Palau, Polestar for the Pacific

Jan 21, 2016

On a grassy hillside in Ngarchelong on Babeldaob island stand 37 ancient monoliths. Many of them have carved faces, and the largest weighs five tons. Their origins are mysterious but could date back to 100 AD.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

  Ecologists and divers are the first to wax poetic about Palau, recognized as one of the richest underwater dive spots in the world.  Palau’s reefs are at the crossroads of three of the planet's major currents and the nutrient-dense water helps create the most bio-diverse region in the world, here in the Pacific.  In this final segment of a series on Palau, HPR’s Noe Tanigawa takes a look at the future.

“Palau is my Disneyland.  I don’t know of anyplace that has more abundant life,” says Senator Glenn Wakai, Palau’s Honorary Consul to Hawai‘i.  Palau is home to many truly pristine forests and its ocean life has made it a must for serious divers.  At the celebrated Blue Corner, divers latch to a reef hook and drift as giant schools of snappers, jacks, barracuda and triggerfish sail by.  Sharks, hammerheads, tuna, sailfish, whales all await the scuba diver.  My terrestrial life is shaken, having snorkeled alongside manta rays, and green and hawksbill turtles.

It renders you speechless, really, this experience of nature as abundant, lavish, teeming with intent and ingenuity.  What’s amazing, too, is the farsighted protection Palau’s natural resources are getting.  In 2005 President Tommy Remengesau launched the Micronesian Challenge, to preserve coastal waters and forest lands.  He created the world’s first shark sanctuary in 2009, and a ban on international fishing in Palauan waters has just been enacted.

Senator Wakai says President Remengesau has the right idea, setting an example for the rest of the world by preserving his country’s resources for future generations.   

Palau’s efforts to manage their economy and ecology are ongoing---last year, inundated by a flood of tourists from Hong Kong and Macau, Remengesau cut charter flights from China by 50% in an attempt to control the influx.

Palauan vistas are remarkably similar to those in Hawai'i.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

Senator Wakai has over a decade of experience in the region as head of a non-profit called Reach Out Pacific, which distributes educational and medical supplies to Pacific islands.  He says Palau is more "advanced" than other Micronesian nations in terms of how people conduct themselves and educational attainment. Palauans are widely traveled, he says, and therefore have a good global perspective.  In his view, Palauans straddle two worlds, with both widespread higher education and the equivalent of a master’s degree in culture and survival.

Fiona Walter, born and raised on Palau, came to Hawai‘i for college.  She now works at an escrow company and connects regularly with the other six hundred or so Palauans in Hawai‘i. She says Palauans are raised to know their relationship with every aspect of their world.  Recently, she sent her two children to Palau to live with her mother for a year, and was pleased with what they picked up. 

“Always respect this.  Respect that. This is how you treat this, this is how you do this,” Walter says, somehow, her children blossomed.

Senator Wakai maintains, in his view, Micronesians are Hawai‘i’s civil rights issue of today.  Palauans, he feels can assimilate most easily, and could set an encouraging example for other Micronesians.     

Fiona Walter, born and raised on Palau, came to Hawai'i for college and is still here! But dreams of going back. Here, she holds a handsome storyboard in the shape of a ray, it's one of many mementos in Senator Glenn Wakai's capitol office. He is Palau's Honorary Consul to Hawai'i.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

  Last year, Palau took a leap toward its future, committing to an undersea fiber optic cable.  Legislation has been enacted to limit the expansion of foreign owned or controlled businesses.  Fearing a low birthrate will stifle the economy, officials are considering incentives for larger families.  Along with protecting their natural environment, out migration is a major concern.

Fiona Walter agrees that though Hawai‘i and perhaps the rest of the U.S. are great places to live, Palau is best served by citizens who leave to study then go home to share their knowledge and experience.

Barriers to that?  Walter cites the education system, and healthcare, but economics are a factor. Palau’s minimum wage should reach $3.50 this year, and the average per capita income is 11 thousand dollars. 

A lot of Palauans live in the U.S. because of the money and opportunities they find there, says Masami Andreas, a student at Palau Community College, says Masami Andreas, a student at Palau Community College.  He doesn’t expect he will return after he leaves for a four year university. 

Benigno Sablan, also a PCC student, is one quarter Palauan, raised in Palau.  He has come to love the land, the people and the culture, and says he would most definitely return.

Ah but time slips by—Fiona Walter has been away 18 years already.  Shonda Khoulechad, another PCC student, will be graduating soon.  She says she may go abroad for school but will definitely come back.  She loves Palau too much.

The mangrove crabs are big and sweet, the tuna is fabulous, and these tiny clams were succulent and tender.
Credit Noe Tanigawa

That’s understandable. 

By the way, there are only about 20 thousand Palauans in the world.  You can only be Palauan by descent, there is no naturalization process.

I thank Ambassador Amy Hyatt and the U.S. Art in Embassies Program for providing the impetus for these stories.  I went to Palau as an AIE artist working with middle school kids and community college students.  I also made and delivered a painting for the Ambassador's residence.