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Former First Lady of Palau, Debbie M. Remengesau

"We need to change our behavior to protect our precious planet before it's too late."

Former First Lady of Palau, 
Debbie M. Remengesau

Editor's Note: This story is taken from the GOOD10 Ocean's Issue. You can download and read the entire digital magazine issue for free here.

A place where 18,000 individuals reside on 177 square miles of land holds an outsized role in the conversation and policy around environmental protection. This place is Palau, the island nation located in the Western Pacific Ocean. Central to the championing of the country's ecological well-being is First Lady, Debbie Remengesau. Her work in developing the Palau Pledge—a vow of environmental responsibility every visitor to Palau must take upon entry—adds to the legacy of Palau's forward thinking policy which includes a nuclear-free constitution and the banning of devastating bottom trawling fishing in the nation's waters. Her leadership has helped shape a more sustainable future for Palauans while serving as an example to the rest of the world.

But certain issues, like runaway carbon emissions, don't respect international borders. This inherently places limits as to what one country can accomplish on its own when it comes to caring for our planet. Even though Palau is a small island nation in a remote location, Remengesau says, the vast ocean surrounding them is a constant reminder of how inextricably linked we all are. "Just like in a marriage, this link is for better or for worse," she says. "We find ourselves unexpectedly facing huge environmental challenges that are not of our making."

Speaking about their conservation efforts and encouraging other countries to follow suit is a vital part of the First Lady's mission each day. GOOD spoke with her about Palau's environmental initiatives, successes, current challenges and hopes for the future. "Every breath we take, we owe to our ocean," Remengesau says. "If it dies, we die. We need to act now. We can no longer continue to take from Mother Earth. We need to heal and give back."

Photo via Palau Visitors' Authority

You describe Palau as a matrilineal society. How does that impact your approach as a First Lady?

Palau is one of the few matriarchal, matrilineal countries in the world. Women lead from behind the scenes, but make no mistake, they are in charge! We choose our male traditional chiefs and they make decisions on behalf of our community. If they are not doing a good job, then the women will dismiss them. Our traditional leadership runs in parallel and partnership with our democratically elected political system. The traditional chiefs and women leaders are advisors to the government in Palau. We work together to respect our culture and heritage, while maintaining our modern political system. Today, inspired by our matriarchal cultural identity, women are active contributors both traditionally and in our modern development as a young nation. Women hold many roles in government and private sector from judges, doctors, teachers and businesswomen to public officials, ministers in the president's cabinet and National Congresses. We are one of the only countries that has had a woman serve as vice president.

As a mother and grandmother, I am committed to preserving our precious culture and environment for future generations. My work in the community is centered on this. As First Lady, I have been given a unique opportunity to share my passions internationally in the hope to inspire governments, organizations and communities to prioritize environmental protection and cultural preservation. Our culture and language are traditionally oral. Sadly, like so many ancient cultures globally, our language and culture are now under serious threat due to our young people's high exposure to westernized media, ideals and values. We must work hard to preserve our language and culture, not just for future generations of Palauans, but for everyone. We know that it can help play a crucial role in helping our planet heal.

The people of Palau view their environment as their cultural identity. Can you elaborate on how a relationship to the oceans and nature plays a critical role in shaping that?

Ancient Palauans long foresaw the critical value of the environment, the land and the ocean, to our survival and to our way of life. We rely on our environment to sustain us, so it was natural that it would shape who we were as people. Nature is in our DNA. It's inseparable from who we are. This is something innate in every Palauan and it's something taught to us from birth by our parents, grandparents and community. Traditionally, the inheritance we pass on to our children has always been in the form of healthy lands and oceans to nourish the next generation. Money was not part of the equation. We have long known what the rest of the world is fast discovering—without a healthy environment, none of us has a future.

