The Politics of Progress in Palau


Reef-fringed, tropical, and lush, the tiny western-Pacific island-nation of Palau is the picture of paradise. Rich natural resources, a low population density (15,000 people on a 188-square mile area), and a relatively high standard of living - thanks to U.S. dollars that poured in during decades of U.N. trusteeship - should make Palau's future bright. Independent as of 1994 and faced with a gradual cut-off of U.S. aid, Palau must now make critical decisions about its economic future. yet Palau's merger of modern and traditional cultures, politics, and economies makes a sustainable development path unlikely.

For most of their history, Palauans led a subsistence lifestyle of farming and fishing. Strong clan and family structures supported an elaborate system of kinship-based customs and cooperative work. Resources were protected by a village-based land and marine tenure system. Hence, lands were either clan-owned or village-owned. Rank, blood, and land were inextricably linked; chiefs controlled access to hunting and fishing grounds and could regulate harvest size and area by decree.

For the past century, however, Palau has been subjected to a series of occupying administrations: Spain, Germany, Japan, and finally, the United States. With westernization came privatization of property. Thus, under foreign administrations, concepts such as fee simple and primogeniture, and attempts to codify land rights and document transactions, were imposed on a system previously characterized by flexibility, fluidity, use rights, clan lands, and matrilineal inheritance. In addition, rather than serving as a source of food, an item of exchange, and a symbol of prestige, land acquired a dollar value. The result has been protracted legal and political discord as individuals, clans, states, and the national government remain embroiled in countless land disputes. As the anthropologist DeVerne Reed Smith observed, "Palauans are enduring social disintegration through litigation over the resource that once was the source of all binding ties."

Westernization also brought democracy to Palau. Under American auspices, the Constitution established a bicameral legislature as well as executive and judicial branches modeled on the American system. Sixteen states, some with fewer than a hundred residents, form a second tier of government. Reflecting traditional power bases, each is ruled by both elected and traditional leaders. Today, states remain the seat of traditional power, and chiefs are often governors or ex officio members of state legislatures (although recent court decisions have held this arrangement to be unconstitutional).

And westernization introduced a modern economy. As it had throughout Micronesia, the United States created a welfare state in Palau. Federal programs have created a pervasive bureaucracy and entrenched Palau in economic dependence on U.S. dollars. In turn, the bureaucracy and concomitant economic development have drawn villagers to the capital of Koror. Migration has not only alienated people from their land and subsistence lifestyle in the villages, but has eroded communal cultural traditions which were closely linked to the land. Modern Leaders and Modern Traditional Leaders

Despite the patina of westernization, the clan system still plays a significant role in Palauan political and economic realms. If traditional leaders were once the stewards of the lands and seas, however, their traditional power is often now wielded on behalf of modern developmental goals and personal economic interest. As perhaps the most important local facilitators and beneficiaries of much of the development, traditional leaders may prove to be a principal catalyst for accelerated resource exploitation. For example, arrangements to lease land to foreigners for development usually require explicit permission from the appropriate chiefs. Accordingly, chiefs who stand to gain financially from foreign investments facilitate development projects by authorizing leasing of land, winning clan support, and ensuring, when necessary, state and national legislative action. Several states are planning their own resorts. In advocating the establishment of private property rights, Palau's National Master Development Plan asserts that individual ownership and secure title "limits the influence of leaders to enter into private commercial arrangements for land - a major source of corruption."

While state and traditional leaders are focused on economic development, they are not necessarily well-informed about the value of their resources. According to the Comprehensive Conservation Strategy, "Recent proposals for tourism-oriented development, such as one for a second and larger airport on northern Babeldoab and another large scale resort to be built in Koror, are clear examples of development planning where money, rather than preservation of the natural environment, was given the highest priority." Unfamiliar with sophisticated fiscal transactions and legal processes, traditional leaders also fall prey to unscrupulous business interests. Logging permits in more than one state, for example, sell for a dollar - regardless of the number of trees taken - and are virtually unconditional. And in April 1995, traditional chiefs in two states urged the state legislatures to enter into contracts with a company to drill for oil in their state waters despite no evidence of oil reserves, and without calling for environmental assessments.

