Kayangel, in its relative isolation, is distinct in its rustic environment and subsistence way of life. However, the state has faced a slew of threats to its environmental safety in the past years, including typhoon damage, rat infestation, and trash washup. In response, Kayangel State, along with numerous donors, has initiated a series of ongoing efforts to protect its environment, such as a home-gardening project and invasive species eradication.
The Kayangel State Food Security Resilience Project, which involved the planting of 27 home gardens, one for every household on Kayangel, and a community garden earlier this year, has been yielding a healthy source of food for the island’s community, says Kayangel State Governor Richard Ngiraked.
The project was a response to the damage caused by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which destroyed much of the island’s crop system.
Governor Ngiraked, who assumed office this past July, says that the project is ongoing. Right now, workers employed by the Palau Visitors Authority (PVA) Reemployment Program are receiving training from the Palau Community College (PCC) Cooperative Research and Extension Program on how to properly put together table gardens.
The tabletop gardens provide smaller vegetables such as napa, while the community garden in the center of the island grows crops such as corn, papayas, and potatoes. The community garden reaped its first corn harvest in September. The Governor says that the corn which is harvested is distributed to every household, and sometimes given to relatives of Kayangel citizens living elsewhere in Palau, but is never sold.
“In Kayangel, we sell fish, but the land food, we don’t sell,” said Governor Ngiraked. “It’s only for the citizens and the relatives.”
The crops grown on Kayangel, however, are susceptible to damage not only from superstorms like Haiyan, but also from invasive species. Rats have been a nuisance to the environment and agriculture in Kayangel for decades.
The smaller Polynesian rat has inhabited the island for a long time, says the Governor. But it was not until the shipwreck of a fishing boat on Ngeriungs Islet in the 1980s that the larger ship rats were introduced. Governor Ngiraked says that, while the Polynesian rat continues to cause a little damage to crops, the larger rats were far more destructive. The citizens would plant corn, and it would all be destroyed before any could be harvested.
The rats are also believed to have caused extensive damage to the island’s environment, such as its native birdlife. By attacking bird nests, it is believed that rats have caused further endangerment of the endemic Palau Island megapode. Research in other Pacific islands has suggested that, through chain reactions, the presence of rats can even cause damage to coral reefs.
A project in March and April of 2018, in which Governor Ngiraked took part, sought to eradicate the rat population on Kayangel by spreading poisoned bait over the entire island, on “all the roads and crossroads”.
The project ended in the disappearance of the larger ship rats. However, the smaller Polynesian rats remain. The Governor believes this is because the smaller rats have the habit of climbing and hiding in coconut trees. The Polynesian rats are known for digging holes and eating from coconuts, which may greatly reduce their need to forage for food on the ground.
Although the Polynesian rats remain, the damage to the crops has been much less severe. Nevertheless, Governor Ngiraked says he hopes that future efforts can be made to reduce the remaining rat population on the island.
Along with typhoons such as Haiyan, the ocean brings another big problem to Kayangel’s shores: garbage.
Many of the beaches around Kayangel are littered with trash, ranging from plastic bottles to sandals and food packaging. However, the trash is not from Kayangel. It is brought in from the ocean, much of it not even originating from the other islands of Palau, but seemingly from the Asian mainland and other places.
According to Governor Ngiraked, the citizens of Kayangel keep on cleaning their beaches of the washed-up trash, but the trash keeps washing up.
Although the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean is one which cannot be solved by Palau alone, the Governor says that the best way for Kayangel to deal with the problem is to improve its capacity to dispose of the trash.
Right now, the only landfill capable of accommodating this large amount of foreign garbage is in Aimeliik, which is set to be opened as the new National Landfill this coming January. The new landfill, funded by the Japanese Government, is capable of holding 384,898 cubic meters of waste.
Governor Ngiraked expressed the hope that Kayangel can continue to work with donors to bring the washed-up trash to the landfill in Aimeliik. Doing so would require regular boat service between Kayangel and Koror, as well as installing a trash-compactor in Kayangel which could crush the waste to a more manageable size. The plastic bottles, which make up a majority of the garbage washup, cannot be used for recycling because they are not imported, says the Governor, and must be disposed of in the landfill.
“This is a big problem for our environment,” said Governor Ngiraked. “I hope we can find a way to keep our beaches free of it.”