Palau’s present battle with drought has partially eclipsed the news about its new resource management and conservation efforts. From the forthcoming tie-up with Google for a new monitoring system, conservation debt swap program, to plans to beef up its telecommunication system --- these initiatives deserve more than just a footnote for highlighting a nation with a clear vision of their sustainable future.
Palau President Thomas "Tommy" Remengesau Jr. was on Guam recently to touch base with his constituents by visiting community meetings.
In an interview with the Guam Sunday Post, he revealed several critical steps that the government has taken just recently— including the Google project for a new marine monitoring project, an important piece to addressing one of the challenges to the successful implementation of the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act.
The Act established one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries --- a massive 600,000 sq kms area of the nation’s territorial waters. With legislation now in place, around 80 percent of the nation’s exclusive economic zone is protected from commercial fishing and other extractive activities.
Remengesau said the partnership involves setting up a satellite-based aerial surveillance monitoring system to help marine law enforcement efforts. “This will help us get a better understanding of what is going on out there in our waters,” he added.
Currently, Google has a Global Fishing Watch program, a product of their technology partnership with SkyTruth and Oceana. According to its website, it is an interactive web tool currently in its prototype stage that is “designed to show all of the trackable fishing activity in the ocean.”
Remengesau also mentioned the government’s plan to improve telecommunications and internet infrastructure to enhance the island’s global connectivity. “We need to have a state-of-the-art internet system. So by the end of this month, our ministry of finance will be signing a deal with the Asian Development Bank. A fiber optic cable will be coming in from the Philippines and we want to have a key connection to that line. Once we get hooked to that, we will get connected worldwide and that is a very important infrastructure to have,” he said.
Palau has embarked on partnerships with several global non-profit organizations to strengthen protection and conservation efforts. Remengesau described the government’s partnership with Nature Conservancy for its innovative “Debt for Nature Swap” program. According to Remengesau, these agreements involve exchanging a nation's foreign debt for investments in conservation and environmental programs. In the case of Palau, the money goes into the maintenance and protection of the marine sanctuary.
“Since 1987, debt-for- nature-swaps have generated over US$1 billion for conservation in developing countries,” according to information posted by Nature Conservancy.
The non-profit recently finalized an agreement with Seychelles for a debt-swap agreement involving programs that would address climate change mitigation and ocean conservation.
In late February, Remengesau signed a memorandum of understanding with Yohei Sasakawa, chairman of Nippon Foundation and Jiro Hanyu, Chairman of Sasakawa Peace Foundation, which committed a $105-million assistance to Palau for enhancing their maritime law enforcement capabilities.
According to Remengesau, the agreement includes provision for a new patrol boat, about 42 meters long, to add to their existing vessel, the PSS Remeliik. “They will build a $37 million new patrol boat that's about 42 meters long which will complement the one patrol boat that we have one now,” he said.
The agreement also covers the provision of two smaller boats, the construction of a docking and berthing facility, and a new administrative and training building. “They will build an administration center that can be used to provide training not only to marine law enforcement officers but also serve as a training center for the Micronesian area,” he said, adding that the Japanese foundations also committed to support the fuel and maintenance costs of the new vessels as well as the hiring and training of the crew for a certain period.
Remengesau said the government will also embark on the Ship Rider program with U.S. Coast Guard to beef up their limited marine law enforcement resources. “The U.S. Coast Guard also agreed to help Palau in what we call a ship rider program where our own marine law enforcement can board the U.S. Coast Guard vessel and patrol the waters of Palau so we can make arrests if there is an illegal seizure somewhere,” he said.
Assistant Secretary Daniel R. Russel, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, during his visit to Palau, mentioned in his speech that to improve law enforcement, they will be continuing successful programs like the ship-rider agreement that enables Palauan officials to conduct maritime law enforcement operations from U.S. Coast Guard and Naval vessels. Russel also confirmed that “in a few months the USS Spruance will visit with a Palauan ship ride to support local EEZ enforcement efforts.”
Remengesau describes the marine sanctuary as related to “bul” a Palauan traditional marine conservation practice of declaring an area as a no-take zone or no-fishing zone. “Our people have been practicing this sanctuary concept for generations after generations. Basically what the "bul" or sanctuary intends to do is to balance the harvesting and the growth needed to sustain our resource,” he said.
“Ever since we established the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, one of our challenges is how to enforce an area the size of France or the state of Texas. 600,000 square kilometers of ocean is not a small area to cover. Enforcement has been our number one challenge,” he added.
Prior to the interview with the post, Remengesau spoke to a group of Palauan men and women who were gathered for a community meeting. He said that meetings serve as a venue for the community to be apprised of the issues in Palau. “The Palauans on Guam— although far from home—are active in terms of discussing issues that affect their island. We are a small population of only 20,000 so we are trying to encourage people to be a part of our growth as a nation as a people, and as a republic.” “They are as sincere and as passionate as those who are at home,” he said. “So it is very clear to me with my discussions with the people here that they want some kind of a responsible manageable growth with our tourism industry but they also agree that Palau should focus on high value tourism and concentrate more on quality not quantity.”
This is what makes sense for Palau, according to Remengesau, “Our island is very fragile. Our population is small so we don't really need one million tourists a year. We need only a small number of tourists who would pay the most amount of dollars that they can.”
He said the pursuit and adoption of more sustainable policies is in Palau’s future but also cautions about being labeled as a model for island sustainability. “I'd like to think that we are all looking at this as a survival issue. Sustainability, in other words, is all about survival. How do you survive as island people --- from Micronesia, from Guam, from Palau, Saipan, FSM, Marshall islands --- and for that matter, throughout the Pacific. How do you ensure that the future generations will have food security? That they will have economic security? That they will have cultural security? And that is all tied to what we do with the ocean, with what we do to our land,” he emphasized.
Remengesau added that it’s not about some nation trying to do something that can be emulated by other nations. “It's about what you are doing to your own people so that hopefully, we don’t need to buy our food from somewhere because we don’t have any resources in the ocean. Hopefully, the tourists will still come because we still have plentiful marine life in the oceans and in the environment. Hopefully, our culture and our identity as an island people will still be there because we are protecting the environment. We are protecting the ocean that sustains us. So it is all about survivability as a people and as a nation.”
In his UN address, Remengesau highlighted that Palau is home to some of the world’s most scenic islands, lakes, and reefs, and some of the world’s greatest biodiversity, including 1,300 species of fish and 700 species of coral. But more so, Remengesau said, the people have long understood that they are the stewards of this rich endowment, and that Palau’s past, present, and future are tied to the health of its natural environment - particularly its oceans.