The Changing Tides of Tokelau: Damian Welch, Winner of the RGS-IBG Journey of a Lifetime Award Travelled to Tokelau in Polynesia to See How Island Life Is Changing. (Journey of a Lifetime)

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When I was a child, I dreamed of swimming like a fish in the coral groves of the South Pacific atolls. Books such as The Coral Island, by JS Bratton, and Thor Heyerdahl's Fatu Hiva were all fuel for my fantasies. Years passed, and my fascination with Polynesia--and in particular the atoll nation of Tokelau--grew.

As the winner of the RGS-IBG and BBC Radio 4 Journey of a Lifetime Award 2001, I had the unique opportunity to see the threats to Polynesia myself--to the remote atolls of Tokelau in particular--and more importantly to share the facts with as wide an audience as possible.

Tokelau is a fragile, impermanent atoll nation. Since the islands have had a semi-scheduled boat service--one converted catamaran from Samoa, 500 kilometres to the south--contact with the outside world has dramatically increased. Now, a steady stream of diesel fuel drums, packs of nappies, cheap American frozen chickens and sugary drinks flow in, affecting a way of life that had existed unchanged for millennia.

On the first night, under the gaze of the Southern Cross, villagers Mika, Samu and I take a Tokelau canoe and chase hahave, flying fish, using a sort of long-handled butterfly net. It's an intense activity, requiring fierce concentration. Once the canoe is full of winged silver darts, due solely to Samu's skill, we motor back to lagoon and I collapse into bed, exhausted.

The following morning, I am properly introduced to my Atafu family: Maka and Rosa Toloa and their 15-year-old daughter Lepeka, who--a typical teenager in every other sense--can't wait to sit her Form Five exams. In Tokelau, exam success can mean a scholarship to Western Samoa, which can itself lead to study in the bright lights of Auckland, the biggest neighbouring city. Escape is the aim of many young Tokelauans. In the meantime, Lepeka's world is Atafu, the most northerly and remote of the three Tokelau atolls, a village of 500 people, beautiful with its shallow turquoise lagoon, but distinctly lacking in pizzas and pop stars.

Tokelau's leader Pio Tuia is aware of the impending loss of Tokelau's talented young to the outside world, and has a plan to counter it. "We need to help people to stay, otherwise in ten years there will be no Tokelauans in Tokelau," he says. "People leave in order that their children get a better education. Quality of life is a big consideration, too, so we've approved an economic development project encompassing fisheries, handicraft and coconut oil production to increase the level of income."

Tokelau is also affected by climate change, a fact that appears to be lost on the large majority of islanders, whose primary concerns are village work and feeding their families. …