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By Michael Field

AUCKLAND, New Zealand (October 17, 2000 – Agence France-Presse)---A small singing civilization of Polynesians are on the very verge of extinction as their atoll sinks below the Pacific Ocean.

"Its a vanishing culture," says University of Auckland's Richard Moyle, an ethnomusicologist who is writing the first, and what may be the last ethnology of the people of Takuu.

"When an animal species is threatened we put them in zoos; if a human species does, then what do we do?"

Through a deadly combination of plate tectonics and global sea-level rise, the atoll, around 200 kilometers (124 miles) northeast of Papua New Guinea's Bougainville is within months of disaster.

A community of 400 people who have over 1,000 songs they can sing from memory will go with the waves.

Other islands nearby are disappearing; the Carteret Islands and the Duke of York group.

Takuu is an extraordinary Pacific story; geographically it is in Melanesia but its people are Polynesians. An epidemic hit it in the 1870s and just 13 people survived.

In 1896 a Samoan-American woman, "Queen" Emma Coe, bought it for four axes and 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of tobacco. Under Imperial German protection she had all the trees chopped down and replaced with coconuts, and she imported New Irelanders to work them.

Takuu people retained their culture and right up until last year they had held out against Christian missionaries. Now, in the face of a doomsday scenario, fundamentalist evangelists have gotten on the island.

Moyle, the Pacific's leading authority on traditional music, has been visiting Takuu for years and has noticed recently the way its world is rapidly changing.

On the Cartarets the sea level has flooded the gardens and its people now live off imported food.

At Takuu the people at first tried resisting the sea with chunks of coral, to form sea walls.

"What they don't realize is that when waves hit a wall like that they tend to carry away the sand in front of them," he told AFP.

"They have progressively lost the sand from their foreshore."

Moyle was there in January when the northwest trade winds combined with unusual high tides, sweeping away the sea walls.

"Everyone went out and tried to repair them but that same afternoon the high tide came in again and the people just watched them go.

"There was nothing else they could do. They hauled up all the canoes, for the first time ever, onto the flat top of the island and just stared out to sea. There were actually breakers inside the lagoon. It was a strange sight.... It was something they did not know how to cope with."

The worry now is what happens to the gardens. They've been dug down several meters, often to below the sea level, and over years were filled with compost. The people grow taro and giant taro, the latter taking eight years to grow.

Once seawater gets in, that will be the end of Takuu.

"I think when the gardens are contaminated with saltwater they will not have the cash from their expatriate family members to supply the food which taro and giant taro now provides."

The freshwater lens which sustains human life on any atoll is still there.

"But the water is brackish. If you drink it the water is foul; if you wash with it you get a rash."

On nearby Bougainville a civil war raged for a decade and a truce now exists. A rebel leader visited Takuu and told the people that once Bougainville was liberated the people would be moved.

"They've got a place already set aside for Takuu. Its a disused limestone quarry."

The community is too small; it is powerless.

"If you re-locate them their separate identity is going to cease, their exposure to disease is far greater and their exposure to determined evangelism will grow."

Moyle can see no hope unless the tectonic plates suddenly reverse.

"I cannot see any way of stopping it with human intervention. If you want to say doomed, I guess in a literal sense they are." For the people their fate is beyond comprehension.

"I asked a few people: Will you go? Will you stay? The older people said they wanted to stay and I asked them what would happen when the island was underwater. They said 'I will die.'

"The notion of leaving their country is so foreign to their thinking they cannot comprehend it and they cannot speak about it in any logical or sane fashion."

Their rich culture offers them no explanation.

"The irony is that the sea gives them most of their food."

Michael Field New Zealand/South Pacific Correspondent Agence France-Presse E-mail: afp.nz@clear.net.nz  Phone: (64 21) 688438 Fax: (64 21) 694035 Website: http://www.afp.com/english/ 

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