Our culture is based around the philosophy of BUL, which is a tool our chiefs use in the community to signal that certain actions are needed. It can be loosely translated to a "moratorium." This can be likened to the western notion of letting the land, ocean or species "lie fallow" to replenish. In Palau, everyone understands and respects BUL. When outsiders came to Palau and the need for laws came about, it was natural—we'd base them on our traditional ways of life and our culture of conservation. We knew how to protect our children's environment and their natural inheritance.

Photo via Pool Collective

What laws have you created based on BUL and your ideology?

We have created a lot of conservation world-first laws based on it. In 1980, we were the first nation to have a nuclear-free constitution. It's something I'm proud to say the women of Palau created and worked tirelessly to bring about. We were also the first country to ban the destructive practice of bottom trawling in our waters. In 2009, we were the first to declare our waters a national shark sanctuary. Not only are sharks a vital part of our fragile ecosystem, but the economics of it make sense. The value of a single shark over the course of its life for the tourism industry in Palau is $1.9 million, as opposed to the roughly $50 that a single shark fin yields in an Asian market.

In line with our culture, in 2015 my husband [current President of Palau Thomas Remengesau, Jr.], along with our Traditional Leaders announced the Palau National Marine Sanctuary: declaring 80% of our waters a fully no-take zone, and creating the largest percentage of fully-protected marine territory in the world. The remaining 20% is designated to our local fishers to supply food for our community and visitors to our islands. We did this because we saw a desperate need to protect the fish stocks, endangered species and biodiversity of our ocean; not just for us in Palau, but for the rest of the world.

In 2017, we launched The Palau Pledge: the world's first eco pledge stamped into the passport of every visitor to Palau (in their own language). The Pledge requires them to make a mandatory promise to our children not to damage or exploit Palau's natural resources or culture during their stay. The Pledge is backed up by comprehensive law and was written with the help of Palau's children. Every visitor to Palau must sign it before they can enter our country.

All these conservation initiatives are modern interpretations of our culture; just packaged in a way that everyone can understand. It's confusing to us that many parts of the world are so disconnected from nature and also from the harm that they are doing to this planet. We need to address that if we are going to heal that damage that has been done to our planet.

Photo by Enric Sala

What was the impetus behind the creation of The Palau Pledge, how did you come up with such an innovative approach?

In 2015 we experienced a huge shift in our tourism industry. This was something Palau and Palauans were unprepared for.We are a small nation of just 20,000 people and before 2015 we attracted around 80,000 visitors each year. In 2015 we received 160,000 visitors: a 100% increase. But it wasn't just the number of visitors causing the issue, the demographic of our visitors changed dramatically too. Prior to 2015 our visitors were primarily divers who wanted to visit Palau because it is a pristine natural paradise and one of the seven underwater wonders of the world. Divers tend to understand their responsibility to protect the environment they visit and know how to interact with our fragile marine life in a responsible fashion.

But in 2015 charter flights from developing tourism markets in Asia started bringing people to our country who had never even seen the ocean before. These people didn't share Palau's conservation culture and didn't understand it. Without education and new laws to protect our environment, this could have had a devastating impact on Palau and our way of life. That is why the Palau Pledge was necessary. As I mentioned, it was written in collaboration with the children of Palau and it allows visitors to understand the responsibility they have to our children when they are visiting.

We didn't have many resources to launch the Pledge, so we had to get creative and find new ways to communicate with our visitors. We worked with an international creative team to help us identify different cultural behaviors in our visitors and understand how to leverage these to change any careless or irresponsible behavior toward our environment and culture. We identified the crucial visitor touchpoints and worked together to translate the Palauan tradition of BUL into practical ways visitors could protect Palau. Education in language of our visitor is key at every stage of the journey. It was a huge effort that took three years to build, but it was worth it.

The Giant – Compulsory Inflight Movie Palau Pledge

The Pledge seems to be settling an example for the rest of the world as well.

It has already inspired other much larger nations and destinations to take on similar schemes. Hawaii, New Zealand and Finland announced they were following Palau's lead and introducing a similar Pledge of their own, inspired by their own ancient cultural wisdom. In the US, destinations like the Big Sur, Aspen and the Oregon town of Bend, have also implemented tourism pledges. None of the pledges are mandatory like Palau's yet. Visitors are just "encouraged" to sign them, but it sets the tone for their visit and helps locals educate them about the importance of personal responsibility and action in protecting the environment and culture of the destination.

