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Palau Seeks Environmental Identity

By Scott Radway

KOROR, Palau (March 25, 2002 - Pacific Daily News)---Uro Ikesakes started fishing in Airai Bay when he was a teen-ager, swimming side by side with his family and friends, spearing fish after fish from a bustling coral reef. Fishing in the bay was a way of life in the village.

Things are different now, more than 50 years later, but not because he is any less of a fisherman. His aqua-blue bay, once home to a healthy coral reef, is now mud-red and home to almost nothing but algae. After a full day of fishing today, his cooler is maybe half full. 'We don't fish there anymore,' said the 68-year-old subsistence fisherman, his crow's-feet framing his wistful stare.

His is an unusual story for Palau, a small Pacific island nation with a population of under 20,000, known the world over for its awing natural beauty and its abundance of fish. But his is a story some officials fear could become all too common if leaders don't plan well for the future. The cause of their alarm is a multimillion-dollar U.S. road project on the pristine island of Babeldaob that they say has brought Palau to a monumental environmental and cultural crossroad.

Babeldaob is the second largest island in Micronesia after Guam and comprises 70 percent of the nation's land. But for years the center of the government and population has been the much smaller island of Koror where modern infrastructure exists. The road will change that. In about two years, U.S.-contracted workers are expected to lay 53 miles of asphalt to circle Babeldaob and create an enormous potential for modern development such as hotels, golf courses and new homes. For perspective, Palau's roads currently total only 83 miles.

Cutting the new road through Babeldoab

In Airai State, the first state on Babeldaob over the bridge from Koror, development has already begun as some of the population in Koror -- where about 70 percent of the nation's people live -- is beginning to move over the bridge that connects the two islands.

Along with the work for the road, parcels have been cleared for homes, for farms and for a golf course. And the reef, where Ikesakes once fished bountifully, is being buried by the dirt running off the land from the new development, marine biologists say. Erosion, no longer controlled by the natural vegetation, has suffocated Airai Bay, killing coral and leaving it nearly barren of fish.

Airai State is a good example of what will happen on the rest of the island if Palauans do not plan ahead, said Noah Idechong, a Palau Delegate and world-renowned environmentalist. It's high time for people to decide how the island should be developed and how much should be developed, he said. At stake is Palauan culture and the identity of its people who have so long lived in harmony with the sea and land, Idechong said. Without the reefs, so much is lost. 'There is no time. We need to decide what we want our island to be,' Idechong said. 'Because if the road goes in and we haven't decided, all hell will break loose.'

To be Palauan

Palauans are a proud and ambitious people. They are proud of their culture, their heritage, their traditions. And they are eager to compete in the modern world, eager to keep pace with technology, medicine and wealth. Palauans will openly tell you that the mix presents a conflict. To compete in the modern world an economy must grow and when that happens a traditional society is put at risk. 'We have to decide exactly what we want for Palau,' said Yimnang Golbuu, a chief researcher with the Palau International Coral Reef Center.

Palauans often look to Guam when they consider their potential for development. Guam had a huge boom in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Hotels went up, infrastructure was expanded and the environment was devastated. 'Guam basically got burned,' said Bob Richmond, a marine biology professor with the University of Guam, working with Palauan officials to protect Babeldaob's reefs. Just 20 years ago, Guam's coral reefs had 70 percent more fish. With the reefs' demise Guam also has seen much of its traditional culture diluted. The sea, which was an invaluable bond for Chamorro families, was lost as the reefs were degraded and Guam became more like a slice of America, dotted with strip malls, multi-screen theatres and numerous fast-food restaurants. 'If we are not careful, we will end up like Guam,' Golbuu said.

But to be clear, the $125-million U.S. road project is something the Palauans asked for. The island nation made it a condition of the compact agreement signed with the United States in 1994 when Palau gained its independence. Federal and local officials call it the Compact Road. 'The road is our economic bloodline,' said Kione Isechal, an engineer with the Palauan president's office acting as a liaison with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the project moves forward.

Quarry for the Palau Compact Road Project

Since the colonial days, when the Germans, the Japanese and the United States controlled Palau, the center of activity has been Koror where the best harbors are and the modern infrastructure was developed. But the state of Koror is only 36 square miles compared to Babeldaob's 127 square miles. The long lines of cars up and down the main two-lane roads during rush hour are clear proof of its limited size and infrastructure. 'The road will be very useful for opening our island for economic development,' Isechal said. 'We are confident, with proper planning, development will be done right.'

