The World Bank/WBIs CBNRM Initiative

Case Received: February 4, 1998

Author: Bill Raynor, The Nature Conservancy

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The Pohnpei Community Natural

Resource Management Program

Identification of the case

Biologically rich coral reefs are the first thing that comes to mind when the small islands of Micronesia in the western Pacific Ocean are mentioned. But the larger volcanic islands in the region are also blessed with rich rain forests, which provide both an important resource for local inhabitants and a refuge for biodiversity. Because these islands are isolated, plants and animals have together forged unique environments found nowhere else in the world. These forests are also critical to island hydrology, providing regular supplies of clean water and protecting the island's delicate coral reefs from sedimentation. However, the small size of these islands, combined with rapid population increase and economic growth, have placed Micronesia's forests amongst the world's most endangered.

Thus is the case on Pohnpei Island, where recent aerial photography and vegetation mapping efforts revealed that intact native forest has been reduced from 15,008 ha (42% of the island's land area) to 5,169 ha (15%) during a 20 year period between 1975 and 1995. While Pohnpeians have always made use of their forest resources, they are in greater danger today than ever before. This accelerated forest loss, brought on by a variety of factors, has fostered conservation efforts based on Pohnpeian's concern for their natural heritage.

Pohnpei Island and six outlying atolls comprise Pohnpei State, one of the four states of the Federated States of Micronesia. 1990 population was 30,816, about 25% living in the single urban center of Kolonia and its environs. Pohnpei is the third largest island in Micronesia at 355 square kilometers (129 square miles). The center of the island is mountainous and forested. The highest peak, Ngihneni (Spirit's Tooth) rises to 795 meters. Pohnpei's upland watershed forests play a critical role in protecting the island's water supply, soils, and lagoon. The island's environment from the cloud forest to the lagoon -- depends on a healthy, productive watershed.

Further, the island's vegetation and wildlife are some of the most diverse in Micronesia. The island's watershed forests serve as habitat for at least 269 different species of plants, of which 110 (41%) are endemic to Pohnpei, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. The watershed also provides a home for the island's wildlife, including over 32 different species of birds make their home on the island, of which five species (16%) and eight subspecies are found only in Pohnpei.

The author, a resident of Pohnpei for the last 18 years, is one of the originators of the Pohnpei Community Natural Resource Management Project, and has worked on the project since its' inception ten years ago as an advisor and technical consultant.

The initial situation

Previous to the arrival of the Europeans in the Pacific, all lands and waters on Pohnpei were under the control and management of the island's traditional leaders, the soupeidi. Like many Pacific islands, population declined sharply after contact as a result of introduced diseases, from an estimated 15,000 in 1840 to only 1,705 in 1891. Successive colonial governments took advantage of the situation as previously occupied land reverted back to forest, and more than half of the island, including much of the forested interior and all mangrove forest and lagoon areas, was put under government jurisdiction. At the same time, the traditional form of land allocation nominally regulated by the paramount chiefs was replaced by the bureaucratic forms of land administration. In the process, traditional resource management was undermined by loss of local authority.

Since the early 1960s, population growth and an expanding economy have worked together to intensify resource exploitation. Resulting settlement and cultivation in upland areas has been the major cause of forest degradation. Piper methysticum, locally known as sakau, has emerged as the foremost crop leading to forest conversion. Then roots of this plant are pounded to make a narcotic beverage has long been of central cultural importance on Pohnpei. Traditionally consumed only by the higher ranking members of society, since WW II, prohibitions against consumption by the general populace have been relaxed. Sakau has since emerged as the premier cash crop for the many of the island's population who have little prospect of finding wage employment. Commercial sakau production involves clearing forests for the richer soil and moist environment found there. Since commercially grown sakau requires direct sunlight, the forest canopy must be opened by felling or ring-barking over-story trees. Because sakau is shallow-rooted, planting on steep slopes can lead to soil erosion and mass-wasting during major storm events. Loss of forest habitat also negatively impacts biodiversity.

This situation has been further exasperated by the decline in the government's ability to manage natural resources located in "public" areas or to assist in community development activities due to the impending termination of the Compact of Free Association with the US Government. At the same time, a growing private sector, financed by Asian investors interested in fast returns, is focusing on exploitation of natural resources (tuna, reef fish, shellfish, and various forest products). The overall result is that Pohnpei's rural communities, governed by largely dysfunctional local institutions, are struggling to maintain an acceptable quality of life in the face of an increasingly degraded ecosystem.

The change process

As early as 1983, it became evident that the island interior was being rapidly deforested. The Pohnpei State Division of Forestry requested assistance from the USDA Forest Service. The two agencies closely cooperated to facilitate the passage of "The Pohnpei Watershed Forest Reserve and Mangrove Protection Act of 1987". The Act designated some 5100 ha (13,000 acres) of the central upland forest area and 5525 ha (15,000 acres) of coastal mangrove forests of Pohnpei Island as a protected area, to be managed and enforced by the Pohnpei Department of Resource Management and Development. Forestry officials, ecstatic about the passage of the law, held a series of poorly-attended municipal information meetings and then set out to mark the boundaries of the Watershed Forest Reserve (WFR) with the assistance of GPS technicians from the US Forest Service. However, boundary survey teams were turned back by angry villagers with guns and machetes who considered the reserve a government land grab in direct conflict with traditional Pohnpei resource use and authority.

