Palau is a scattering of tiny islands in the Western Pacific, swathed in the brilliant turquoise water that signals coral reefs just below the surface.
All together, Palau’s islands cover just 170 square miles and its population is only 20,000. But Palau is leading the world in coral reef and island conservation efforts.
In 2005, then President Tommy Remengesau, Jr. committed his nation to preserving an astounding 30 percent of their near-shore marine resources and 20 percent of their terrestrial resources by 2020.
With The Nature Conservancy’s help, Remengesau launched the Micronesia Challenge in 2006, inspiring neighboring countries to match Palau’s bold conservation commitment.
Now, the ripple effects of this precedent-setting campaign are being felt halfway around the world, where there is movement from the Conservancy and several governments to launch a similar challenge in the Caribbean.
“For Palau, the environment is our economy,” says Remengesau. "Our people rely on the food and income the reefs provide — and coming generations will, too.”
Remengesau understands that Micronesia’s coral reefs are part of a massive interconnected system that weaves throughout the Western Pacific. And other Micronesian governments agree. The Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, U.S. Territory of Guam and the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands all signed on to the Micronesia Challenge.
“On our small planet, the actions of one affect all, and if islands fail to stand together to protect our natural resources and cultural pasts, we will have no future,” he explains.
Through the five participating governments, the Micronesia Challenge covers 6.7 million square kilometers of ocean, an area the size of the continental United States — including some of the most legendary dive sites in the world. It will help protect 483 coral species — that's 61 percent of all known corals.
“The Challenge builds on more than a decade of the Conservancy’s work with partners in Micronesia,” explains Bill Raynor, director of the Conservancy’s Micronesia Program. “It takes our early achievements to a large enough scale to ensure sustainability and it’s bringing many partners together. Most importantly, it mobilizes resources for people and nature.”
The Micronesia Challenge requires reliable long-term funding as well. Each jurisdiction is developing a financial sustainability plan that will include new local sources of sustained support, such as tourism and development fees.
In Palau, for example, recent legislation imposes a visitor’s fee that, combined with income from a proposed trust fund established through public and private donations, will provide complete funding for the management of Palau’s expanding protected area system.
The Nature Conservancy joined with Conservation International to kick off the Micronesia Challenge with a joint grant of $6 million. The islands then leveraged that funding to secure a matching grant from the multinational funding agency, the Global Environmental Facility. Together, they are engaging other international funders — agencies, organizations and governments — to fill the gaps.
For the Micronesia Challenge countries, the commitment to conserve a large percentage of their natural resources was a big step. But it was just the first step.
The Challenge calls for a network of effectively managed protected areas linked across the region.
The Conservancy and our partners are helping the island nations identify the most biologically rich and sensitive places to set aside as protected areas. We are also assisting in the development of management plans and training local land stewards to monitor and protect the health of protected areas. All countries have made tangible progress over the past year.
Palau's Ngardok Nature Reserve, which protects Micronesia’s largest freshwater lake, was the first site to be officially included in Palau’s protected area network — ensuring that the reserve will have access to technical assistance and sustainable financing. More new protected areas have since been added to the network.
“We have worked together — as five leaders who love our islands — to lay the foundation for a partnership that will serve our people forever,” says Remengesau.
In addition to the Micronesia Challenge, Remengesau's presidency had an impressive track record of protecting nature for the well-being of his own people and the world. He signed a total ban on shark finning, deep-sea bottom trawling and the live reef fish trade in Palau. He also established a dedicated Ministry for Natural Resources, Environment and Tourism, and signed the Protected Area Network Act, legislation that ensures long term financial sustainability of the network.
“President Remengesau’s vision not only brought the leaders of Micronesia together, but he kindled a global movement to conserve reefs and islands,” says Raynor. “His vision led to the Global Island Partnership and similar commitments in the Caribbean and the Coral Triangle. He is a truly inspirational leader.”