Seeks Environmental Identity
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.'
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
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.
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
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.'
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
much is enough?
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.
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
Ngaremeduu Bay: one of the most
biologically diverse estuaries in Micronesia
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.
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.
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.
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."
An endangered species?
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.'
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.
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
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.'
Pacific Islands Report
Photos by Gillian Cambers added