On Sunday morning, we all woke up bright and early to begin our journey to Ngarchelong State for a stay with the Ollei community. I have to admit that I was somewhat apprehensive about this trip, as I simply didn’t really know what to expect – where would we be sleeping, who would we be talking with, and, mainly, would it be awkward for a group of American students to descend upon a small community and ask them to share their understanding and knowledge of their marine environment. After an amazing two-day stay (which Annie will further discuss), I have to say that my fears were completely unfounded (though the two nights sleeping on a tile floor were a minor drawback).
I could probably talk for hours about all that we were lucky enough to learn and do during our stay in Ngarchelong, but rather than making you all read a novel, I will try to provide a more concise overview. We arrived at the Ollei bai (like a community center) by mid-morning, and met with members of the community in a shaded, open-air meeting building down by the water. We were warmly welcomed by the village chief and members of the Ebiil Conservation Society before being treated to several lectures on marine resources related issues from fishers and community members. In particular, we heard from Saiky Shiro about the important fisheries and fishing practices in the community, beginning at the coastal mangrove areas and extending through the coral reef areas and to the open sea. Tino Kloulechad built on this lecture by describing the aggregation and spawning phenomena of various reef fish and the role these play in community fishing practices. Lastly, Anne Mary Shiro discussed women’s fishing issues, describing the importance of sea cucumber and clam gleaning practices to the Ollei society. All three were more than willing to answer our many questions regarding their traditional practices, conservation efforts, and challenges facing the community, and all spoke with a passion and elegance that was inspiring.
The real fun began after lunch when we were handed spears (yes, spears) to catch fish that would become our dinner that evening. Two young men took us out into the mangrove area where nets had been set up to trap fish along the mangrove edge as the tide went out. They explained to us that this method of fishing is only used when bad weather prevents them from travelling out onto the reef to fish with a hook and line. After some shockingly poor aim on our part, we were eventually able to gather enough fish that we wouldn’t go hungry that night. Anne Mary then took us to a different part of the lagoon and helped us gather sea cucumbers from the seagrass beds and sand flats. She showed us the several different species, taught us to squeeze the innards out of the sea cucumber (highly amusing), and explained that the gleaning practices were just as important for food resources as they are for giving the women a chance to talk and relax amongst each other. She then took us to a small beach where, like children in a sandbox, we dug through the sand in search of small clams that would be added to a soup with taro leaves and served alongside our fish dinner. Afterwards, we made our way back to the bai, showered, and prepared the food we had just gathered for a delicious feast. It was, quite possibly, one of the freshest meals I have ever had, and it was remarkably satisfying to make a dinner completely from ingredients we had gathered ourselves! Our day ended under the stars as we learned from Sesario about traditional navigation practices and the importance of being able to use the stars even in the age of GPS and smartphones.
Throughout the day, I was struck by the intersection between local or traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. These different types of knowledge and the role each plays in various conservation efforts (from community based natural resource management to national initiatives to projects led by large international NGOs) has been an important topic in our class and in the readings we all did before travelling to Palau, so it was very interesting to see firsthand how these play out. In particular, our readings discuss the assumption (true or not) that these types of knowledge are often at odds with each other. However, in the case of the Ollei community, I was interested to see how traditional fishing practices, local knowledge of the coastal habitat and fish populations, and our more traditionally conceived notion of “western” science all operate together to inform and assist conservation efforts undertaken by the Ebiil Society. From generations of knowledge about the fishery to more recent efforts to monitor and record data on the size and types of fish caught, I can easily see how both local knowledge and scientific knowledge can play a role in conservation efforts.
Overall, I found our experience in Ngarchelong to be incredibly thought provoking and exciting. I know that we all feel truly lucky to have had the opportunity to learn from a group of people that are, at once, entirely different from us and yet devoted to the same coastal resource management issues that we, as students in coastal environmental management, are passionate about. Perhaps more importantly, I think that we are all lucky to have met such a generous group of people who chose to spend hours teaching us about their culture. I am reminded of the response that Sesario, the master navigator, gave when asked about his favorite thing about sailing: he spoke not about the new sights or the thrill of the adventure, but rather about the opportunities to meet new communities and experience the warmth of complete strangers. This sentiment could not have been more true about our trip.