The Palauan government already is building a new capital in the middle of Babeldaob. Isechal said the president's office is well aware of the environmental risks of development, but construction methods can be improved and impacts mitigated. 'The road is a good project,' Isechal said. 'It's a shame we have to make some environmental sacrifice, but they are calculated sacrifices. It's our responsibility to balance it.'

How much is enough?

As Idechong steered his motorboat up the Ngermeskang River and through the thick jungle, he pointed to the red water that was turning a pale brown as the bow cut it. 'That is from the road,' Idechong said, pointing at the dirt that was churning in the river.

The Ngermeskang River is the largest river in Micronesia and it runs into Ngaremeduu Bay, creating the largest and most biological diverse estuary in Micronesia. The area is an environmental jewel. Leaders of the three Palauan states that share the ownership of the area have recognized that fact and designated some 30,000 acres as a conservation area.

Ngaremeduu Bay: one of the most biologically diverse estuaries in Micronesia

But that area, like all of Babeldaob, is at risk from the road project and coming development, Idechong said. Already, silt from road clearing has turned red portions of the river that were once blue. If more clearing is done in the uplands, more and more dirt will be washed into the river until eventually the vegetation that naturally filters out the dirt will be overburdened, he said. And the reef will be buried like it was in Airai.

Idechong was touring the area with acclaimed photographer Norbert Wu to document the changes in the environment so he can show the Palauan Legislature and president the impact of development. Both Wu and Idechong were granted prestigious fellowships from the Pew Charitable Trusts for their environmental work. 'If you build the hotels, people will come. That's true,' Idechong said. 'But how many millions is enough money for 15,000 people?' That is roughly the number of Palauans that live in Palau.

Idechong said the vital question for Palauans is how much money they need. Because the reality is a tropical island can only bear so much before the environment is severely harmed and culture lost. Idechong said people also need to put a price tag on the worth of subsistence fishing and the value of Palauan culture. 'We never talk about that. What is the worth of value of the subsistence fisherman, the value of culture and family bonding,' Idechong said. 'We need to start a dialogue, to start talking about what we want for Palau.' If Palau does not, the race for money and development will have no boundaries. The economy will grow, and more foreign labor will be brought in to meet the demand. Idechong notes that, today on Guam, Chamorros are less than 50 percent of the population.

"There are a lot of contradictions in Palau. Some people don't think that there have to be sacrifices," he said. "But you can't have everything."

Fishermen: An endangered species?

About 30 people sat on the wood floor of the meetinghouse in Airai State. They had come to hear about a scientific study into why the coral reef in Airai Bay was near death. At the front sat Vincent Ito, a chief in Airai called Ilbasis. When he was asked how many people were fishermen in the village of Airai, Ito looked confused. 'The people here are all fishermen,' Ito said matter-of- factly. 'Everyone is a fisherman.'

There are 47 villages like that one on Babeldaob. Village populations range from a handful of people to 500. And in all the villages, there are subsistence fishermen. But this Airai village is the first area to be drastically affected by development. As Koror's population spills over into Babeldaob, professionals are coming to Airai first to build homes. And farmers looking for land have come over too, cutting down trees and filling mangroves to make way for row crops. That is what is killing the reef, marine biologists told the fishermen gathered.

Ito said it is too expensive for many fishermen who use traditional fishing methods to invest in motorboats and incur gas costs to fish elsewhere and still turn a profit. These fishermen were simply feeding their families. 'No one ever thought fishing would become extinct,' Ito said. 'Now our fishermen have to look for alternative ways to survive and they are not well-educated. It's hard for them to find jobs.' The fear is that Airai fisherman and village families will be turned out in the powerful tide of economic development and turned into welfare cases.

Mangroves make way for the compact road near the K-B bridge, Babeldoab

Idechong, sitting nearby on the wood floor, stresses again that Palauans need to agree upon a vision to avert a cultural disaster. 'We need to set a direction and then we can develop the mechanics,' Idechong said. 'We need to define our vision or we stand to lose too much.'

SOURCE: Pacific Islands Report
Photos by Gillian Cambers added


To get involved, contact :


National Co-ordinator
Mr Joe Chilton
Palau Community College
PO Box 9
Koror, 96940
Republic of Palau
T: + 680 488 2470
F: + 680 488 6563

Ms. Tiare Holm
Palau Conservation Society
P.O. Box 1811,
Koror, 96940
Republic of Palau
T: ++ 680 488 3993
F: ++ 680 488 3990

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