Day 10 (16 January 2014, AM edition): Identity and Conservation

Today we met Umai Basiliaus, who works in the Policy Planning program of the Palau Conservation Society (PCS).  While Umai’s formal presentation gave a great overview of the organization and its objectives, she shared invaluable insights with us during the question and answer session—what it means to be Palauan, how integral identity and belonging are to Palauan culture, and ultimately, how conservation in Palau relates to this sense of self.

View from PCS office
View from PCS office

One can only be Palauan by blood—not by marriage or application, but by birth.  Palauans, Umai told us, have multiple layers of identity and a strong sense of belonging, all of them inextricably related to kinship and, by extension, to place.  Palauans’ core level of identity comes from their clan, then their village, then their state, and then finally, from the Republic of Palau.

This intricate level of identity and strong sense of belonging is somewhat foreign to many Westerners, or at least, to me.  I was born in a small town called El Dorado (no gold there, unfortunately, unless you count black gold) but I never actually lived there—it was just the town that had the closest hospital to Magnolia, Arkansas, where my parents lived at the time.  A few years after I was born, my family moved to Pine Bluff, and then to Conway, where my parents still live.   If someone were to ask me where I was from, I would probably answer that I’m from North Carolina (because that’s where I live at the moment), but then follow up to say I’m originally from Conway, Arkansas.  I might even tell you that I spent my college years up fraternizing with Yankees up in Connecticut.  So who knows where I’m from, really—from nowhere or from all over the place, depending if you’re a glass half-empty/half-full kind of person.

In Palau, you are from the village/state to which your parents belong.  It doesn’t matter if you move to a different state in Palau or even to a different country—you belong to your parents’ community.  Along with this sense of belonging comes certain rights and responsibilities.  For example, if you have kinship ties to a particular community, then you have the exclusive right to fish in the waters of that community and to actively participate in the decision-making processes in that community.  Members of the community also have certain responsibilities—duties that relate to maintaining and reinforcing kinship ties.  If you are a Palauan man, that means providing fish and if you are a Palauan woman, it means providing taro.  The land and the sea, in addition to the resources they provide, are critical to the integrity of Palauan culture.

This tight-knit sense of belonging can pose some challenges in conservation, at least from this environmental NGO’s perspective.  For example, Umai told us about a time she was running a meeting to discuss the creation of a marine protected area in Koror state’s waters.  However, because she is not from Koror, it was not culturally acceptable for her to participate in the decision-making, so she had to work with someone who was actually from Koror to facilitate the discussions.

Some Palauans fear that as Western influences increase from the influx of tourists and from the practice of Palauans moving to the U.S. to attend college, certain cultural practices and traditions will fade.  In response to this fear, Umai quite passionately and eloquently conveyed to us that while the concept of what it means to be Palaun is changing, the of concept of belonging to a community and being part of a clan—of never being alone—remains, resilient and steadfast.

Conservation, which Umai defined as “the responsible use of resources,” is embedded within traditional Palauan culture.  For example, Palauan culture implicitly requires healthy reefs so that the men can provide fish, which are critical not only for dietary but also ceremonial needs.  Traditional governance systems recognize(d) the necessity of conservation by enacting buls (a ban) on harvesting threatened resources.

As the tourism and commercial fishing industries in Palau continue to grow, so too has the pressure on its natural resources.  The founders of PCS created the NGO in response to these increasing pressures, in order to protect the Palauan environment and with it, the Palauan culture.  With savvy people working for it, people who recognize the inextricable link between conservation and culture in Palau, people like Umai, I think the organization stands a pretty good chance of achieving its founders’ objectives.