It was standing room only last month in the 120-seat multipurpose room in the University of Hawai'i Maui College's new Science Building, 'Ike Le'a, as state Sen. J. Kalani English introduced Thomas "Tommy" Remengesau, president of the Republic of Palau.
Following a welcome speech by Mayor Alan Arakawa emphasizing the importance of restoring Maui's natural environment, President Remengesau addressed the packed house about the "Micronesia Challenge," a Palauan-led initiative implemented in 2005 to restore, protect--and yes, profit from--their unique island ecosystems.
Like many island-based peoples, sustainability is an integral part of traditional Palauan culture. An ancient legend tells of a woman who gave birth to a son who had an insatiable appetite. Feeding him soon became a full-time job for the islanders. But the more they fed him, the more the boy demanded. The island's inhabitants came to realize they must rid themselves of this glutton if they were to survive.
Palau President Thomas “Tommy” Remengesau shared a remarkable legend about the creation of the country’s many islands--a parable for sustainability.
So one night after the boy had finished gorging himself, the islanders set fire to the house where he slept. As fire scorched his bloated body, it exploded, scattering parts far and wide, and forming the island chain. The islanders quickly settled these newly formed lands, believing that it was now the boy's turn to provide sustenance for them.
Geographically part of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau is comprised of 16 states comprised of 250 islands boasting a wide range of biodiversity. Occupied by Japan in 1914, the U.S. took the region by force in 1944. Palau gained its sovereignty from the U.S. in 1994, and since obtaining independence, the Palauan government has been actively reinstating a range of traditional resource management practices with great success.
The Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, along with the U.S. territories of Guam and Northern Marian Islands, joined the Republic of Palau in the Micronesia Challenge calling for the conservation of 30 percent of the near-shore waters and 20 percent of terrestrial resources by 2020. In doing so, they will protect 66 threatened species and 10 percent of the world's reef system, including 462 coral species.
Known as an unparalleled paradise for diving and snorkeling enthusiasts, Palau's ancient reef system near-shore and offshore fisheries were exploited over the years by foreign interests. As President Remengesau explained, one of the worst things that happened to Micronesia was the introduction of the icebox. With new refrigeration techniques, offshore pelagic fish, such as the yellow fin tuna, were overexploited and other near-shore and coastal species, such as groupers and giant clams, were also overharvested. For nearly 100 years, their precious natural and cultural resources were depleted and the wealth of Palau was extracted for the benefit of foreign interests.
By employing effective, traditional resource management systems of the past, the peoples of Palau are restoring the health of their ecosystem. President Remengesau said the types of resource management strategies are as varied as the ecosystems in which they are employed--stressing there was no one-size-fits-all quick environmental fix and that patience is required.
Traditional resource management practices, such as not taking grouper during their spawning season, have been reinstated with great success.
The Republic of Palau continues to lead by example; by enforcing size regulations on tuna and other pelagic species, they are being good neighbors, leaving juvenile fish to mature, thereby increasing the stock for the benefit of all.
When it came time to talk about tourism, President Remengesau made it clear that Palau didn't want to follow in the footsteps of "Taiwan, Guam and Hawai'i." He spoke to the importance of quality over quantity when it comes to eco-tourism, resorts and foreign investment.
And when it comes to outside development, the president is very selective--it's "five-star resorts only." Because their environment is their economy, by being exclusive and reducing the supply, they increase demand, which drives prices upward.
The president was joined on stage for a brief question-and-answer session by several of his ministers--all male. When an audience member asked why a matriarchal society would send all male emissaries, the president quipped, "It's not the messenger who's important; it's who's sending the message," indicating the power and high status of women in Palauan society.
The president and his cabinet also discussed the importance of increasing other forms of aquaculture, such as the mass culture or "farming" giant clams that began in Palau at the Micronesian Mariculture Demonstration Center in the 1970s and continues to this day.
President Remengesau was emphatic as to his mission, at one point stating his goals were, "Sustainability, sustainability, sustainability!"
The forum was emceed by former Maui County Council Member Sol Kaho'ohalahala. Following the president's address was a dinner featuring local delicacies for the Palauan dignitaries at the Hawaiian Canoe Club's Kahului canoe hale.
The take away message from the evening: Take care of "the boy" (the 'aina), and the boy will explode with a bounty to sustain us all.