Marine Conservation Biology (Palau)

Day 6: From the Taro Patch to the ‘Eco Theme Park’
by -- January 14th, 2014

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Before we left Ollei this morning, we stopped at the village taro patch for one last lecture. Throughout our visit to this small fishing village, our experiences focused on the community’s management of marine resources—from the designation of MPAs to the harvest of sea cucumbers. But as we’ve been reminded multiple times during our time here, in Palau the land is tied to the sea; while the sea and its fish is largely the domain of the men, the land, and specifically the taro patch, is domain of the women.

We sauntered off the main road in the village into a low-lying clearing, mostly absent from the shade offered by the tall palm trees. Here in this wetland patchwork of taro plots, our host, Ann, described to us the significance of taro cultivation to women of the village.  A dense and starchy staple of Palauan diets, taro requires continuous labor and care to plant and harvest properly. As Ann explained to us, the maintenance of the taro patch is an inherited responsibility of women in the village, each having ties to particular plots through family lineage. Although they tend to separate plots, the women find solidarity in the taro patch where they share traditional herbal medicines, offer relationship advice, and provide labor support for women with circumstantial needs.

The patch’s irrigation system, which is fed by a small stream, also requires cooperation. Women with upstream plots could sabotage those downstream by diverting the flow of water, while women with downstream plots could block the flow of water to flood the entire patch, causing siltation and saturation to destroy the crop. In addition to taro, harmony is cultivated in the taro patch; here, all women are considered equal, regardless of age or bloodline. This sense of peace permeates into family and village relations, which fortifies the role of women as the glue holding the village together. While much of our time in Palau has centered on things in the water, for me this lesson reinforced the duality of land and sea; that communities cannot survive on fish alone.

After saying goodbye to our gracious weekend hostesses, we headed to Palau’s foremost ‘eco theme park’ in the state of Ngardmau. A treacherous hike down steep steps and a slick rock face adjacent to a rushing river led us to a magnificent waterfall. The waterfall, a cultural heritage site of Palau, is reason enough to visit the conservation area. Recently, however, the area has been opened to tourism development by a Korean company that operates an adventure-based ‘eco theme park’, complete with a zipline and jungle ‘monorail’ (imagine the exact opposite of Disney World’s monorail).

Whether these attractions enhance the conservation area is up for debate. While Ngardmau state collects $10 from all visitors who enter the conservation area, tourists can choose to spend an additional $80 to zip to the waterfall from above the trees or $30 to ride the monorail to and from the waterfall. In addition to generating capital from Palau’s natural endowment, the Korean company has left its cultural footprint on this Palauan heritage site. On the deck overlooking the waterfall, placards tell the story of “The Love of the Two One-eyed Fish” – a Korean folklore that has nothing to do with Palauan culture. This “ecotourism” experience made me think that, with appropriate permission and permitting, any outsider can obscure the cultural significance of an area, and even at a profit; that “ecotourism” can be manifested in a number of ways along spectrums of ecological and social sustainability.

All in all, today we saw two extremes of ecological and social development in Palau. From the modest, traditional taro patch to the publicized, foreign ecotourism venture, we peered into Palau’s historical past and potential future in the span of a few hours. This dichotomy leaves me both hopeful and concerned for the future of Palau. My hope emanates from witnessing the continued reliance on traditional practices for subsistence in an increasingly developed environment. And although the eco park may present employment opportunities for Palauans, my concern stems from observing the power of money in cultural and environmental erosion behind the guise of ecotourism. But based on the people we have met in our time here, I remain hopeful that the future of Palau and its cultural and environmental protection are in capable hands.

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