Palau is a country of complex and striking contradictions. Newly constructed, glittering hotels tower above muddy, pothole-ridden streets. Private homes boast wifi hotspots but lack in-home access to potable water. Palauans take great pride in their identity as a nation of fishermen, yet often choose Spam or hamburgers over fish when given the choice. It is a country of astounding natural beauty with a deep commitment to conservation, yet the streets are jam packed with pollution-spewing cars and the traffic rivals that of the Bay Area. Conservation leaders talk of the importance of enforcement while allowing their children to spearfish for undersized fish. Elders are troubled by the depletion and damage they see on their reefs while the youth peer out at the ocean and say “there is, like, so much coral out there, what’s the big deal?”
I’ve been in Palau for nearly a month and still feel as though I’m just getting oriented. I arrived in Palau with my boyfriend (he couldn’t resist a visit to Palau) a week before my job began in order to fully immerse myself in the thing that makes Palau so very special — the ocean. Despite incessant downpours, we enjoyed three days of kayaking, snorkeling, and beach camping in the Rock Islands. The shallow bays of the Rock Islands serve as nurseries for sharks and reef fish and the waters are alive with masses of jewel-colored fish, corals, and more. After our adventures at sea, we explored the sparsely populated island of Babeldaob (home to many WWII sites), attended a festive cultural night market, visited all of Palau’s museums, and participated in the first ever Konqer Palau obstacle course challenge. A very fun-filled introduction to the country!
Following my adventures as a tourist, I kicked off my first week of work with the OneReef and the Helen Reef Resource Management Program. In recent years, Palau has instituted some of the strongest pro-ocean policies in the world and has set the stage for a lot of exciting work in the marine space. Of course, the real challenge is implementation, enforcement, and monitoring and there are still many kinks to be worked out. In this context, OneReef is working on a number different projects that focus on sustainable financing for marine protected areas, public-private partnerships, science-based resource management, and enhanced capacity for community-based monitoring and enforcement.
OneReef has also been a long time partner of the Helen Reef Program. The Helen Reef Program is a community-managed organization that works to conserve the marine environment and resources in the traditional home of the Hatohobei community. Although the majority of the people of Hatohobei now live on the main island, their traditional home and the site of the conservation project is some 300 nautical miles away in the remote Southwest Islands. As part of my fellowship, I will be working with the Helen Reef Program to strengthen their community education and outreach efforts in order to ensure that the community is well-informed and invested in the program. I’m still wrapping my head around the different elements of the program, but it has quickly become clear that community-based conservation is a lot simpler on paper than it is in real life. Politics, competing interests, tradition, culture, and an internet connection that runs on island time make for a unique and complex work environment.
During my first week on the job, I attended a workshop on community-based climate resilience in Micronesia and the Pacific. One of the Helen Reef Program’s close partner organizations, HOPE, is the recipient of a USAID grant through the Pacific-American Climate Fund. Along with the Helen Reef Program and partners from Yap, HOPE has been working to create a video toolkit to help remote island communities throughout Micronesia understand and prepare for the expected impacts of climate change. While information on and resources for climate change adaptation projects are quite common in the main islands, remote island communities are often overlooked. Transportation to the outer islands is limited and astoundingly expensive making it difficult for outside organizations or trained facilitators to travel to these communities to assist with adaptation projects. The video toolkit is intended to allow communities to begin the adaptation planning process on their own. It is a simple, innovative approach to communicating key information and adaptation strategies to the communities who need it most. The workshop was a great introduction to the unique challenges and opportunities that exist throughout the Pacific.
In the next few weeks, I’m excited to learn more about the evolution of Palau’s sustainable tourism strategy, the creation and management of their extensive network of protected areas, and the implementation plan for their national marine sanctuary (which designated 80% of the EEZ as a no-take zone and closed all waters to international commercial fishing). And, of course, I hope to make time for more exploring, snorkeling, and swimming!