Palau’s leader champions environment
Messages emphasize conservation in times of declining resources
A whacking from his grandfather with a bamboo pole when he was 13 taught the president of the Republic of Palau a lesson he has turned into a global message for environmental protection.
"I came upon a water hole with a whole group of red snappers, so one by one I was spearing all these fish," Tommy Remengesau Jr. recalled in a telephone interview from Kona.
"People don't think it is an urgency, that Pacific islanders live in paradise. Believe me, it's like the tsunami that starts with us. ... We are the window of what will eventually be happening to the rest of the world."
Tommy Remengesau Jr.
President, Republic of Palau
He said he took his long string of fish home, excited to show his father and grandfather. "I had a very good day," he told them. "My grandpa whacked me over the head because I caught too many fish and we didn't have an icebox at home."
His grandfather asked what he expected to do with the fish because the family could not eat all of them, and admonished him in the future to take only what he needs, he said.
Remengesau, ending his second and last term as president in December, has applied that concept in a campaign to deal with climate change and protect the resources in his low-lying archipelago.
Time Magazine recognized him last year as a "hero of the environment."
Remengesau was in Hawaii last week for a U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting in Kona and a Nature Conservancy gathering honoring him at the Pacific Club in Honolulu. Among those speaking was Nainoa Thompson, Polynesian Voyaging Society executive director, with whom the Palauan president sailed on the Hokule'a.
Remengesau attracted world attention in 2005 with the Micronesia Challenge, a commitment by five island governments to conserve at least 30 percent of near-shore marine resources and 20 percent of land resources by the year 2020.
The Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Territory of Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands signed the challenge with Palau, and they have raised more than $12 million of $18 million for a trust fund to begin implementing their goals.
Palau's congress also recently passed a law that is expected to generate $1.65 million annually for management of the Protected Area Network through a $20 visitor's fee.
The Micronesia Challenge had a snowball effect, inspiring six countries in the Coral Triangle region led by Indonesia and four countries in the Caribbean area to make similar conservation commitments.
While pleased with the developments, Remengesau said he is concerned because "the pace is not as fast as we need to be, because if we don't address the degradation of our environment pretty soon, we probably will not have much to protect or conserve in the future."
Noting President Bush regards global warming as a "theory," he said, "Unfortunately, it is not a theory for those of us living on the front line," facing sea level rise, coral degradation, drought and depleted fish stocks.
"The problem is, we are small," he said. "People don't think it is an urgency, that Pacific islanders live in paradise. Believe me, it's like the tsunami that starts with us. ... We are the window of what will eventually be happening to the rest of the world."
Remengesau emphasizes that the concept of conservation "should not be to put a fence around one part of the coral reef." Sustainable economic practices can occur in protected areas, he said.
For example, he said coral reef areas are being set aside where a villager or community member can do clam farming. "Palau is known for giant clams, and we have technology to make small baby clams," he said, describing a plan to stock 5 million clams over Palau's reefs.
Another idea is to provide environmentally sensitive kayaking and jungle-type tours to the islands' waterfalls, rivers and mangrove channels so people can make money while preserving them.
Remengesau said he will continue to advocate for conservation after leaving office because it is "a personal agenda for me." The challenge, he said, is to educate young people about the importance of protecting the ecosystem and "ensuring the next generation's survival."