The tension between traditional and modern ways manifests in a power struggle between state and national authorities. The principle of "state' rights" is effectively and consistently invoked to block conservation legislation from moving through the Congress. A bill protecting marine lakes failed to emerge from Committee when the Delegates raised concerns about whether the national or the Koror State government would enforce the act and who would collect entrance fees and fines. Fear of economic retaliation by the High Chief of Koror who controls the most populous and powerful state has effectively stymied national environmental legislation that threatens his development plans or traditional power. In essence, Palau's environment is being held hostage to the power struggle between national and traditional authorities, both of whom seek to dominate the course of Palau's economic development. Democracy and Authority

While traditional modes of governance have been eroded by a century of foreign occupation, neither are democratic institutions fully embraced by or assimilated into Palauan society. Some elements of Palauan tradition remain strong, either coexisting or conflicting with the superimposed system, while others are adapted to or superseded by the new ways. Separation of powers, for example, was to be reconciled with a system in which executive, judicial, and legislative functions rested with one person or body, and representative government with a system in which no dichotomy existed between social and political rank. Nevertheless, customary ways of enforcing decrees, adjudicating disputes, making decisions, and penalizing offenders are still used informally and concurrently. Clan, title, age, and birth order remain meaningful to most Palauans, and influence rights and privileges. Clan leaders still exercise strong influence over selection and support of candidates for both national and state office.

The blending and confusion of cultural traditions and authorities undermine both. Traditional powers are on the wane while democratic modes of governance and the rule of law are often incompatible with the structure of Palauan culture. According to the Master Plan, "...the anonymity of institutions, the objectivity of law and precedent, the primacy of private property and the permanence of contracts...[have not] suited the highly personalized and pragmatic practices of an essentially oral society."

Competing systems and sanctions effect a vacuum of authority. Thus, although the village-based system of marine tenure is still recognized, enforcement of traditional conservation schemes is weak. Disregard for the law, both traditional and western, is commonplace. For example, both the Master Plan and the Conservation Strategy note that lack of compliance and enforcement are the biggest threats to Palau's environment. Poaching is rampant. Rare instances of prosecution suggest the pervasiveness of the problem: a marine law enforcement officer is serving time for dynamiting fish. The Path to Sustainability

The transition to modernity and development has helped undermine a sustainable lifestyle by eroding traditional power and social structures, and by shifting priorities to acquisition of material goods rather than subsistence living. In light of the changes wrought by development and democracy, a return to traditional ways alone is neither a realistic nor appropriate solution to Palau's developmental challenges. Traditional mechanisms are not only incompatible with increasingly accepted notions of representative government and due process, but also are inadequate to address the scope, nature, and magnitude of current developmental and environmental problems. Furthermore, even if they once did, traditional leaders may no longer have the expertise, the will, or the power they once may have had to properly manage natural resources. Nor is reliance on modern institutions alone the solution.

Perhaps the institutions most suited to straddling democratic and traditional systems are grassroots organizations. These groups can include voices from traditional and modern communities, seek consensus, and work within both systems. In January 1995, Palau's first environmental NGO, the Palau Conservation Society, was formed. The Society, along with existing women's groups, may be best equipped to bridge the gaps between traditional and representative governments and to effect a new paradigm of development in Palau - one which integrates traditional indigenous practices with democratic mechanisms and elevates environmental awareness to a political force. References 1992. Comprehensive Conservation Strategy for the Republic of Palau. Report prepared by the Division of Conservation Entomology of the Bureau of Resources and Development by Jodi Cassell, Demei O. Otobed, and Haruo Adelbai. 1992. Division of Marine Resources Annual Report, Bureau of Natural Resources and Development. 1994. Palau National Master Development Plan. Prepared by SAGRIC, International Pty. Ltd. (draft; prepared with UNDP and USDOI funds), July. 1994. Republic of Palau, National Environmental Management Strategy, South Pacific Regional Environment Programme. 1994. Republic of Palau, State of the Environment Report, South Pacific Regional Environment Programme. Force, Roland W. 1960. Leadership and Cultural Change in Palau, Chicago Natural History Museum Fieldara. Anthropology v. 50 (February 19). McCutcheon, Mary Shaw, 1981. Resource Exploitation and the Tenure of Land and Sea in Palau, Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Arizona. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International. Smith, DeVerne Reed. 1981. Palauan Social Structure. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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