The Secret Lives of Parks

Holding Back the Sea

Episode Summary

What does life on the front lines of climate change look like? For the residents of the tiny island of Aunu’u in American Samoa, it means watching the ocean wash away more of their land each year. As temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, could the struggle to preserve the Samoan way of life hold a lesson for the rest of the world?

Episode Notes

At first glance, American Samoa feels like an idyllic, tropical South Pacific paradise where life has changed very little in the past century. But residents have been struggling with the pronounced effects of climate change and other serious challenges. Samoan beaches are visibly eroding, heat and salt water are affecting residents’ ability to grow food and to fish, and the resulting changes in diets are creating more medical problems for the people who live on these remote islands. Yet, Samoans are determined to preserve their lands and keep their culture and traditions alive for their children.

Reporter Dennis Arguelles shares stories from the tiny island of Aunu’u and neighboring islands of Ofu and Olosega in American Samoa with host Jennifer Errick, featuring village chief and tour guide Pika Taliva’a; elementary school teacher Celesty Tuiolosega-Morse; and lodge owner Deborah Malae.

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. 

Episode 29, Holding Back the Sea, was reported by Dennis Arguelles and produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Linda Coutant.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer. 

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America’s national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

And we’re proud of it, too.

You can join the fight to preserve our national parks. Learn more and join us at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 29
Holding Back the Sea

Dennis Arguelles: What does life on the front lines of climate change look like? For the residents of the tiny island of Aunu'u in American Samoa, it means watching the ocean wash away more of their land each year. 

As temperatures and sea levels continue to rise, could the struggle to preserve the Samoan way of life hold a lesson for the rest of the world? I'm Dennis Arguelles.

Jennifer Errick: And I'm Jennifer Errick.

Dennis Arguelles:

And this is The Secret Lives of Parks.


Jennifer Errick: Hey, it's Jennifer. This episode, I'm excited to bring you a story from the other side of the world from where I normally sit near Washington D.C. My colleague, Dennis Arguelles, is Southern California director for the National Parks Conservation Association, based in Los Angeles. Last year he was planning a trip to the tiny island of Aunu'u in the U.S. territory of American Samoa.

Dennis Arguelles: Visiting Aunu'u is a really special experience. It's 0.6 square miles, so we're talking about a very small place, but basically an entire community, an entire civilization, you could say, lives there and has lived there for centuries. It's one of the best preserved parts of Samoan culture.

Jennifer Errick: Dennis explained that the people on this island and other nearby islands have been experiencing devastating impacts from climate change for years. He offered to talk with some of the residents who have been trying to continue their culture and way of life on these visibly eroding lands, and he captured a series of conversations and sounds from his journey last October.

Now I've never been to American Samoa, so I asked Dennis if he would share some basic geographic information about this part of the world.

Dennis Arguelles: The main island of the American Samoa Archipelago is Tutuila. That's where Pago Pago the capital city is. That's where the major harbor is. That was a naval military base for the U.S. military and that's where the overwhelming majority of the population lives. And the population of American Samoa total is less than 60,000. So, we're talking about a pretty small place. 

There are five main inhabited islands. Again, Tutuila, the main island, Aunu'u, which is, again, a little more than half a square mile in area. And then there are some outlying islands, they call them Manu’a Islands that include places that are called Ofu and Ta'u. These are about an hour plane ride or a full day boat ride from the main island. Very sparsely populated, but where some of the best aspects of traditional Polynesian culture continue to thrive.

Jennifer Errick: I asked Dennis to share more about Aunu'u in particular.

Dennis Arguelles: At first glance, it feels like an idyllic tropical South Pacific paradise where life has changed very little in the past century. They pretty much still live traditional lifestyles there, as their ancestors did before them for generations. They grow taro, they fish, they collect coconut, and then unfortunately though they do rely on a lot of imports from the main island to sustain life there.

Jennifer Errick: For those who may be unfamiliar, like I was, taro is a starchy root vegetable that's a staple in Samoan cuisine. Okay, back to Dennis.

Dennis Arguelles: Less than 500 people live there now, and that population is declining. Increasingly, the population is finding they need to move to the main island, basically for safety, but they're still there to fight. They want to protect their traditional homeland, they want to stay where their ancestors were, and for now, there's a population that continues to reside there.

Jennifer Errick: Dennis explained to me that American Samoa is a territory of the United States, but its government functions differently than other U.S. territories.

