Insight partners Online Logo Insight partners Online Logo

Stories from Palau

The Fellow place

islands of Palau
Madiraju Me Rock Islands Palau

The Story of Palau

I have had enough time in Palau to gain a basic understanding of the nation, its history and the quirks of daily life. I have not yet had enough time to give you a summary of the traditions and customary aspects of Palau, but I will do my best to touch on them here. In later entries, since gaining a stronger knowledge of traditional Palauan law and customs is crucial to my placement’s success, I will make sure I tell the story of old Belau

Palau was most likely colonized by pre-industrial explorers a few thousand years ago, who set sail into the calm waters of the Pacific from Papua New Guinea or the Philippines. From then, as voyagers of conquest began to claim much of the ‘unknown’ world in the names of various kings and queens, the islands of Palau fell under Spanish control, and the region was at the time known as the Caroline Islands. The decision on control of Palau was made by Pope Leo XIII, since both Germany and Britain had made claims for the islands.  

Shortly after the Spanish-American War, Palau was sold to Germany, where in 1899 it became part of German New Guinea (some combination of Micronesian islands and present day Papua New Guinea). In the short time period during which Palau was under German administration, a rather fierce economic development campaign led to the significant exploitation of Palau’s bauxite and phosphate resources. It is worth mentioning here that rampant mining of phosphate in Nauru brought that nation to an economic peak, growth equaled only by its precipitous fall into economic ruin. Today, the island nation of Nauru is one of the poorest nations in the world. 

In 1914, during World War I, Palau was conquered by Imperial Japan, which held control until 1944. It is in this thirty-year period that much of Palau was developed for resource export to Japan, and that Palau’s fishing industry was strengthened. So strong was Palau’s fishing industry that it was periodically referred to as _chiisai_ Tokyo, or little Tokyo.

Incidentally, the Japanese introduced baseball to Palau in 1920. It is also in this time period that for the first time, due to Japanese policies on immigration, Palauans became outnumbered in their own homeland. Many traditional practices were also discouraged, such as tattooing, which amongst clans was a way of identification and denoting clan status. 

Japanese control of Palau is thought to be the part of the country’s history that still holds significance today. The Japanese government ensured that Palauan children were fluent in Japanese, and leveraged the loyalty of Palauans to their clans to institute chiefs sympathetic to Japan, thereby winning obedience from Palauans to Japanese governance. Today, many elderly Palauans know Japanese, and children of those elders recall listening to Japanese music in their youth without understanding the lyrics. Many words and family names in Palau have Japanese roots or origins, and many of Palau’s presidents are of mixed Palauan and Japanese descent. 

Japanese control of Palau ended in 1947. What many may not know is that Palau holds a special place in World War II history, as the site of the Battle of Peleliu, fought between the American and Japanese during the Pacific campaigns. The Battle of Peleliu is considered one of the most costly naval battles, and also as a battle that took far longer than initially thought. Given Palau’s small size and the relative ease in surrounding the region in the Pacific, the American navy commanders predicted that Palau would be secured in four days. 

In fact, the battle lasted over two months, claiming 2,000 American and 10,000 Japanese lives. This was the highest casualty count of any WWII battle fought in the Pacific region, and to-date, many military scholars question the strategic value of Palau in the context of the war, and whether such an effort should ever have been made to claim those territories. 

From my perspective, the passing of Palau into United States control in 1947 marks a pivotal change in both Palau’s political and environmental history. After 1947 came the difficult, often violent period of self-determination that ultimately led Palau to identify itself with its customs and natural heritage—both precursors to its current labyrinthine political landscape and its exemplary environmental regulations. By 1979, administration by the United States was a foregone conclusion; however, Palau still believed itself to be sufficiently different in language and culture from other Micronesian regions to refuse to join the Federated States of Micronesia. Had it voted in favour of this move, Palau might have found a measure of independence earlier than it did. 

After the rejection to become Federated in 1979, Palauan society entered a 15 year period of political and social turmoil. Relations with the United States were strained as Palauans wished to be independent and return to the status they enjoyed under traditional governance. The general perception of leaders in Palau during this time was highly negative, and for the first time since an inter-village war in 1879, civil unrest escalated into full-blown anarchy, during which time two presidents were killed (1985, and 1988). In 1985, the first president of Palau was assassinated in what remains an unsolved case. In 1988, the second president of Palau committed suicide amidst corruption allegations. At one point during this tumultuous era, the ibedul, or High Chief, was compelled to rule with complete authority, as a monarch, to facilitate a transition. 

Finally, in 1994, Palau’s political atmosphere stabilized when it signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States. In doing so, Palau asserted its political independence, but not without significant financial dependence on United States aid money. Still, since 1994, in the twenty years of peaceful independence, Palauan governments have successfully established Palau as both an ecological preserve and a tourist hotspot. 

Today, I observe Palau’s upper layer:  the years of three colonizations, a marine battle, political turmoil, are covered under a single main paved road and all the many SUVs that hum along. Nobody speeds in Palau, because as I’m told, island mentality is that things take their own course, and living on a such a small piece of land, who could be in a hurry to go anywhere?

Palau has no traffic lights, and although it is visited by over 100,000 people a year, only about 20,000 people live here, and even fewer are native Palauan. Palau’s constitution has recognized the authority of chiefs and traditional laws, making the jurisdiction and authority of various legal and political bodies a nightmare when it comes to issues of contemporary and customary importance. Since I am working on fisheries, one such issue of blended significance, Palau’s complex constitutional provisions and method of ruling on disputes is of special interest to me. But more on customs in another entry. 

Much of Palau is under the Protected Area Network: most people live in the island of Koror, Palau’s financial and social center. The rest are scattered among 6 other islands, while the others are uninhabited. 

The Rock Islands Story

Palau’s iconic imagery is that of several ‘rock’ islands of varying size. Some are so large they could support a small village; others are so small that you would fall off before you climbed on, if that makes sense. 

But these are not veritable islands, in the sense that most of us understand. The Rock Islands are a testament to Palau’s unique and fragile marine wealth, having formed from relics of coral reefs. They are comprised almost entirely of limestone, and are strewn about in the Pacific Ocean near Palau. 

Although visiting the Rock Islands can be very expensive for the average tourist, I was allowed to be part of my landlady’s group that had acquired passes for a speedboat tour of the islands. A veritable paradise, with some islands protruding, lonely, and others grouped together to form lagoons, the islands were home to every shade of green overgrowth, while the waters they enclosed took on every shade of blue. If only for these islands, Palau’s exemplary environmental laws are worth it. 

Until next time,