COMMUNITY VALUED IN PACIFIC CONSERVATION, PALAU MEETING HEARS

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By Scott Radway

KOROR, Palau (June 28, 2002 - Pacific Daily News)---Simpson Abraham remembers bringing a new land-use plan to the people of Kosrae at a community meeting, and how his own uncle told him the plan was no good.

"My uncle stood up in the back ... and said, 'To hell with that report. I will never, never support it,'" said Abraham, director of the Kosrae Resource Management Program.

"He thought we were taking over rights to his land."

Abraham told that story yesterday at a workshop at the annual Pacific Islands Environmental Conference.

The people of Kosrae -- an island state in the Federated States of Micronesia -- rejected the land-use plan because no one had consulted them, he said. Officials just showed up one day with the finished copy of the plan, he said.

Abraham was part of a panel of regional leaders who discussed the need to engage the community if any environmental program is going to work.

Pacific islanders, especially in more traditional areas, do not respond to outsiders dictating what should be done with their land and reefs.

There is a great strength in working through traditional leaders and employing traditional practices that have successfully maintained the environment for thousands of years, said Noah Idechong, a Palauan delegate.

Idechong said many Palauans were dispirited in the 1980s because fish stocks were being severely harmed by poor fishing practices.

Idechong turned to grass-roots leaders and worked with village chiefs to temporarily ban fishing in certain areas, as was often done long ago to preserve resources.

That action later led states to establish official marine protection areas and Idechong is now working at a national level to establish a united system of preserves.

Idechong, who has won several prestigious national awards for his work, said that by building from the village up, the effort was successful.

If the national government had decreed marine preserves from the beginning, villagers would never have enforced them.

Alan Freidlander, from the Oceans Institute in Hawai‘i, said the state has had greater success protecting coral reefs and fish stocks in areas where traditional culture survived.

Traditionally, people have had a stronger connection with the land and sea.

Freidlander cited the loss of culture in Hawai‘i as a reason for reef degradation.

Guam officials, too, said fighting coral reef degradation has been harder because of a dilution of traditions here and the loss of a strong connection to the environment.

But Willy Kostka, executive director of the Conservation Society of Pohnpei in the FSM, said that while traditional culture is a great strength, balancing village input with government designs is a great challenge.

"If you deal with the community too much, the government gets jealous. And if you deal with the government too much, the community gets jealous," Kostka said. "It's a balancing act."

Kostka said he tells his staff never to forget that if each side doesn't support a goal, the plan will fail.

Political will is as important as community support, he said.

"It has to be the dream of everyone," Kostka said.

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

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