In the Marshall Islands, climate change is an existential threat.
Alternating droughts and cyclones are wreaking havoc on the Pacific island nation of 52,000 people. Rising tides could even submerge the entire country within decades.
As coastal homes become uninhabitable, the Marshallese are starting to seek refuge in other countries. Thousands of those “climate refugees” could find a safe haven in an unlikely town in the American heartland.
Springdale, Arkansas, may be 6,000 miles away from the Marshall Islands, but it is the unexpected home to a thriving Marshallese community.
Nearly 7,000 Marshallese live in Springdale, by far the largest such community in the mainland US. The greater region of northwestern Arkansas has at least 12,000 — more than a fifth of the Marshall Islands’ population. It is second only to that of Honolulu.
Unlike Hawaii, Springdale has no history of any other Pacific Islander migration or settlement.
“The Marshallese are living in Springdale with no template,” wrote UCLA researcher Jessica Schwartz in her paper “Marshallese Cultural Diplomacy.”
Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, the town of 75,000 boasts a Marshallese radio station and the country’s only Marshallese-language newspaper.
Marshallese people come to the US primarily for jobs, education, and health care, said Carmen Chong Gum, consul general of the Marshallese consulate in Springdale — the only such consulate in the continental US. But she said Springdale residents could soon expect the community to swell with climate refugees.
“Climate change is really happening. It’s a reality,” Chong Gum told Business Insider. “If it continues to be a reality, that would be another reason added to the list — families coming that have lost their homes to the sea.”
The Marshall Islands’ close relationship with the US
The Marshall Islands benefits from a close, albeit complicated, relationship with the US.
America used the islands as a test theatre for 67 thermonuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958. The most famous of these, the “Bravo shot,” was dropped on Bikini Atoll in 1954 and was 1,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
Residents of Bikini were displaced, and the atoll remains uninhabited today. Large swaths of the islands still suffer from nuclear contamination.
In 1986, the US agreed to the Compact of Free Association, which stipulated that Marshallese citizens can emigrate freely to the US and stay indefinitely without visas.
“Basically it’s what we get in return for allowing our islands to be used by the United States for testing nuclear weapons,” Chong Gum told Business Insider.
Hundreds of displaced Bikinians now live in Springdale, according to Schwartz’s research.
The Marshallese diaspora
Arkansas can trace its Marshallese diaspora to a single islander named John Moody, who came to Springdale in the 1980s to work for Tyson Foods.
Word of the jobs available spread back home, and a steady migration began, with many newcomers securing jobs at the Tyson plant.
Although some immigrants consider Springdale their long-term home, many young people don’t plan on staying in the US permanently, said Benetick Maddison, a Marshallese student at Northwest Arkansas Community College.
“We’re in college because we want to go back to the island and serve our people,” Maddison told Business Insider. “We just want to go back to our homeland.”
Given their people’s history of displacement, younger members of the community are especially vocal about climate change, said April Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Marshallese Education Initiative.
Brown pointed to the large youth turnout at Springdale’s Rally for the Earth, a December event that raised awareness of climate change in the Pacific.
“I think that young people believe that something can be done to stave it off,” Brown told Business Insider. “Their voices are starting to be heard. The community is proud of them.”
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