This year is a critical one for our planet—it is the year we, as a global community, will collectively agree on a post-2015 development agenda and adopt a set of Sustainable Development Goals in efforts to ensure a future for our children. It is also the year the world will agree on an ambitious and durable global regime to address the issues of climate change and help put the world on a path towards a low-carbon economy. It is with great honour that I offer our vision of “the future we want” on behalf of the traditional leaders and the people of the Republic of Palau and fellow islanders. It is in our best interest, not only as islanders but as a human community, to do absolutely everything we can to create the future we want for our children and their children.
I believe this as a citizen of this planet. After all, I am really just a fisherman trying to protect his corner of the Pacific Ocean for his family and his country—no different from what my forebears have done for thousands of years. Our people have always understood that we are stewards of our rich and beautiful natural environment, and that Palau’s past, present and future are inextricably tied to the health of our natural resources, particularly the ocean.
Our traditions and culture date back many generations to when our ancestors first voyaged across the vast Pacific to settle these far-flung islands some 3,000 years ago. The foundation of our culture is respect, not just for one another, but for nature as well. Without respect for our Mother Earth, we would have never survived the journey—and the same holds true today. It is with this value of respect that our local traditional chiefs, without any institutional knowledge of the science we have today, developed conservation practices that have led our people to live in harmony with the environment. This is the heart of our culture, as depicted in the Palauan flag: a full yellow moon against a deep blue ocean. The combination of the moon and the ocean is a metaphor for nature’s balance and harmony.
When resources were under threat, the chiefs declared a “Bul”—what today we refer to as conservation moratorium. Reefs would be deemed off limits during spawning and feeding periods, or when fish stocks had become depleted, so that the ecosystem could replenish itself and marine life would remain abundant and in equilibrium. The customary rules in Palau are simple: think about tomorrow; take what you need from the environment and no more. A decade ago, when Palauans recognized that industrial commercial overfishing and rapid development were threatening the sustainability of our fragile marine ecosystems, we did not hesitate to act. In 2003, through extensive dialogue between government and community stakeholders, we passed the Protected Areas Network (PAN) Act, which set up a framework for a national system of protected areas. This collaborative conservation approach was necessary to ensure that local communities benefit directly from this national legislation.
In 2006 I issued a call to the Pacific Region—known as the Micronesia Challenge—to protect at least 30 per cent of their coastal waters and 20 per cent of their terrestrial resources to give biodiversity a safe haven. When we saw that sharks, which are key to a healthy marine ecosystem were being hunted to extinction, we established the first shark sanctuary in the world and were followed by many other nations.
More recently, we have come to understand the devastating impact that large-scale industrial commercial fishing has had on our ocean, and we have responded by proposing the Palau National Marine Sanctuary. With the passage of Sanctuary Law, Palau will effectively end all industrial foreign commercial fishing in 80 per cent of our Exclusive Economic Zone and create a domestic fishing zone in the remainder to meet local and tourism needs. We are doing this to allow our battered fish stocks to recover and to enhance our own ecotourism economy.
The goal of our latest and largest conservation effort is to help restore the balance between humans and nature. It is preserving the best of our environment and helping to restore the rest.
The national policies that we pursue today—the PAN Act, the Micronesia Challenge, the Shark Sanctuary and the Palau National Marine Sanctuary—are simply modern versions of our traditional conservation practices, the “Bul”. The work we do nationally will need to be amplified and augmented by work at the international level to make a difference. The unified nature of the ocean—and the importance of it being healthy, productive and resilient—is a key reason why Palau and the Pacific small island developing states (SIDS) advocated a stand-alone goal on oceans in the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals and a robust oceans component to the SAMOA pathway, approved at last years international conference on SIDS.
As a group, the Pacific has called on the international community to recognize the central role of oceans and seas in supporting food, jobs, health, and culture. We have similarly advocated for the means of implementation necessary to ensure that we can achieve our ideals: combating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing; halting ocean acidification; addressing marine pollution; ensuring coastal management; supporting the creation of marine protected areas; building the right infrastructure for responsible tourism; ensuring sustainable fisheries; and recognizing special requirements and aspirations of developing states, particularly SIDS, and the least developed among them.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) proved that we can make historic gains by marshalling resources around a common cause and bringing stakeholders—governments, NGOs, the private sector, and local communities—together. Even the most cynical among us must marvel at the millions that were educated, vaccinated, and raised out of poverty as a result of the MDGs. The same success is needed for oceans.
Investment in sustainable ecotourism, domestic fisheries, marine resource management, data collection, monitoring and enforcement and surveillance of our waters can make a generational, transformative impact. These objectives—environmental health, food security, and economic prosperity—are the very essence of our sustainable development and the foundation of the future we want for ourselves and to ensure our children’s future.
This article was first published (March 2015) on OurPlanet, the official website of the United Nations Environment Programme – http://188.8.131.52/ourplanet/
Photo: Ben Bohane / wakaphotos.com. Palau patrol boats are enforcing the ban on commercial fishing in Palau waters.