Called the “Seven Underwater Wonders of the World,” Palau is home to more than 400 coral species and nearly 1,300 varieties of reef fish. Its waters’ breathtaking marine diversity and beauty are famous, attracting many to its reefs and lagoons.
It wasn’t long ago that local fishermen, including Palau’s president, Tommy Remengesau Jr., noticed there were more boats and people than barracuda, Napoleon wrasses and other fish. Determined to do something about the decline, Remengesau made a big splash with his Micronesia Challenge — an initiative that set aside for conservation at least 30 percent of the marine environment and 20 percent of terrestrial resources across Micronesia by 2020. This commitment, launched in 2005, was at the forefront of a movement to ban fishing in key areas to allow the return of prized species. It was a shared grassroots commitment to conserve, one that struck a balance between effectively using and preserving the region’s natural habitats.
Monday evening, Remengesau addressed a large crowd inside and overflowing outside of Hokuloa United Church of Christ in Puako. He shared lessons learned from the Micronesia Challenge and the partnerships. He spoke candidly about how Palau preserves its culture and natural resources against the challenges of economic growth, tourism and climate change, as well as the importance of focusing “on the environment of which we’re borrowing from our future children.”
“We will never stop debate on whether we need to conserve or we need to promote growth. That will always be the hot agenda of the day. It was never easy for us,” Remengesau said. “But I think if you are really true to yourself and to the generations that are coming, you have to take steps out of the norm, you have to think outside the box, you have to do something that will indeed ensure that the environment, our No. 1 asset, is there for the future.”
His speech Monday was the last event of his statewide tour. Remengesau and his delegation, which included newly appointed Minister for Natural Resources Environment and Tourism Umiich Sengebau, were part of The Nature Conservancy’s ongoing Hawaii-Palau learning exchange. Last year, The Nature Conservancy sponsored 27 community members, government officials and nongovernmental organization representatives from Hawaii to visit Palau. The previous year, a delegation from Palau came to Hawaii and one outcome of that trip was a decision to stop the import of goats. During this trip, Remengesau gave several public presentations, spoke with various Big Island and Maui residents about environmental issues, celebrated President Day with local Palauans, as well as attended a special reception with Gov. Neil Abercrombie.
“We believe in the old saying that the oceans don’t divide us, they connect us together,” he said. “So in this respect, we believe Palau like the Hawaiian Islands share things in common and we can learn so much from the experience from each other. Hawaii, of course, is on the forefront of progress of being a melting pot and really taking the leadership role on many island and regional issues.”
According to Remengesau, approximately 20,000 people live in Palau, a country with limited resources. For years, Palauans have counted on their reefs and forests for their livelihood and survival, but there are increasing pressures, including the wants of new things like five-star hotels and technologies. While tourism is Palau’s No. 1 industry, Remengesau says there’s only so much they can do to advance themselves.
“In Palau, we like to say the environment is our economy and the economy is our environment. You can not separate the two. If our environment goes, so will our No. 1 industry. If the environment goes, so goes our livelihood, our culture, our identity as island people. In Palau, it’s not all about business and commercialism and development, it also about the sustainability of our very own people,” he said.
To solve the problem, Palauans were faced with two questions: Who owns our environment? How can we sustain ourselves by exploiting the environment in a good sense? The Micronesia Challenge was an answer. It was a sustainable plan, involving numerous conservation projects and partnerships.
Guided by his slogan, “Preserve the Best and Improve the Rest,” Remengesau helped create the enabling modern government that allowed local communities, fishers and chiefs to establish a network of protected areas to replenish their marine resources. There was also the diversification and promotion of “other good activities” besides diving, such as catch and release programs, birdwatching and ecotourism adventures. Remengesau and champions in Congress implemented a visitor’s “green” fee to provide sustainable funding for conservation and enforcement. He also established a dedicated Ministry for Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism, and signed into law a total ban on shark finning, deep-sea bottom trawling and the live reef fish trade in Palau. In 2009, Palau declared all of its waters a shark sanctuary.
“Simple goal but we recognized that, hey, we needed to preserve something so that we don’t saturate everything, so that we don’t destroy everything we have, so that future generations when they come they will be able to see Palau as it was yesterday, today and the future generations to come,” Remengesau said. “We didn’t just declare areas as conservation areas and throw away the key. We needed to find sustainable ways to promote those places so that sustainable economic activities can take place and our people can feel ownership, as well as have economic opportunities in those areas.”
Involving all five Micronesian governments — the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the U.S. Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands — was essential, Remengesau said.
“We found by doing this on a regional level we could get funding from our partners like The Nature Conservancy. You see, they don’t want to do a good thing in an isolated place. They want to do a good thing that will affect the most people. So thanks for the research money from TNC, we were also able to convince our people that what we’re doing is not something that is a political agenda or some government policy that would die when the next president come in,” he said. “It was important that our people understood that this research data actually reinforced (and) actually supported our traditional knowledge — our community-based best practices that our forefathers actually practiced over the years. It was easy to put the Micronesia Challenge together because we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Following Remengesau’s speech, Rep. Cindy Evans, D-North Kona, Kohala, asked how Palau was able to stop aquarium fish collecting, a contentious topic in Hawaii. He explained there were only about two or three companies involved in this trade and research, showing that this industry was not sustainable, was an important part of the justification. Research, as well as community-based knowledge, was also used to justify the banning of spearfishing with scuba and establishment of no-take zones. He said those interested can access the research from the University of Guam and the Palau International Coral Reef Center. Other topics discussed were invasive species, coral bleaching, global warming, youth involvement, recycling, aquaculture and public education.