Margie Cushing Falanruw
describes how Pacific islands – which may be seen as the miner’s canaries of civilization – can offer an alternative model of development to the world

Born of the interaction of atmosphere, sea and sunlight with tiny coral polyps, atolls are distinct little ecosystems defined by a vast ocean. The polyps, each but millimetres thick, together construct the massive reef systems that support small islets just above sea level. They are. however, very sensitive to water temperature and begin to bleach and die when the temperature rises.

Low island coasts are vulnerable to the sea-level rise and storms associated with global warming. In the past, coal miners carried canaries into the coal mines because their sensitivity to poison gases warned of dangerous conditions. Today our small islands may well be the ‘canaries’ of civilization, warning of the dangers of climate change and sea-level rise resulting from impacts on the world environment.

Yet small islands could also contribute Pacific solutions for more sustainable lifestyles that would address the causes of climate change. They are condensed ecosystems where we can hope to understand how they work and how we can live within them without destroying them. This could become the contribution of islanders to the world of the future where the greatest art will be to live sustainably in one’s local ecosystem.

To this end, we are developing a programme promoting the ‘Pacific Alternative’. It starts from basics of ecology – ‘how nature works’ and ecological ‘rules for life’. It progresses to the way people used the resources and natural processes of island ecosystems in the past, then to how things are done today, and finally to how things would be done in a sustainable future drawing on Pacific solutions.

Developing a life-sustaining technology and culture with the limited materials available on small islands is no small achievement. Today new resources from the outside world make life much easier, but they can also result in bigger impacts on island ecosystems: we may often break the ‘rules for life’ and damage the natural system without realizing what we are doing. The island dilemma of development is particularly acute. No one wants to revert to the past but, as our resources are limited, a switch to the world economic system could result in unsustainable exploitation and damage to ecosystems that might make islanders dependent on others. The best way forward may well be a mix of the most adaptive aspects of old and new ways to work with and tap natural systems without disrupting them.

Our programme explores a variety of traditional ‘nature-integrated technologies’ and cultural practices that contribute to the sustainable use of resources. Many traditional techniques represent ingenious adaptations to living with limited resources. For example, the tree-garden taro patch system of the high island of Yap employs landscape architecture to manage water flow and nutrients, providing a way to grow a wide variety of crops in a small area. It provides the ecological services of a forest while serving as a supermarket, hardware store, pharmacy – and a pleasant place to live. A traditional system of taro culture, tended by grandmothers and mothers using just knives and sticks, yields as much per hectare as commercial taro farms using prime manpower, machines and chemical fertilizers. Similarly, a traditional way of growing yams, involving wrapping the vines around pyramidal trellises instead of growing them up sacrificed trees, as is now usual, both reduces deforestation and, a controlled trial demonstrated, produces twice the yield.

We have documented many fishing methods used in different habitats that target a wide variety of species, thus diluting pressure on individual ones. Within Yap’s reefs we have also mapped over 800 ach – large fish weirs in the shape of arrows or Vs which directed fish, using a long rock wall, receding tide or current patterns, into enclosures at their tip. The weirs have openings that allowed fish to swim through until the family that owned them needed to collect fish. The great number and variations of ach configured to suit different conditions suggest that the Yapese of old utilized the lagoon as a giant fish pond with the ach installed like gates in particular places to concentrate fish. This bespeaks a considerable knowledge of fish behaviour, tidal patterns and marine engineering that may today be integrated into a fisheries management programme.

When the population density was high, the cultural system also managed people’s use of natural resources. This is illustrated in ‘the lesson of turtle and bat’. In the past, and to some extent today, only some social groups are allowed to eat turtles, while others eat fruit bats. This protects both fruit bats and turtles from exploitation by everyone. Notably this is directed at conserving both an especially vulnerable species – sea turtles that must come to land to lay their eggs – and fruit bats, which are keystone species for forest health. Cultural patterns like these averted the tragedy of the commons where resources available to all are destroyed and provide precedents for updated programmes of environmental stewardship.

The Pacific Alternative programme provides a framework for integrating modern science with the experience of Pacific peoples in living within small ecosystems. As examples and projects are added to the framework, they will inspire additional efforts until we are living a Pacific solution.

Traditional leaders from throughout Micronesia gathered in Palau in 1999 to discuss their roles and values and declared: ‘We are mindful that our environment and our natural resources are all important, for they are the foundation of our economies, our cultures and our identities as Pacific islanders’. After the meeting, Yap’s leaders mandated the creation of an environmental stewardship consortium, which builds on a Yapese metaphor of the wangchol, the shimmering droplet of water found in a taro leaf in the morning.

In the past these drops of pure water were collected to be used in medicines or for babies, but the leaves had to be handled with care lest the wangchol slide off and be lost. We have come to realize that the island of Yap itself is like a wangchol that could so easily slip away, and must be handled with care.

In caring for Yap, we do our part in helping to make the whole planet a more wholesome place. In a world in which human impacts threaten to affect even the global climate and sea level, islands are sentinels of what is to come. They are home to some of the most endangered biodiversity, and to cultures experienced in living with limited resources – the state of the world of the future.

Countries must have something of value to offer if they are to stand up among the nations of the world. Yap and other islands have just that in their extensive coral reefs, island ecosystems and a heritage of living with these resources. Our efforts to develop a Pacific alternative could be our gift to the world in need of such a model. We depict this contribution as an Earth surrounded by the traditional Yapese dance adornment made from a young coconut leaflet, which is meant to protect and bring good fortune. The Earth could use that today

Margie Cushing Falanruw is a founding member of the Yap Institute of Natural Science, an island-focused NGO working with the Yap Environmental Stewardship Consortium, a part-time employee of the US Forest Service, IPIF, and member of the newly formed Micronesians in Island Conservation.

PHOTOGRAPH: Margie Falanruw

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Water, 1996
Issue on Culture, Values and the Environment, 1996
Issue on Climate change, 1997
Issue on Climate and Action, 1998
Issue on Oceans, 1998
Elizabeth Khaka: Small Islands, big problems (Freshwater) 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Tourism, 1999
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on World Heritage and Protected Areas, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: