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By Scott Radway

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (January 212, 2002 - Pacific Daily News/PINA Nius Online)---Yap environmentalist Margie Cushing Falanruw has a dream.

Falanruw believes that Yap State can master its traditional methods of farming and fishing to produce enough for its people and an export economy -- and still maintain its natural resources.

That way, the director of the Yap Institute of Natural Science said, the island will avoid many of the pitfalls of westernization and over-development -- like some of the ones that have riddled neighboring Guam.

What works on continents hasn't worked on small islands, said Falanruw, a resident of arguably the most traditional islands in Micronesia.

Yap's work might even start a worldwide trend of countries rethinking how they employ their portions of the earth, she added.

Already in environmental circles, sustainable resources are becoming buzzwords.

"I've got a big vision," said Falanruw, smiling at the entirety of it. "The whole world needs to learn how to live sustainable lifestyles and perhaps the best places to develop models of sustainable lifestyles are small islands."

But recent interviews on Yap revealed that it's much more than just a dream. The wheels are turning as both environmentalists and community leaders want to head in that direction.

The dream even has a name. It's called the Pacific Alternative and was in part born out of concerns in 1999 about how the island would develop its economy in the face of decreasing financial aid from the United States.

Yap State officials, who represent more than 10,000 people, walked away from a 1999 Micronesian conference on that issue with a mission, said Charles Chieng. He is one of Yap proper's 10 village chiefs.

Chieng said Yapese leaders and Micronesian leaders were resolved to protect the environment and hold on to their traditions -- many of which are fading in today's world. Yap officials even launched an environmental stewardship consortium, he said.

"We felt if we did not intervene now, we could lose much more than we realize," Chieng said.

* Building On A Base

First the rain is absorbed by the coconut trees.

Then the rainwater runs down into the taro patches where it is drawn up by the leafy plant. After that, some water also is sucked up and filtered by the mangrove trees.

One after another the natural vegetation on Yap helps prevent erosion so when it hits the coral reef -- an invaluable home for sea life -- it is free of sediment and does not kill the sensitive coral and in turn the sea life.

That harmony has existed for thousands and thousands of years.

"I call it a tree-garden, taro-patch system," said Falanruw, pointing across the bay in Yap.

In Yap's younger days, people learned to enhance that system by removing soil from the taro patches, which grow in swamp-like conditions, and adding soil to the more inland coconut trees, Falanruw said.

During those same days, the Yapese learned to take food from the coconut trees and taro patches. And to find medicines from that same forest as well as tools.

"It looks like a forest and functions like a forest, but it is a supermarket, hardware store and a pharmacy," Falanruw said, gesturing again across the bay.

But when the western world became more and more involved in island affairs in the last 50 years, portions of those forests were plowed and row crops planted. And those projects failed, degrading the soil and hurting the reefs by failing to properly filter the soil, she said.

"For 50 years or more we have had attempts at western-type agriculture, and when that failed it was blamed on the people," Falanruw said. "People did not blame the system."

Now people are questioning the system, she said, and looking to the effective methods they used over thousands of years. The hard lesson learned is that island environments are not like continents where a land project in the Midwest has little effect on the California coastline.

Guam, which is struggling to keep its reefs healthy, has first-hand knowledge of how western development has hurt the environment during the building boom in the 1990s.

Bob Richmond, a marine biology professor at the University of Guam and a member of a regional environmental consortium, said there are too many cases of Westerners coming in with "bigger and better" methods for development and devastating the environment.

"It is really just disheartening to see people come out here with little understanding of the ecosystems or cultures and tell people what should be done," Richmond said.

But Falanruw said that doesn't mean that the island should not use some western ideas.

"In 4,000 years of a lot of people living on a small island, they must have learned a lot about how to manage resources," Falanruw said. "We'd like to build from that base."

* Living In Two Worlds

The Yapese want some western advancements such as modern health care, and they want their children abreast of all the latest technology.

At the same time, Chieng said, leaders want to maintain a simpler life full of the old traditions, especially as Western culture further entrenches itself in Micronesia.

That presents a dilemma: How do you maintain traditional methods and produce enough for export to keep pace in the modern world? Western farming and fishing are aimed at high yield, but traditional methods are aimed only at sustaining the population.

"It's not easy to live in both worlds," admitted Falanruw.

Betel nut, which produces a mild narcotic effect when chewed, is a traditional crop where the island has found some success in walking in both worlds, Falanruw said. The tree is native, environmentally safe, and can yield a crop large enough to export.

"Betel nut is proof that it can work," Falanruw said, adding that more work needs to be done on finding environmentally friendly commerce.

Chieng said his favorite poster is one put out by the education department. The poster says it all, he said.

"It's a boy dressed in traditional Yapese attire sitting in front of a computer keyboard," he said.

*A Race Against Time

But as Yap turns to its long past, it faces a formidable challenge in the near future: Yap traditions are fading because only the elders now truly remember them.

There are no history books.

"The books are the minds of the old people," Falanruw said. "We have to move on it very fast. These are things that archeologists are studying in other areas and we have live people doing it here."

And those elders are dying, Falanruw added.

For those reasons, there is a movement on Yap to document all of the traditional practices. People such as Falanruw are going out into the community to record how things were and are done so the island can use them in the future.

At the same time, community outreach programs have begun to teach people some of the better practices used in the past that have faded from use, Falanruw said. Yap leaders want to have videos and workshops.

Yam farming is a good example of what the island is attempting to do, Falanruw said.

For many years, the Yapese killed trees by cutting deep rings around their torsos and then growing yam vine on the leafless skeletons.

Falanruw said the problem is that once the tree is dead it no longer absorbs water and eventually foils the tree-garden taro patch system. Then everything from the reef to taro patch can suffer.

But at some point in Yap's history, people faced with a deforested island started growing the yams on teepee-like structures and the forest grew healthy again.

"So now, under a community forestry program, we are helping communities return to this practice," Falanruw said.

* The Bottom Line

But there is another, possibly more ominous clock ticking on the Pacific Alternative initiative: Aid from the United States is decreasing.

Starting in 1986, the United States signed treaties with the Federated States of Micronesia -- which includes Yap -- to provide financial aid to those nations to help them attain economic self-sufficiency. A similar treaty exists with the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

But the amount of aid is expected to soon drop as the formula is reworked, Falanruw said, and Yap and other islands that receive similar aid will be at a crossroads.

Yap will have to decide whether to turn to methods to quickly yield income to replace the loss of aid, Falanruw said, or take the long, hard road and develop traditional methods to yield exportable goods.

"If we think in the short term, we will destroy the island's ability to provide sustainable resources," Falanruw said.

Some ways that would be done are plowing fields, or maybe exporting reef fish, Falanruw said. People love reef fish and Yap has a lot of them.

But in no time at all, the reef would be greatly degraded.

"We have some tough decisions ahead of us," Falanruw said.

A Yapese calendar Falanruw put out in 2000, after the conference, stated that while the future was uncertain, a course must be charted or the island might end up where it doesn't want to be.

"While we don't have all the answers, we propose a direction," said the calendar. And a dream.

For additional reports from the Pacific Daily News, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Pacific Daily News (Guam).

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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