It's heartening that we have also seen big businesses start to adopt pledge initiatives. Travel companies like The Travel Corporation, with a footprint in over 70 countries, used the Palau Pledge as a template to create a responsible tourism model for all their customers to adhere to. Now the Palau Pledge has also become an international rallying cry to protect the world for the next generation. It gives our children, and the children of the world, a voice and a platform to help them campaign for their rights.

What happens if visitors or residents of Palau don't adhere to the oath?

It's backed up by a comprehensive set of laws including the Responsible Tourism Education Act, which has our culture at its heart. Alongside placing the onus on business owners to educate their visitors about Palau's conservation laws. While we want to positively encourage and empower people to change their behavior with the Pledge, there are also laws and fines in place to substantiate it. Our state rangers are empowered to fine people who break it. The Palau Nationals Marine Sanctuary Act and other laws and initiatives such as the Shark Sanctuary, also back up the Pledge. For example, if someone kills a shark in our waters, they can be fined up to $1M USD. These fines act as a deterrent and give the oath legal legitimacy, but the project is first and foremost designed as an educational tool to promote responsible behavior.

Photo by Enric Sala

Your husband President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr. addressed the UN General Assembly in New York in 2017, stating that he was proud of his country for recognizing the threat of nuclear weapons and banning the use, test and storage of them. How has your country benefited from this change?

Without our Nuclear Free Constitution our ocean and lands could now be decimated by the nuclear fallout. We saw what happened in the Marshall Islands at the Bikini Atoll and we weren't going to allow that to happen in our homeland. Although scientists now report that the reefs and ocean in Bikini are recovering (70 years after the testing took place), the tests contaminated the soil and water, making subsistence farming and fishing too dangerous. No one can live there. Beyond that, if nuclear testing had occurred in Palau's waters, we wouldn't be living in the pristine paradise we do today. Our culture and way of life would have been eroded and changed beyond recognition. No amount of financial compensation would be able to rectify that.

Powerful cyclones, worsening droughts, damaged reefs and rising sea-levels have threatened the surrounding islands like Kiribati and Marshall Islands. How is this impacting Palau?

The change in our climate globally and the rising pollution levels are deeply concerning to every Palauan. Not just because of the impact it has at home, but also for the future generations of our planet. Palau has been hit by several powerful typhoons that have leveled some of our islands, destroying people's homes and lands. These typhoons weren't a regular threat before, but have worsened in recent times because of global warming and the resulting changing weather patterns. Rising water temperatures and ocean acidification are putting huge stress on our coral reef systems and marine life. In turn, this impacts our way of life and livelihoods. Our islands are a pristine paradise: a haven for nature. But we're subject to the effects of actions taken by much larger nations. And we have little control over that. As a result we are facing some very challenging times.

What concerns do you have moving forward?

It isn't our trash that's damaging our marine life and washing up on our beaches. We are not polluting our rivers and ocean. It isn't Pacific Islanders who are creating huge CO2 emissions contributing to warming temperatures and destructive weather patterns. Yet, we are the first to be impacted by all these issues. This is climate inequality and social injustice. This is why intersectional environmentalism is so important. Like the rest of the Pacific Islands, we don't have the resources or capacity to deal with the devastating impact that climate change and pollution are having on our countries and communities. We need to raise awareness of this injustice and get our world's leaders to act before it's too late. Pacific Island children are on the frontline of these terrible challenges. As a mother, and grandmother, this troubles me greatly. In just a few years, some of our Pacific Island neighbors will not have a country to call home as rising water levels and sea temperatures are destroying their homelands. As a global family, we are all responsible for the world our children inherit from us. We need to change our behavior to protect our precious planet before it's too late.

