Palau: Tiny Country, Big Problems
Over winter break, four members of FES’s International Organizations and Conferences class — Rob Fetter, Mariah Gill, Maria Rojas, and I — had the opportunity to visit Palau. We spent 10 days in country and met with many high-level officials and community members to discuss both Palau’s ocean policy and international ocean conservation. The trip was an overwhelming success. We spoke with 18 leaders, including Palau’s President and four members of the country’s 13-member Senate, and learned much about conservation in Palau, gaining valuable insight into how ocean conservation works at different levels of government. Palau may be a small country, but it is trying to do big things for the ocean.
I was repeatedly astounded by the conservation ethic of the people we met: Palau’s culture and economy both depend upon the oceans, and the importance of marine protection has been internalized by the country’s citizens in a way I had never seen before. However, over the course of our trip, something else caught my attention: There are significant, and unique, challenges to running a tiny country.
Although the World Bank lists Palau’s population at around 21,000, several officials we met with quoted the country’s population as closer to 17,000, and falling, based on a recent country census. About 70 percent of Palau’s population lives in the country’s capital of Koror, leaving roughly 5,000 people to populate Palau’s other fifteen states. To put that number in perspective, Yale’s student and faculty population is over 16,000 (roughly 12,000 students and 4,000 faculty) — and that’s not even counting the additional 5,000 support staff who make the University run. The small size of Palau’s economy and workforce were oft-repeated concerns in our meetings with Palauan officials. Two examples are particularly illustrative of these problems:
First is the case of law enforcement. Most of Palau’s tourism takes place in Koror, making the state government relatively wealthy. In fact, it is not uncommon for the national government to borrow money from Koror. The state’s law enforcement team, the Koror Rangers, are not only responsible for policing Koror’s population, but are also responsible for monitoring Koror’s many marine protected areas and preventing illegal fishing. The Rangers are a source of pride in Palau, and have served as role models for enforcement in other states and the federal government alike. So, how many Rangers are there? Between 20 and 25. The Rangers have seven boats–of which just four are in working condition–and bear primary responsibility for protecting the state’s unique marine resources.
As a second example, Palau is considering a commercial fishing ban. Last March Palau’s President, Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., proposed a plan to close Palau’s entire EEZ to commercial fishing. This bold move seems to have wide support among the country’s officials, with one important caveat. Closing off Palau’s fisheries would cut off an important income source for the country, that of the sale of fishing licenses. The officials we met with seemed open to the possibility of closing off Palau’s waters, but needed assurance that there would be some way of recouping this money each year. The country is exploring a number of ways to obtain this funding, particularly tourism expansion, but there appears to be no consensus or firm plan yet. The amount of money that needs to be recouped each year is $5 million.
These problems are heartbreaking: Not only does Palau have incredible and unique marine resources that are worth protecting, but it has the political willpower and support necessary to take action. Yet Palau is stymied by a lack of finances and resources that, to a larger country, seem miniscule. Palau has received significant aid for conservation from both foreign governments and international nonprofit organizations — but nothing, as of yet, has been sustained or significant enough to overcome these resource problems. In spite of these difficulties, the officials we met showed no sign of becoming discouraged or of giving up: Palau will keep working to protect its marine resources. Palau’s fight is truly inspirational — in spite of its small size, Palau has big visions, lofty goals, and the tenacity to see them through.
- Photo Above: The Yale team meets with Ileb Olkeriil, of the Koror State Government, to discuss conservation in Palau, law enforcement, and the Koror Rangers. From left to right: Rob Fetter, Mariah Gill, Maria Rojas, Ileb Olkeriil, Connie Vogelmann, and Tulik Beck, wife of Ambassador Stuart Beck and the team’s host in Palau. Photo Credit: Mariah Gill.