Dennis Arguelles: The islands were annexed by the U.S. in the late 19th century, became a territory, became a military base, and since then they've remained an unincorporated territory. The indigenous population there are considered American nationals, but not citizens unlike other territories like Guam and Puerto Rico. Inherently it's a very undemocratic situation in that they're subject to a certain extent to American laws, but they don't have much voice and representation in our government. 

One of the reasons why Samoans, American Samoans, have not moved to change that relationship is it also means the islands aren't subject to the U.S. constitution. To a certain extent, they're an independent entity with a relationship with the United States where there are people can travel freely to the United States, but because they're not subject to the U.S. constitution, they're able to create their own laws, the most important of which is their land ownership system there. Land ownership in American Samoa generally resides in the hands of communities and a chief system where families and communities own the land. They are not allowed to sell the land to foreign entities. They can lease it, they can enter into relationships with foreign entities to develop the land, but the land must stay in the ownership of these communal groups and these chiefdoms that make up the island.

Jennifer Errick: This means that the National Park of American Samoa, the only U.S. National Park in the Southern Hemisphere, is managed by the National Park Service through a long-term lease.

Dennis Arguelles: The National Park of American Samoa was established in 1987, and it was created by leasing lands from local Samoan families, and that land is now managed by the National Park Service, but only for 50 years. But in that sense, it also has helped preserve that land. It's helped protect that land, and then that income goes to local families. That's probably why American Samoa looks very different than, say, Hawaii or Guam, where those areas are subject to the US Constitution, where private land ownership is the system that exists there, and for better or for worse, American Samoa has not seen the type of commercialization, has not seen the type of changes to their local economies and to their local culture, for that matter, because they've been able to keep the land in the ownership of the families.

Jennifer Errick: It may sound ideal to bring tourism money into a traditional economy that preserves a natural area like this one rather than developing it. According to Dennis, however many families are leaving Aunu'u and other nearby islands because of a serious threat to the land and the economy: climate change.

Dennis Arguelles: You can see in real time the impact that climate change is having on these communities and what they're needing to do day to day to survive and keep their society intact. 

I’ve visited American Samoa twice now, the first time in 2019, and then again last year in 2023. It was a fantastic experience both times, but even just in those four years, I can testify to the impact of climate change and the loss of coastline, the eroding of people's homes, people's homes being lost to the sea. I could see that impact, especially on the island of Aunu'u and what they're needing to do now to kind of hold the sea back. Some of the homes that we visited and the villages that we walked through on Aunu'u, I was able to witness homes that were now up against the sea that had a little more of a buffer, a little more beach I guess you could say the last time I was there, and now the water is literally eroding the property line, these homes, and they're needing to do whatever they can.

They're putting rocks down, they're putting cement down, but some people's homes are literally right on the edge of being washed out to the sea at this point. They can move upland a little bit from the coast, but there's really nowhere else to go. I mean, most of them are finding the need to again, establish homes and residences on the main island. Just walking along the property line of some of these homes and realizing they were just on the verge, maybe in the next major storm of losing their property to the sea. It was just heartbreaking to see and to know that is happening in real time and to watch the locals struggling to maintain their lifestyles there.

[music break]

Jennifer Errick: NPCA partners with the local chief on the island of Aunu'u named Pika Taliva'a. He's a respected member of the community who also serves as a guide leading culturally sensitive tours for visitors to the region, including members of NPCA's travel program.

Dennis Arguelles: Pika is a very special individual. He works with a lot of different organizations to educate them about what's happening in American Samoa, and he is someone we've worked with now for several years and knows the islands inside and out, and he has helped us understand what's going on there, how climate change is impacting their communities and help connect us with locals who also are helping to tell that story.

Jennifer Errick: Here, he and Dennis are walking along the coast and through Pika's village on Aunu'u discussing some of these concerns.

Pika Taliva'a: Sea level rising and the climate change, it's real. We've seen it because the climate change that can tell by the difference of the temperature of the water. When I'm going fishing or even if I'm just going swimming or just snorkeling on my usual routine, I can tell the difference how hot, the warm, in some area, parts of the water, it's cold. The other thing was I see, and it's happening now, a lot of erosion from the side of our shoreline seawalls. Some of our seawalls were handmade, are being built by our families, but sadly, it has no match with the strength of the waves right now. 

