The opening ceremony of the London Olympics doubled as an extended geography lesson, with athletes and flags paraded from 206 nations. Many of them will have been familiar to the event’s estimated global television audience of 1bn but in amongst them were a few countries that rarely enjoy a moment in the spotlight. One in particular was so unfamiliar that it sparked a social media frenzy, with some twitter users speculating that it was in fact a made-up planet from Star Trek. In this week’s Beyond The Headlines we visit the tiny nation that trended globally for one night – The Federated States of Micronesia. Alec Dudson got in touch with Bill Raynor, the Interim Director of The Nature Conservancy, who landed in Micronesia in 1981 and has never looked back. They talk paradise, giant yams, marrying into clans, climate change and how Bill came to receive the title ‘Lord of the South Seas.’
How and when did your work bring you to Micronesia?
I first went out to Micronesia in 1981 as a volunteer teacher pretty much straight out of college. At that time, the Federated States of Micronesia was still a Trust Territory of the United Nations administered by the United States, and the island of Pohnpei, now the capitol of the young country, was still largely undeveloped. The village I lived and taught in had no roads, no water system, and no electricity. There was one telephone on the whole island!
On the surface it appears to be a paradise, have you come to terms with it’s incredible natural beauty do you ever find yourself overwhelmed at all?
Well, paradise is what you make it right? I mean if you have the right attitude, anywhere can be paradise. The 2000+ islands of Micronesia are spectacularly beautiful from a western perspective – sandy beaches, lush rainforests, turquoise blue lagoons with healthy coral reefs and abundant marine life. But in the last few decades development pressures have taken their toll – fast growing populations, deforestation, overfishing, pollution and sediment from land-based activities, and introduction of invasive species have all contributed to degrade the natural capital on which the Micronesians have depended for millennia for their survival. From a human perspective, what really attracted me to the islands and made me stay was the strong sense of community that dominates across the archipelago. You gain social status and influence by what you contribute to your family, your village and your island – not from conspicuous consumption and focus getting rich and living the “high life”. In spite of the growing environment problems and lack of a viable economy, this island “attitude” still helps maintain an “aura” of paradise. They have a lot to offer to us in the western world!
Your work sets out to combat the climate change issues that threaten the country, how crucial to the various scheme’s success is education and how good are the facilities for this?
Climate change is definitely the number one threat to the islands in the future, but because it is just that – a “future” threat – few leaders or institutions are addressing it directly at this point. A lot of The Nature Conservancy’s work focuses on preparing people for the inevitable environmental change to come – warming water and rising sea levels, droughts and increased intensity of tropical storms, coastal inundation, and degrading coral reef systems due to ocean acidification. On the high islands, repositioning agriculture and new infrastructure further inland, improving fresh water management, and decreasing overharvest, pollution, sediment and other stressors to mangroves and reef systems to increase their resilience to change are just a part of what needs to be done. We have also worked with the island governments of the world to help them come together and make a stronger case to the developed nations about the impacts of continuing to do nothing about rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. So far, though, this strategy has not paid off much. Education is critical to prepare people for a changing future, but so far local institutions, including the government, have focused on more immediate priorities – e.g., building an economy, addressing rising crime rates, and dealing with out-migration of the labor force mainly to the US.
Micronesia seems to have quite a young population, how strongly have the various traditions of the area been transferred to the younger generation?
The population of Micronesia remains one of the fastest growing in the world, and combined with the growing prevalence of “life-style” diseases like heart problems, diabetes and cancer, this has led to a very youthful population. As in other parts of the world, the young tend to migrate to the district centers for work and educational opportunities, and more and more, just keep going on to the U.S. in search of better opportunities for themselves and their families. The result is that the island cultures and traditions, and more importantly, the traditional knowledge of how to survive on an island with finite resources is not being passed on to the new generation, and instead is being quickly lost as the elders die off.
What can you tell us about your honorary title and the giant yam that helped in your being granted it?
In Pohnpei, as in most of Micronesia, rank in society is gained through a combination of blood line – mostly matrilineal – and contributions to family, clan, and political unit. In Pohnpei, one visible way that men contribute is through the growing and presentation of yams, pigs, and kava (locally known as sakau). Men who can produce large quantities of these prestige crops at all the major ceremonies quickly increase their status and thus their influence in their islands. I was lucky to marry into a high-status clan – totally unknowingly at the time – and also had an agricultural degree from the University of California. Mixing my western agricultural knowledge with my wife’s traditional knowledge and a little magic, I became known early on as an exceptional yam producer, exceptional especially because I was a foreigner! I don’t think the local chiefs knew what to do with me, so they gave me a special title – Soumadau en Pei ni Eng Eihr – which roughly translates to the Lord of the South Seas, and I’ve been a ranking member of Pohnpeian society ever since!
How important symbolically could the country’s participation in the Olympics be? How Micronesia benefit from being catapulted into the public consciousness?
Because of our long colonial history – first the Spanish, then the Germans, followed by the Japanese and most recently the Americans, Micronesians are sometimes considered by their island neighbors to the south and Asian countries as “puppets” of the US and the west. Having our own team in the Olympics, even if they don’t win any medals, proves to the world and to our own people that we are a true player on the world stage and an independent country with all the benefits and responsibilities that that entails. And because Micronesia is such an unknown part of the world for so many people in other countries, there is hope that the increased public consciousness about our small country and the unique challenges we face as a small island nation – many like climate change which are not of our making – we may raise the world’s consciousness and support to help us overcome them.
It seems that you fell in love with the country upon arrival. What aspect of the it/or its people have you found most compelling during your time in there?
Well, not sure which happened first – falling in love with Micronesia or falling in love with the local chief’s daughter – but whichever way it went down, I’m still here! As I mentioned before, the real appeal of Micronesia to me then and now, is that a place and a people that have so little, can give so much. I love the fact that people here value human relationships more than personal success and comfort, and that we get our status from “giving back” rather than from making a fortune for ourselves. It’s a lesson that all the world is going to need to learn if we ever hope to live sustainably on this small planet that we call home.
How hopeful are you that the necessary steps can be taken in order to protect Micronesia against the environmental threats it faces in the coming decades?
If there is one thing I’ve learned in 30 plus years of living in Micronesia, it’s that just as nature is resilient to change when allowed to be, so too are the people of these islands. After WWII when the Japanese were expelled and the US basically closed off the islands to the world and used a few for atomic bomb testing, the local population shifted back to subsistence living based on what they could harvest and collect locally. My wife’s wardrobe for her first 10 years of life was a dress made from a rice sack. A lot of the problems we have today have been caused by a change in lifestyle to a more “modern” western approach – a move from fishing and farming to sedentary lifestyles, imported food, and alcohol. If we can just move the clock back a bit, or hold time steady in some of the more isolated outer islands, to a time when people lived off their own resources and together managed them sustainably for themselves and future generations, then a lot of the environmental threats we face will be overcome. Even the threat of climate change, which we know will have major impacts in our part of the world, can be mediated through the maintenance of healthy marine and coastal ecosystems and strong community participation and cooperation.
How would you sum the country up in a sentence?
Micronesia today is a place at the crossroads between a healthy people with a strong attachment to and pride in their environmental, historical and cultural roots and a place of disease, environmental degradation, dependence, and cultural breakdown. Today’s Micronesian leaders face big decisions about how they will move our nation forward!
Interview By Alec Dudson
Photographs by Scott Anderson