These incidents led to the formation of the Watershed Steering Committee (WSC) in 1990, an interagency task force made up of representatives of government agencies, community leaders, and NGOs. With funding from the US Forest Service and subsequently from SPREP, the WSC initiated a watershed education and negotiation program and over two years, extended it around the entire island of Pohnpei. Two major changes were unanimously insisted upon by the local communities in over 200 meetings:

  1. Paramount and village chiefs (Soumas) need to be partners in the management process;
  2. Environmentally sustainable management must be extended beyond the watershed reserve to encompass the entire island, from the mountains to the reefs.

Beginning in 1992, the effort to develop a community-based management program began to attract outside interest. The Nature Conservancy hired alocal field representative to assist the government, and SPREP also provided funding and technical assistance as part of the South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Programme. The Asian Development Bank soon followed, advancing a technical assistance package that included development of a GIS, provision of new aerial photography, development of a detailed watershed management plan, and identification of compatible enterprise alternatives.

Over the last two years, the island's government and traditional leaders have begun implementation of the five year Watershed Management Strategy, a schematic plan pitched to Pohnpeians outside the government who are now playing a major role in planning and development. Together, government and community leaders have been revisiting each island community and carrying out a participatory community natural resource planning program.

Traditional and contemporary groups of kousapws (villages) sharing common resources are grouping together into cohesive management units. Over a period of several months, each unit participates in a facilitated process of addressing key development and environmental issues with locally generated alternative solutions. These solutions are formed into a Community Action Plan, which sets forth the community's vision of their future and how they will achieve it. The Plan also serves as an agreement between the management unit and the government on the specifics of resource use and management in that area. The local chiefs (Soumas) designate a management committee for the unit, comprised of volunteer men and women "Community Conservation Officers" (CCOs) whose duties include community education, compatible development, monitoring, and enforcement of community restrictions. Community Management Committees are linked to each other and to the government through the Pohnpei Resource Management Task Force, a state-wide advisory body that includes government resource management agencies, traditional leaders, NGOs, and private sector representatives. However, the success of the resource management program hinges on the effectiveness of the community-level institutions.

Current efforts are focusing on working with the community management committees to complete rules and regulations and delineate community-recognized boundaries for watershed, mangrove, and marine reserve areas. A forest clearing monitoring program will be implemented this year. The Nature Conservancy and the College of Micronesia are also cooperating closely on an education and marketing program to encourage the production of lowland sakau, while discouraging upland cultivation. Training for Community Conservation Officers in resource management and enforcement is also a high priority. Other upcoming activities include the design and implementation of a local trust fund to support community-based conservation activities.

The outcome

The Pohnpei Community Natural Resource Management Program is producing tangible results. Fostering local participation in the watershed and marine management process has created a new spirit of cooperation between government and community leaders. This last week, the Chairman of the Mwoal en Wahu en Pohnpei (Pohnpei Traditional Leaders' Council), Isonahnken en Nett Salvador Iriarte, Pohnpei Governor Del Pangelinan, and Pohnpei Legislature Speaker signed a joint proclamation to establish a Council for a Sustainable Future, charged with monitoring the island's environment and development situation, coordinating the identification and protection of key natural and cultural sites and resources, and mobilizing community participation in resource management and sustainable development. The Council marks the first time in several decades that the government and traditional leaders will sit at the same table to address the major development issues facing the island.

At the village level, target communities have begun to function again. In Madolenihmw, a group of five villages where the community program began four years ago, the Soumas (village chiefs) and the community members met and developed a detailed action plan for the coming year which is now being implemented, including building a community water system, penning pigs, and starting a farmer's cooperative. In this and other areas where communities have assumed responsibility for managing the forest and lagoon, people are moving their cultivation of sakau "back down the hill" and establishing forest reserves. Isonahnken Iriarte says it best, "In Pohnpei, our environment is our future. The greatest legacy of this process is that Pohnpeians are regaining control of their own resources."

The lessons learned

It has been ten years since the passage of the original watershed conservation law on Pohnpei. It is obvious that while significant progress has been made, much still needs to be done before a fully effective resource management program is in place on Pohnpei.

This slow evolution reflects the difficulty of a community-based approach. However, on Pohnpei there is no other choice. The conventional bureaucratic approach failed; given time diminishing external aid and government down-sizing will further undermine the government's ability to manage Pohnpei's natural resources. Further, the community approach has proved to be highly appropriate to Pohnpeians society. First, Pohnpei political culture values autonomy - the small resource management units developed by the community planning process are historically relevant. Second, community-based management addresses the crisis of legitimacy that affects both the traditional and government-constituted political systems. While the state has usurped many of the functions of the traditional chiefs, it has not completely replaced nor assumed the legitimacy accorded to the traditional leaders. Community-based management promises local control over spatially discrete resources that are legitimately considered to belong to the community, and resource management and use will again return to an autonomous, consensus-based decision-making process. In a sense, the approach is an act of reconciliation, reconfirming those aspects of both political systems that are considered legitimate.

It remains to be seen whether the program will be a success. Change in opinion during the last six years, from bitter opposition to general support of resource management - is the most visible sign of the program to date. For the participants, it has been a valuable learning experience through which a uniquely "Pohnpei-style" approach - suited specifically to the island's social and political conditions - is being developed.