You worked with your husband along with traditional chiefs to ban commercial fishing on your island a few years ago. How did that decision arise and was there any pushback?

The Palau National Marine Sanctuary (PNMS) Act was declared in 2015 and the law came into full effect on January 1, 2020. My husband, the government and our traditional leaders worked in partnership to bring about the act. It protects an ocean area the size of France. This was a bold but necessary move to protect our food security and give our ocean and endangered species a chance to recover from global overfishing and pollution. The PNMS was well-received by our community as it is based on the cultural principles we've discussed. It is BUL in action. Every Palauan knows the value of BUL and understands why this is necessary for our children. For Palauans, this was a natural thing to do given the huge issues the world's oceans face today. We knew we needed to lead by example to combat the effects the rest of the world is having on our ocean.

Now that marine life is fully protected, have you seen a rebound in the presence of endangered species? How has your island changed since this law?

Local fishers are reporting that fish are returning to our waters in large numbers. We can see the results of this in the number and size of fish caught in our local fishing zone. Fish numbers were dwindling and they were much smaller in size. But now we are seeing large fish again. This is the amazing power of Mother Nature to regenerate when she is left to do so. Our specialist marine scientists are also reporting a rebound in some endangered species. This is encouraging news and proof that our marine protected area is working—we just need to give the ocean time to heal. Studies are being carried out by local scientists in collaboration with several Ivy League universities in the U.S. to measure the impact of the PNMS, but we can already see the results in our daily lives. Before the marine sanctuary, we experienced a lot of illegal fishing in our waters. Now our ocean is protected by law and Palauans can enforce this internationally. The PNMS and our enforcement efforts in partnerships with Australia, Japan and the United States, sends a strong message to countries and businesses conducting illegal fishing activities in our ocean. Palau's ocean is protected and our laws must be respected. There are large consequences for those that break the law.

Photo via Pool Collective

Ongeim'l Tketau Jellyfish Lake was closed for several years following a catastrophic drop in the number of golden jellyfish. You had mentioned in a video that tourists were also factors in this depletion. They had destroyed the red corrals, polluted the waters with sunscreen and poached local fish.

It was very sad to see the lake close down, but it was necessary. Our Traditional Leaders declared a BUL upon visiting it. They did that so the jellyfish numbers could recover from the environmental stress that had been placed on them. Again, this was mainly due to the change in water temperature and the drought resulting from climate change, but other stressors like sunscreen being worn by visitors also played a part. The closing of the lake was a real indicator that the Palau Pledge was necessary to educate visitors about the impact of their behavior in Palau, but also to draw attention to the everyday actions they took back in their own countries to help prevent pollution and climate change.

What happened to your aquatic life before the Pledge?

We saw damaging behavior from these visitors such as thoughtlessly damaging corals that take hundreds of years to regrow, throwing trash in the ocean, using single-use plastic bottles and food containers, poaching endangered species, harassing and stressing marine life and having no respect for Palau's culture and cultural heritage sites. Unchecked, this behavior has a cumulative effect on our environment and culture. Visitors may think it's "just one" piece of coral or "just one" piece of trash, but when you multiply that by our visitor numbers, the impact quickly adds up. The Palau Pledge has helped us communicate these issues to people in a way that promotes positive, behavioral change. Now that the lake has reopened, we will use the Palau Pledge as an ongoing platform to communicate responsible, culturally aware behavior to our visitors at the lake and at other visitor touchpoints around the country.

In 2019, you joined the Leading Women for the Ocean Network, helping to bring change and promote sustainability.

I believe that lasting change will only be possible when we influence other countries to act responsibly toward our ocean and environment. As women leaders and wives of heads of state, we are in a position to help bring about change at a rapid pace, which is exactly what our world needs from us now. While still in its infancy, the Leading Women for Oceans Network is set up to help create a healthier ocean for our children. It brings together women leaders from the fields of science, business, politics and conservation organizations and gives us the tools to help us lobby for change in our own countries, organizations and communities. I feel we have a special connection to children and to protecting their future planet. It's a powerful organization that has the capacity to create real and lasting change. I am grateful to First Lady Abe for spearheading and championing it.

