By Michele Devlin, Dr.PH. and Mark Grey, Ph.D.
Climate change and severe weather events are displacing people in rapidly growing numbers. The link among climate change, severe weather events, and long-term population shifts is increasingly receiving attention from human rights, migration, public health, economic, and other global professional sectors. Environmentally induced migration involves “persons who, predominantly for reasons of sudden and progressive change in the environment that adversely affects their lives or living conditions, are obliged to leave their habitual homes, or chose to do so, either temporarily or permanently, and who move either within their country or abroad” (IOM, 2007). Furthermore, “gradual and sudden environmental changes are already resulting in substantial population movements. The number of storms, droughts, and floods has increased threefold over the last 30 years with devastating effects on vulnerable communities, particularly in the developing world” (IOM, 2015). Already, millions of people have become climate change refugees or environmental migrants, and their numbers are expected to grow. Forecasts for the number of environmental refugees between now and 2050 range from 25 million to 1 billion (Rigaud, et al., 2018).
While this urgent global public health issue has received significant international attention in recent years, very little research has been conducted on the impact of climate change and forced environmental migration on indigenous healers, traditional medicinal practices, and the future of herbal or plant-based remedies used for hundreds, if not thousands, of years by local populations. To this end, we recently completed a professional development assignment as part of our faculty research duties at the University of Northern Iowa by visiting the remote Pacific nation of the Marshall Islands. We were academic guests there on the island of Ebeye, courtesy of the United States Army Garrison on Kwajalein Island. This wildly beautiful, low-lying chain of sandy atolls is on the frontlines of global climate change, environmental degradation, and forced human migration and is rapidly going under water as sea levels rise due to melting polar ice packs. The rising seas have made life there more difficult and unpredictable. The highest point on many of the sandy islands is now only approximately 3 meters above sea level, which is particularly risky during increasingly severe tropical storms and rising tides. Drinking water supplies are becoming too salty for human consumption, and even traditional plants no longer grow in this brackish new environment. The waters are warming and changing the environment for coral, fish, and other creatures as well and depleting the historically rich fishing areas there around the islands. Already, more than a third of the population of the Marshalls has left their country for better socioeconomic opportunities and more stable environments in the United States, where they maintain the legal right to work and live due to the Compact of Free Association (PBS, 2018).
While meeting with local medical professionals, public health providers, and other residents in the Marshalls, one of the topics that we heard a number of concerns about was the loss of traditional medicinal plants and even the emigration of some of the indigenous healers themselves. According to locals, many of the traditional plants that have been used medicinally and spiritually for hundreds of years are no longer growing in outer islands of the archipelago, due to rising sea waters and a degraded environment. The availability of these plants is dwindling due to increasingly salty or brackish water, the erosion of soil, and/or human overcrowding. Some of the outer islands are no longer hospitable or practical for humans, or certain plants, to live on productively. In fact, on the island of Ebeye, relatively few plants were visible. Much of the rich tropical foliage common on many Pacific islands had long since been removed or died off, due to brackish water supplies and the urgent need for space to build housing shanties to hold the remarkable level of human density that is congregating on larger islands as smaller ones are becoming submerged. We saw numerous residents of Ebeye traveling by ferry to the neighboring island of Kwajalein to bring back fresh drinking water for their families; with space and fresh water limited, even small household gardens with healing and culinary plants are no longer practical to maintain for many.
We greatly enjoyed visiting the local Marshallese museum on Kwajalein that carried a fascinating supply of photographs and displays of traditional medicinal plants and herbal healing remedies used historically in the area. Unfortunately, this rich visual history was countered by the sad stories we heard from locals that their family members and some traditional healers need now to travel to other islands in order to gather certain plant remedies that are no longer available on their own islands due to the changing climate. Some cannot find the plants they need at all for healing anymore. They have fewer remedies to choose from, and much of the historical plant wisdom is being lost for future generations due to the dwindling supply of local medicinal plants.
This body of traditional medicinal plant healing knowledge is further being lost through permanent migration to the United States by the Marshallese. Resettled migrants in states like Iowa where we work typically have little access to medicinal herbal remedies, traditional healers, and the indigenous body of knowledge about the power of traditional plant-based healing. Many of these traditions are also sometimes looked down upon by Western medical providers in refugee resettlement countries and can contribute to a rapid loss of indigenous cultural wisdom in a short amount of time.
With the increase in climate change migration, further attention, research, and sustainability programming needs to be placed on trying to maintain the historic body of knowledge and practices of indigenous people related to their medicinal plants. Traditional healers have often been those people that live most in tune with the elements of nature around them and have historically been uniquely aware of ways to modify and utilize their environment sustainably to promote the wellbeing of their communities. Their voices, opinions, and ideas must be heard about ways to prevent the loss of these plants and the body of healing wisdom that surrounds them. Sadly, if local and global efforts are not taken, both traditional healers and the rich diversity of medicinal plants they have treasured for generations may become victims of climate change extinction in future decades.
- International Organization for Migration (2007). Discussion Notes: Migration and the Environment (MC/INF/288). 1 November 2007. Ninety-Forth Session, Geneva.
- International Organization for Migration (2009). Migration, Environment, and Climate Change: Assessing the Evidence.
- Rigaud, Kanta Kumari; de Sherbinin, Alex; Jones, Bryan; Bergmann, Jonas; Clement, Viviane; ober, Kayly; Schewe, Jacob; Adamo, Susana; McCusker, Brent; Heuser, Silke; Midgley, Amelia. 2018. Groundswell: Preparing for Internal Climate Migration. World Bank, Washington, DC. World Bank. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/29461
- Public Broadcasting System; Iowa Public Television. (December 16, 2018). The Marshall Islands: A Third of the Nation Has Left for the U.S. December 16, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/marshall-islands-a-third-of-the-nation-has-left-for-the-us
Dr. Michele Devlin is Professor of Global Health at the University of Northern Iowa and adjunct research faculty member with the US Army War College. Dr. Mark Grey is Professor of Applied Anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa. Both Drs. Devlin and Grey are also adjunct research faculty with the United States Army War College. They are specialists in working with refugee and immigrant populations, particularly in disaster and emergency settings. They may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.