I live pretty close to the ocean. Every year something will erode in front of our house. It's everywhere. It's frustrating and it worries me because it's a hard labor. It's a very hard labor to work and to build this stuff, but like I said before, there's no strength of the seawall compared to the waves from the sea level rising, especially the king tides.

Dennis Arguelles: And have you seen this accelerate in the last few years versus say 10 years ago?

Pika Taliva'a: Yes, I am worried because the question is what's going to happen with another five years. I'm not talking about 10, 20 years. This is five years and my prediction, it's going to really, really eat itself in, and it's chipping every meter inside every day. It's not a month, it's not week, every day, high tide, it's chipping its way in and the salt water also entering and it's inside. It's inside our wetland right now.

Dennis Arguelles: What about your drinking water? How is that affected?

Pika Taliva'a: We don't consume any water from our faucet because it's very salty, and we used to have those machine that separate salt water from fresh water, but installed three months and was working for three months and after that it broke down. That's like three years ago or four years ago. And ever since then till now, we still don't drink our water.

Dennis Arguelles: So you have to drink bottled water?

Pika Taliva'a: We used to buy bottle of water, but most of our people here of Aunu'u drink water from the water catchments — rain water and our wells.

Dennis Arguelles: You said the salt water is already in your mangrove, so can you talk about how that's going to impact your taro, everything else?

Pika Taliva'a: Well, it's inside already. We see it because I'm also a farmer and we work on our taro plantation and it's on top of our wetland and we see our taros are dying. We see our bananas grow next to the wetlands are dying also, a lot of our freshwater tilapias are also dying, and our mangroves is also dying from all this salt water. Not only the salt water too, but also with this climate change, with the heat that's drying up on wetland too.

Dennis Arguelles: You've mentioned that you receive very little support from the government, so you've had to rely on yourselves with the community here. And so what do you folks try to do on a day-to-day basis?

Pika Taliva'a: We try our best to make our voice to our government because we know there are fundings there, but we always feel that we are being left out and we need the help and we've been needing help and we are worried because of our kids because they are our future generations and they're the ones who's going to take over. They will be the one who's going to suffer the consequences. That's why our families, our neighbors are fighting to do it, to try to solve it to ourselves. It's better than nothing, but still we need the help. We need the funding, and we need the people, the good leaders that will help and support us.

Dennis Arguelles: So, you mentioned that there was much bigger population on this island than the 300 or so today. Can you talk about those changes, how big it was?

Pika Taliva'a: Aunu'u was a population probably 10 years ago was 1000 plus, but now it's between 400 and 500 people right now. A lot of families are moving off island to seek better jobs and better education for their kids, although they move to the main island to better commute because it's hard also to commute because when it gets rough between our channels, it's impossible for our ferries to go back and forth.

Dennis Arguelles: And so you've actually started building a house across the channel?

Pika Taliva'a: Yes.

Dennis Arguelles: What's your hope for your children and your hope for your property here?

Pika Taliva'a: Ever since we haven't been getting any support and my mind and the light up shine right away and tell something, I should do something before it's too late. So that's where I decided that my wife is to seek for land across in Tutuila and to start to build our second home for extra protection and also a much higher elevation on the mountain from the tsunami or the sea level rising too. So now we are almost complete with our project. It's been hard, almost two and a half years now we've been building, but like I said, most of our families here in Aunu'u don't want to relocate. A lot of our elders and families are saying they will die in Aunu'u no matter what. I respect that, but I am doing this for the sake and for the protection of my kids.

[music break]

Jennifer Errick: Climate change isn't the only serious problem people in American Samoa are facing. Other residents shared their concerns about the lack of job opportunities and medical care among other issues. 

Celesty Tuiolosega-Morse is an elementary school teacher on the island of Olosega, about an hour's plane ride from where Pika lives on Aunu'u. Dennis explained to me that Olosega and Ofu are outlying islands that are adjacent to each other and separated by a small strait. These islands have even smaller populations than Aunu'u.

Dennis Arguelles: I believe the island of Ofu's population is less than 80 people. When you get past the beautiful greenery, the coral reef, and you actually start spending some time on the island and visiting the villages, it's a pretty bleak situation. It's pretty surprising how sparsely populated the island is, how many abandoned homes there are and how life there is obviously hard and changing, and it's unclear if long-term settlements there are going to exist. 

Aunu'u doesn't look like Ofu yet. There is still a pretty concentrated population there. But Ofu I think is a warning of what it could look like and what might happen if there's not enough investment as climate change continues to ravage the coastline, making life harder there. Now Ofu is still beautiful tropical paradise, but to make it your home, to actually live there would be a very challenging endeavor.