How have women played a critical role in creating solutions to protect your ocean environment?

In Palau, women have always played a critical role in creating solutions to protect our environment. From choosing leaders who will uphold and continue our culture to taking direct action themselves in the community and internationally. It was a group of Palauan women that gave Palau—and the world—the first Nuclear Free Constitution, which protects Palau from the devastating effects of nuclear testing. In what became a long and painful time in our history, our women leaders called upon the powers that have traditionally rested with women. Courageous women traveled between villages and islands, they shared information with communities and stood up to intense outside international pressure from much larger countries in order to secure a "Nuclear Free" provision in our Constitution. It was grassroots networking at its best, and at its hardest: women talked to women as they worked in their taro patches.

Their grassroots approach made it all the way to Washington.

It was a difficult task but they didn't give up. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. This group of brave women did petition their case (as Palau was then still a US territory). This case is now featured in textbooks for students of government globally as an example of "women having political efficacy," but for us, this is the way we have always done things. It was also a group of women that created and launched The Palau Pledge. They understood the intrinsic value of protecting our environment for conservation and economic purposes. Our children need to inherit healthy lands and oceans, but also an economy which can sustain them as global citizens.

Photo via Pool Collective

You are a member of the International Association of First Ladies for Peace and the Palau Soroptimist International. What initiatives are most important to you while working with this organization?

Women play an important role in the leadership of Palau. But this is not the case in most of the world. In most countries, women are hugely underrepresented in positions of power. In some, they are even silenced. This is the greatest threat to the peace, security and human development of our planet. And it creates a major threat to our environment. When 52% of the world's population does not have a proper seat at the table, we rob ourselves of half the ideas, solutions, vision and leadership necessary to address the many many crisis' the world is now facing. The state of our world's environment is possibly the biggest challenge to peace that we as the human race face today. Without a healthy planet, there will be no peace. It will only be war. There will be no security, only uncertainty and human decline.

This is why I am a member of the First Ladies for Peace initiative: to encourage women around the world to use their voices and take up leadership positions in their own counties and communities. I want the world to understand the important link between a healthy planet that can sustain and nourish us, and world peace. It is also why I am a member of the Soroptimist International. Through this organization, local women leaders work together to empower women and girls, and provide opportunities for women to grow, socially and economically. We are shaping girls to become strong women, who will lend their voices and like the First Ladies for Peace initiative, become leaders one day.

What would you tell a young person looking to dedicate their energy to protecting and stewarding our natural world and resources?

We need you! Please know that there are millions of adults out there who are working to protect your environment for the future and that you have a say in that. My husband is often heard to cite the proverb: "We do not inherit this world from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." That is the way we Palauans have always lived. Inheriting a healthy planet is your human right and you have a right to hold adults accountable for doing their part giving you that. Use your voice. Please don't think that because you are young, your voice doesn't count. Look at Greta Thunberg and the global movement she started. The Palauan children told us how they would like their home to be treated to protect their environmental inheritance and this has also started a global movement. Your voice counts.

What can people do to help?

Start by signing our Pledge and sharing its message. Get the word out there. Many celebrities and leaders across the world have signed the pledge online to say that they stand in solidarity with the children of Palau in protecting the world for the next generation. Also, you don't have to do everything all at once. Start small. You can start at home. Look at the Parley AIR Pledge for inspiration. Avoid plastic wherever possible and replace it with alternative, eco-innovative materials. Opt for minimal or no packaging and refuse single-use plastics. Carry and use reusable water bottles and containers alternatives. Start composting food waste (the third biggest contributor to climate change) and participate in environmental clean-ups. Most importantly, talk about it. Educate and empower your friends and family to adopt an eco-conscious mentality. A lot of these things are not taught in schools and they are not found within traditional education curriculums. There is a lot of information out there. I would encourage everyone to educate themselves and help do your part.

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