. The smallest, Niulakita, was uninhabited until it was settled by people from Niutao in 1949. Local government districts consisting of more than one islet are named: Funafuti, Nanumea, Nui, Nukufetau, Nukulaelae, and Vaitupu. Local government districts consisting of only one island include: Nanumanga, Niulakita, Nioutao. These are the classic deserted island destinations written about by so many dreamers. But no:

In 1863 about 380 people were taken from the southern islands of Tuvalu to mind the guano deposits in Peru. By 1898 the Church of Tuvalu was well established with British preachers on each island. Trading companies became active in the mid-19th century.


Tuvalu native A man from Nukufetah

A man in traditional costume, 1841

A man from the Nukufetau atoll,
drawn by Alfred Agate, 1841.


In 1890, Robert Louis Stevenson, his wife Fanny and her son sailed on the Janet Nicoll, a trading steamer, to visit Tuvalu. An account of this voyage was written by Fanny and published under the title The Cruise of the Janet Nicol, together with photographs taken by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne.

Women Carving Canoes Woman dancing

Canoe Carving on Nanumea

A Tuvaluan dancer at Aukland’s
Pasifika Festival


Tuvalu Football Team

Tuvalu National Football Team

The Tuvalu National football team competes in the Pacific Games and South Pacific Games, and is an associate member of the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC), seeking membership in FIFA. Common sports such as football, volleyball and rugby are also played in the country and Tuvalu has sports organizations for badminton, basketball, tennis, table tennis, volleyball and weightlifting.


Observable transformations over the last 10 to 15 years show Tuvaluans that there have been changes to the sea levels. These include seawater bubbling up through the porous coral rock to form pools at high tide, and the flooding of low-lying areas, including the airport during spring tides and king tides. As low-lying islands lacking a surrounding shallow shelf, the communities of Tuvalu are especially susceptible to changes in sea level and undissipated storms. It is estimated that a sea level rise of 8-16 inches in the next 100 years could make Tuvalu uninhabitable. According to the president of Nauru, Tuvalu has been ranked the sixth most endangered nation due to flooding from climate change.

While some commentators have called for the relocation of Tuvalu’s population to Australia, New Zealand or Kioa in Fiji, the former Prime Minister Maatia Toafa said his government did not regard rising sea levels as such a threat that the entire population would need to be evacuated.

Tuvalu experiences the effects of El Niño and La Niña caused by changes in ocean temperatures in the equatorial and central Pacific, El Niño effects increase the chances of tropical storms and cyclones, while those of La Niña increase the chances of drought. A state of emergency was declared on September 28, 2011, with rationing of fresh water on the islands of Funafuti and Nukulaelae. Households on those two islands are restricted to two buckets of fresh water per day. Japan and aid programs from the European Union are providing water tanks and desalination plants to help with Tuvalu’s dramatic ecological challenges.

Tuvalu Beach

Mr. Siler sent us sand from the beach in Tuvalu, and wrote, “ . . . in Tuvalu’s case, there are no significant sites, just the place, perhaps the first country to be swallowed by the sea because of climate change, so sand from the beach seems ‘significant.’”

Significant indeed. As in the case with Nauru, it may well be that the soil in the jar named Tuvalu on the international wall of soils in Gary Simpson’s studio will be the last sand from this place. The word for peace in Tuvalu is “Filemu”






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