AWAK, Pohnpei - Leading environmental representatives from the Republic of Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam came together to discuss and strategize on how best to organize local and regional efforts to save some of the most biologically rich ecosystems left on the planet.
The group known throughout the region as Micronesians in Island Conservation (MIC) have now met for the sixth time in the last three years, slowly building regional goals and ties across an area of the world - despite its vast size and separation by the ocean and many different island cultures - that is quickly being realized as one of the last and largest refuges of healthy fisheries, tropical forests and coral reefs.
The leaders - directors of most of the leading government and NGO environmental organizations in Micronesia - are aligned to work collectively across the region on a number of fronts, including financing mechanisms for environmental preservation, and sharing experiences from their respective programs.
New Zealand Ambassador John Goodman, joining the group for a day on his tour through the islands, appeared to be impressed with collective efforts regionally to thwart the growing pressures of globalization on the cultures and ecosystems of island communities in Micronesia.
"It was very striking how keen and committed people are," stated the Ambassador, whose country has been a big supporter of the MIC network through its NZ-AID program. "There are projects on the ground and these seem to be first rate. And the good thinking on priorities. It's one thing to have plans in place, and quite another to implement them and get them done."
The premise and reality of community led conservation efforts is at the forefront of the environmental movement in Micronesia today. Communities, it is presumed, must be informed and actively involved in the planning, implementation, management and monitoring of areas of biological significance that are used for sustenance purposes.
The Utwe Biosphere Reserve project in Kosrae, the Enipein Locally Managed Marine Area in Pohnpei, the Epinup Community Conservation Area in Chuuk, the Dalipebinau Community Forest Reserve in Yap and particularly the Helen Reef Project in Palau are some of the leading examples of successful community led conservation programs in the region.
The remote Helen Reef, "the reef of the giant clam," is the traditional fishing grounds of the southern most island in Palau's territorial waters, Hatohobei Atoll, and contains some of the richest marine biodiversity on the planet.
Hatohobei and Helen Reef sit closer to Indonesia than they do to Koror, the capital of Palau some 600 kilometers to the north. The people of Hatohobei have been protecting the 262 square kilometer Helen Reef as a conservation area over the last three years, stopping both local and foreign harvesting of resources for commercial purposes.
Dealing with increasingly bold and desperate foreign poachers from the neighboring nations of the Philippines, Indonesia and China has been a major thrust of the Helen Reef Project. Six community conservation officers monitor and patrol the area in shifts throughout the year.
The Community people," said Wayne Andrew, Helen Reef Project Coordinator in a presentation to the MIC leaders, "without them all of this would have been very difficult." "They felt we could not gain control over Helen Reef. They felt it was impossible. We did not know what to do. But we have proven that it is doable - for community people to sustainably manage, monitor and enforce the preservation of their resources," added Andrew.
"It's the center of the universe," said Andrew, on Helen Reef and its immense marine biodiversity. "We can't miss out on the chance to save this." Across the Caroline Islands of the Western Pacific challenges remain.In Yap, exactly one year after Typhoon Sudal ripped across the western-most group of islands of the FSM, the native watershed forests and the eastern reefs and mangroves are still recovering. "Somewhere along the line," said Margie Falanruw of the US Forest Service and founder of the NGO, Yap Institute of Natural Science, "we have to figure out what we want to do collectively and get the government involved" in conservation efforts.
The lauded Environmental Stewardship Consortium in Yap - a grouping of traditional, community, environmental, NGO and government leaders - has also been somewhat fractured since the typhoon. In Chuuk, it was reported by Mary Rose Nakayama, Chuuk RARE program Coordinator who is leading the first community conservation project in Chuuk in the isolated village of Epinup, that grouper aggregation sites are still being abused during essential spawning times throughout the year.
One boat was seen hauling in over 200 giant grouper in March - the primary spawning time for the species. The Chuuk lagoon and barrier reef passes hold some of the largest grouper spawning sites in Micronesia. In Kosrae, Madison Nena, Chairperson for Kosrae Conservation and Safety Organization, admitted that road development on the island remained at the top of the list in terms of environmental degradation, including a circumferential road that appears headed to move through the Yela Ka Forest, the last of its kind on the island and in the world, as well as a cross-island road that is planned to cut through much of the watershed and valley riparian systems within the interior of the eastern-most high island within the FSM.
In Saipan, reported Erica Cochrane, Chairperson of the newly formed conservation NGO, the Mariana Islands Nature Alliance (MINA), "Biodiversity conservation from the public side" remains minimal, with an overall "lack of interest in conservation issues" within the Marianas Islands.
Pohnpei, according to Conservation of Society Director Willy Kostka, continues to suffer from the clearing of native watershed forests. Although CSP has been gaining ground with many communities and villages to reduce and halt upland forest clearing, Kitti and Nett mostly persist in destructive agricultural practices. (See related story, this issue.)
In Palau, according to Delegate Noah Idechong from Ngiwal State, Babeldaob - home to all 12 of Palau's endemic bird species, freshwater lakes and massive interior rain forests and fringing mangroves - is the primary island of concern in that nation as a result of development pressures from road construction, population movement and foreign development interests.
Both Palau and Pohnpei in the FSM have been working collaboratively on various marine and forest related conservation programs in the last couple of years. "It's a big thing to have communities come forward and state their concerns," said Alma Ridep-Morris, MPA Program Manager at the Palau Bureau of Marine Resources. Ridep-Morris oversees one of the largest and most prolific conservation areas in Micronesia - the Ngaremeduu Conservation Area.
The Ngaremeduu Conservation Area holds 44% of Babeldaob's mangrove cover as well as the largest bay and river in Micronesia, and involve three states on Micronesia's second largest island behind Guam. "We have to continue to support them however and whenever we can," said Ridep-Morris.