Jennifer Errick: Dennis spoke with Celesty at a traditional community feast. They took a break from the festivities and she shared some of her concerns.

Dennis Arguelles: Can you talk about the changes you've seen here on Ofu?

Celesty Tuiolosega-Morse: There's many different things I've noticed. One is the population of the locals or natives. They moved to Tutuila for many different reasons, and I think one of the number one reasons why they move is because of education. And the other one is jobs. Locally, we don't have a lot of access to job opportunities. We lack education primarily, and I think if parents in the communities and the church work together to encourage each other, have like a support system, and that way we all are on the same page. And I know how important it is to educate our kids because when we pass on or we die, I mean the ones that are going to be moving forward with our traditions and culture are our kids.

Dennis Arguelles: The students, in your observation, do you think they see their future here, on the other islands or do you think that they at that age are already thinking they're going to be living somewhere else?

Celesty Tuiolosega-Morse: That could be, I would say a tricky question because anyone can change their mind saying that I'm going to live here for years to come, but when they are exposed to technology or possibly other job opportunities, they will take an opportunity that would bring in more money, versus staying on an island and being unemployed, living off other people. 

So just trying to encourage our young kids. Yes, there are opportunities off island, but overall, I think education is key because if you become successful, you are able to come back and work for the government or create something for yourself or build something to give back to the community. I mean, there's many, many ways to be successful. You don't necessarily have to be in education, but you still need the experiences in life in general.

Dennis Arguelles: What are your concerns about tourism? I mean, do you think that could be helpful to the Manu'a Islands or in the long run, are you concerned that it might have detrimental impact?

Celesty Tuiolosega-Morse: That's a tricky question because we natives, we are very protective of our lands, and anytime I see trash on the side of the road, I get really, really upset because here we are trying to keep our environment clean, and yet we still have people that their mentality is just not in the right place. And I respect the land and it's our culture to adore, to respect, to admire what we have. 

It's a blessing to have our own lands. You go to other countries, and you have to pay taxes. And you got to buy land. You can't just get land, you have to spend a lot of money. But here in Manu'a, I mean, that's the privilege. That's our right. We have our rights to our land, and no one can take that away from us.

Dennis Arguelles: What's your long-term hope? I mean, you mentioned education you think is key to helping the residents here. What else do you think might be helpful?

Celesty Tuiolosega-Morse: The Manu'a Islands are … it's just majestic. A lot of people, they say so many positive things about the Manu'a Islands. It's away from the world. It's like we're just living in our own little niche. How people address certain things or the jobs, that's another story. 

It's just a really good place to raise a family, but with limited resources. But also a lot of people are getting sick. They need medical attention, so medical issues and the diet is also another factor. So, when you have parents that are sick, you're going to have to end up moving your parents to Pago to take care of them and so then you abandon the house and the land. I could see Manu'a in general be successful, but again, you need the community to work together to make that happen.

Jennifer Errick: Several people Dennis spoke with shared this concern, that more people are becoming sick and must move to access healthcare. Dennis explained to me that although it might seem unrelated, this increased rate of illness is worsened by climate change.

Dennis Arguelles: For several decades since before World War II when colonization began on these Pacific Islands, diet began to change, they became more and more dependent on processed products from America and from other countries. So that's slowly been displacing their traditional diet over the last several decades. But with climate change and their inability to grow a lot of their own traditional foods and harvest the same quantities of fish that they were used to in the past, that's accelerated and unfortunately that's had a detrimental impact on their health. You see high rates of obesity across the Pacific Islands, diabetes, hypertension, other diseases related to poor diet.

Jennifer Errick: Here again is Celesty.

Celesty Tuiolosega-Morse: I just want to acknowledge that we're all in this together and we need to let our kids know that this is a very special place. There's no other place like home. We just have to work on the resources to keep people educated, to have whatever skills we need to, a good support system.

[music break]

Jennifer Errick: The National Park of American Samoa is a big part of the region's tourism economy and a potential source for more job opportunities. But not everyone Dennis spoke with felt the arrangement was ideal. One Samoan resident said that conflicts over how to share the lease money among the community had created rifts between family members. Chief Pika Taliva'a had a more positive view of the park, but he wished more Samoan residents could be involved.

