"Learning about global issues from local people is at the core of Peace Boat's educational and awareness programs," says Peace Boat Director Yoshioka Tatsuya. With this in mind, the 97th Asian Voyage had the privilege of welcoming four Palauan youth to join the ship for the first leg of its journey, which travelled from Yokohama, Japan to Koror, Palau. This youth represent the second cohort of Peace Boat's Ocean and Climate Youth Ambassador Program, which assembles young leaders from SIDS (Small Island Developing States) to share the reality of living on the frontlines of climate change. During their week onboard, Nikki Uehara, Cyandal "C.Y." Williams, Bill Jasmer Tony Ngirarsaol, and Isechal Ngitong, engaged in a cultural exchange with participants, introduced them to their home country and taught them about the critical importance of recognizing and combating the effects of environment and marine degradation.
"Not many people know about our country," says Isechal, a farmer from a small community of 200 people in the north of the main island, "but everyone knows everyone in Palau." The country is composed of approximately 340 islands, yet its population is scarcely more than 20,000. Although it may feel like an extended family, it's one that has its share of guests: Palau's primary industry is tourism and the island welcomes well over 100,000 visitors each year. The economic boost provided by this influx of guests has allowed Palau to become less reliant on support from the U.S., which had governed the country through the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands from 1947 until it gained sovereignty in 1994. President H.E. Tommy Remengesau, Jr. says the challenge set for Palau is to continue welcoming these visitors while limiting their ecological footprint. "The economy is our environment and the environment is our economy," says the president.
During their week onboard, the Palau youth used a series of large events and intimate discussion sessions to educate participants on how intensive tourism has affected Palau: namely, a significant increase in litter and pollution, the abuse of marine animals, and the destruction of the island's remarkable yet incredibly fragile corals. This destruction is coupled with already-devastating effects of global climate change such as coral bleaching, drought, and rising sea levels, which flood and destroy taro fields (a subsistence crop for Palauans). Peace Boat participants learned that Palauans are already doing their part to combat this crisis. The country is a leader in environmental initiatives, home to the world's first shark sanctuary, and 80% of its waters are a fully-protected marine territory. Marine researcher Bill Tony says that he's not surprised by these conservation efforts, as Palauans are taught the value and fragility of their environment from an early age. "Environmental protection was always a part of growing up," he says.
Such incidents were the impetus behind the Palau Pledge, an NGO (non-governmental organization) that wants to ensure that Palau's visitors respect its unique natural environment. The first action of the Palau Pledge initiative was to join with the youth of Palau to co-author a pledge for all visitors to sign upon arrival in the country. Thoughtful and succinct, it calls on guests to their islands to "tread lightly, act kindly and explore mindfully," and that "the only footprints [they] shall leave are those that will wash away." Signing the pledge is a physical act with a powerful symbolism. After being educated about this powerful initiative by the Palau Youth, all participants of Peace Boat's 97th Voyage signed the pledge before arriving in Palau on March 15, 2018.
Participants were moved by the conviction and clear message of the youth. "I'm impressed that such an important initiative utilizes the voice of its young citizens," said Nakagawa Fukiko. "I'm very happy to make the Palau Pledge." Another participant, Kumade Keiko, says she thinks Japan should follow suit. "I want Japan to adopt the same initiative in solidarity with Palau." International support is crucial to the success of small but powerful projects like the Palau Pledge, a message echoed by President Remengesau, Jr. when he boarded Peace Boat's vessel to show his solidarity for the project and welcome its young delegates back home. "Palau can't do this alone," says Nikki Uehara. "With the support of Peace Boat and all of the participants of the 97th Voyage, we hope that Palau's natural beauty and unique culture may be shared with countless future generations to come", she added.