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Development at any cost?

Scott Radway from the Pacific writes about the building of a new road in Palau and the effect this is having on people's lives: Uro Ikesakes started fishing in Airai Bay when he was a teenager, swimming side by side with his family and friends, spearing fish after fish from a bustling coral reef. Fishing in the bay was a way of life in the village. Things are different now, more than 50 years later, but not because he is any less of a fisherman. His aqua-blue bay, once home to a healthy coral reef, is now mud-red and home to almost nothing but algae. After a full day of fishing, his cooler is maybe half full. 'We don't fish there anymore,' said the 68 year-old subsistence fisherman, his crow's-feet framing his wistful stare.

His is an unusual story for Palau, a small Pacific island nation with a population of under 20,000, known the world over for its natural beauty and its abundance of fish. But his is a story some officials fear could become all too common if leaders don't plan well for the future. The cause of their alarm is a multimillion dollar road project on the pristine island of Babeldaob that they say has brought Palau to a monumental environmental and cultural crossroad.

Babeldaob is the largest island in Palau. But for years, the centre of the government and population has been the much smaller island of Koror where modern infrastructure exists. The road will change that. In about two years, contracted workers are expected to lay 53 miles of asphalt to circle Babeldaob and create an enormous potential for modern development such as hotels, golf courses and new homes. For perspective, Palau's roads currently total only 83 miles.

In Airai State, development has already begun. Along with the work for the road, parcels have been cleared for homes, for farms and for a golf course. As the land is cleared, the vegetation, which naturally holds back the dirt, is destroyed. The dirt is then washed into the rivers and streams, which carry it down to the sea. So the bountiful reef, where Ikesakes once fished, is being buried by this dirt, killing the coral and leaving the bay nearly barren of fish. Airai State is a good example of what will happen on the rest of the island if Palauans do not plan ahead, said Noah Idechong, a Palau Delegate and world-renowned environmentalist. It's high time for people to decide how the island should be developed and how much should be developed, he said. At stake is Palauan culture and the identity of its people who have so long lived in harmony with the sea and land. Without the reefs, so much is lost. 'There is no time. We need to decide what we want our island to be,' Idechong said. 'Because if the road goes in and we haven't decided, all hell will break loose.'

But to be clear, the US$125 million road project is something the Palauans asked for. The island nation made it a condition of the compact agreement signed with the United States in 1994 when Palau gained its independence. Federal and local officials call it the Compact Road. 'The road is our economic bloodline,' said Kione Isechal, an engineer with the Palauan President's Office acting as a liaison with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as the project moves forward. 'The road will be very useful for opening our island for economic development,' Isechal said. 'We are confident, that with proper planning, development will be done right.' But Idechong points out 'If you build the hotels, people will come. That's true. But how many millions is enough money for 15,000 people?' This is the vital question for Palauans because in reality a tropical island can only bear so much before the environment is severely harmed and culture lost. People also need to put a price tag on the worth of subsistence fishing and the value of culture and family bonding. 'We need to start a dialogue, to start talking about what we want for Palau.'

If Palau does not, the race for money and development will have no boundaries. The economy will grow, and more foreign labour will have to be brought in to meet the demand. 'There are a lot of contradictions in Palau. Some people don't think that there have to be sacrifices,' Idechong said. 'But you can't have everything'.

Article adapted from Pacific Daily News, March 25th 2002

Messages In This Thread

Development at any cost?
Scott Radway -- Wednesday, 9 October 2002
Balancing development and environment
D. Bartram, R. Heinin, R. Nayamuth & J. Silvers -- Tuesday, 29 October 2002
Controlling development
H. Belmar, T. Isamu, J. Johnson, N. Pilcher, L. Richards, Rod, R. Szyjan -- Thursday, 31 October 2002
Further views on the Palau road
S. Asanuma, B. Conrich, C. Emaurois, R. Iroga and a writer from Tuvalu -- Thursday, 14 November 2002

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