Pika Taliva'a: It's very hard to apply for the National Park opportunities or works, but it would be nice to give the opportunity to the locals to help because this is our lands and we want to protect it. And if you can help with the hiring and stuff like that to give the opportunity to the villages, especially our younger generation, offer them trainings to be leaders and future rangers, to man our national park, to maintain our national parks and to have more programs here because the more we set programs and the more we take the word out and the more people more understand more about our parks.

Jennifer Errick: According to Dennis, the park regularly hires Samoan staff, but key leadership positions, including superintendent, are not currently filled by Samoan residents. 

Dennis spoke with one businesswoman in the tourism industry to get her perspective on threats to the islands.

Dennis Arguelles: Deborah Malae runs the lodge on the island of Ofu, and she has also witnessed changes to life on the islands, has seen the impact of climate change. And as someone who caters to tourists, she's made part of her mission to make sure that that information is communicated to those of us who have the opportunity to visit there.

Jennifer Errick: Here is Deborah speaking with Dennis from the kitchen of her lodge.

Deborah Malae: I'm a Navy brat. My dad was from here, from Ofu, Manu'a. We were raised in Pago Pago on the island of Tutuila, but my grandparents were here in Ofu, Manu'a. So, we would spend our summers and Christmases here in Manu'a.

Dennis Arguelles: So can you talk about the changes you've seen in life over that period of time?

Deborah Malae: When I was a little girl, the runway was not paved. It was a sand runway. So that got paved in, I believe, 1980. The sea walls were built a few years after that to protect them. So those are some of the changes, but the most development has happened in the last three years. And my opinion, it was all the Covid money that we were getting, American Samoa was getting from the federal government. Now we see a road out front here that we didn't want. They redid the runway. Now what's in play is they're making more seawalls here because of the rising ocean levels, I guess.

Dennis Arguelles: What about the population of the actual islands? Have you seen that change?

Deborah Malae: Dramatic drops, and when I was a little girl, there was maybe four or 500 in, I believe I was young in Olosega, but with healthcare declining, elderly people move off island to go to the United States for better healthcare. Schools, there's no high school here, so you either go to Ta'u or to Pago, to Tutuila for the kids once they hit high school level and jobs. So people would move to Pago or even a lot of our kids are joining the military nowadays. There's less than 50 people residing in Ofu and less than 50 people residing in Olosega.

Dennis Arguelles: What are your thoughts about the future? Where do you think things are headed and?

Deborah Malae: They want to develop more. They want better infrastructure to bring tourism here, but without good transportation, which they can build everything they want to build, but people can't get here easily. We were joking with some of the people that if bad times hit Armageddon or whatever, as long as we've got the ocean and fish in it and the mountain, we'll survive out here. 1000 of years we've survived off the land and the water, so we're just a little bit spoiled with the Western world bringing in supplies.

Jennifer Errick: I asked Dennis what residents of the islands can do given how vulnerable they are to climate change and other threats. Dennis told me that Samoans have an expression, Fa'a Samoa, or the Samoan way, a guiding principle that speaks to their deep desire to preserve their traditional culture. Despite the many concerns Dennis heard, he was optimistic that Samoans would find ways to thrive.

Dennis Arguelles: What I take from my visits to American Samoa is a Samoan culture is a collective culture. It's a culture that values the community over the individual. It's one of cooperation and love. There is clear to me, a steadfast dedication to maintain their culture in place in American Samoa. Now, that might mean they have to move away from the coast. That might mean they have to move to different islands, but they're not going to change fundamentally who they are as a people. And it gives me hope that they're going to be able to perpetuate that culture.

There's an entrepreneurial spirit there. There are educated Samoans that want to see them build some sustainable business ventures and enterprises that bring true benefits to the population there. When I think of a Aunu'u, I feel like it's a microcosm of the planet, and it's not just about sea level rise, it's the heat is actually impacting life on the island, and it's unclear what's going to happen at this time. But in some ways, what's happening in Aunu'u can be a harbinger for what's happening across the planet. Just try to address the problem locally on Aunu'u is not going to cut it. I mean, this is a global problem, and there just happened to be on the front lines of that fight.

[end theme]

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. 

Episode 29, Holding Back the Sea, was reported by Dennis Arguelles and produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton and Linda Coutant.

Original theme music by Chad Fischer. 

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America’s national parks for present and future generations. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

And we’re proud of it, too.

You can join the fight to preserve our national parks. Learn more and join us at