photo from Belau Guardians at website

Can the proposed resort development at Ngerchelngael island within the Koror State’s Rock Island Southern Lagoon, endangerRISL’s UNESCO World Heritage designation and will it adversely affect the integrity of the Rock Islands ecological and cultural value? Will it prevent access of the community to marine resources and freshwater sources on the island? These are the questions and issues raised both at the public hearing and through online petitions circulating to stop the rezoning of the island from a Conservation Zone to Resort Center Zone.

The private landowner of Ngerchelngael island and developers from the Four Seasons Hotel Properties Limited Group wish to develop a high-end 50 bungalows resort on the island 14-acre lot, with some of the bungalows to be built over the water.

According to the Palau National Commission for UNESCO’s response to Koror State Planning Commission, it said that UNESCO’s Operational Guidelines do not prevent sustainable development within UNESCO World Heritage Sites.  “In demonstrating Outstanding Universal Value, which is a requirement in our application for world heritage status, our dossier was developed to showcase the RISL’s most unique characteristics.  This was achieved by listing special sites and features found in Ulong, Ngemelis, Ngerukuid, Mecherchar, and unique evolutionary ecosystems found in our many marine lakes.  It is important to note that Ngerchelngael is not listed anywhere in the dossier. We should also note, however, that any significant discoveries that may be found in relevant surveys and assessments within the site in question would be documented accordingly.”

Recently, an online petition to stop the development from occurring is said to have garnered over 2,000 signatures.

The petition states in part, “Ngerchelngael holds high cultural significance that has been passed on from generation to generation.  The people of Ngerbeched have used this land for hundreds of years for fishing, freshwater, and many other resources…”  It further states, “Building a resort here could lead to delisting Palau from UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites….This will cause humiliation to the Palauan people and will irreparably damage Palau’s reputation as an environmentally conscious destination.”

It also adds “The resort will create competition for any current businesses in the tourism industry.  Their designs include bungalows, a restaurant, spa, gift shop, water sports center, dive shop, transportation to and from the airport and their own boats. … Mangroves surround Ngerchelngael and the resort plans to build overwater bungalows.  As Palauans’ we know the importance of mangroves and the delicate environment they provide for marine life.  This is high-valued habitat for juvenile fish.  This threatens the marine ecosystem of the whole bay through sedimentation and increased boat traffic.”

Palau National Commission for UNESCO’s communication to KSG Planning & Zoning Commission said thatNgerchelngaelwas not one of those islands with unique sites that contained remnants of old villages, burial grounds, rock art unlike Ulong, Ngemelis, Ngerukuid, and Mecherchar.

During the public hearing, it was acknowledged that Ngerbeched people have fished and collected marine resources around the island and collected freshwater from the island during droughts.  Mr. Theodore “Oro” Ikeda of Ngerbechedat the public hearing said that they knew the island was a private property growing up.

George Kebekol, the landowner, in an interview said he does understand the needs and uses of Ngerbeched people of the area and will work with developers to ensure their continued use of the area, especially for food gathering.  “The freshwater source had dried up but if necessary we will work to fix the source to enable them to collect water during an emergency,” stated Kebekol.

The presentation of the project at Koror State public hearing showed that most of the structures will be built on stilts both on land and in water and that the mangrove cover will not be disturbed.  It also showed the receiving area, a pool, spa, and restaurant. The presentation also showed a self-contained waste management system, water storage, and treatment for the facility.

The petition said that “The resort will create competition for any current businesses in the tourism industry.  Their designs include bungalows, a restaurant, spa, gift shop, water sports center, dive shop, transportation to and from the airport and their own boats.”  Palau laws do not allow ownership of water and land transportation by foreign investors. The developers showed the marina where customers will be shuttled in and out of the island. They did not, however, say they will own and operate the transportation or operate the tour company.  Many hotels on the island provide space for tour companies to use their facilities to service their customers.  Currently, EQPB has approved permits for 36 hotel projects with combined rooms of 2,133 rooms, which if constructed will provide competition to any existing tourism business in Palau.

Communication from the World Heritage Center of UNESCO to the National Commission of the Republic of Palau for UNESCO in August of 2018 stated that Palau should “refuse permission to continue this project, due to the irreversible impact it would have on the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage property”.  After further communications with Palau National Commission, in January of 2019, ICOMOS restated its earlier recommendation to “allow for a definitive assessment of the cultural aspect, a detailed survey of Ngerchelngael Island needs to be carried out urgently by an independent archeological team, appointed by the State Party and not by the project holder, in order to assess the density of cultural sites.”

ICOMOS in its earlier raised concerns said that the project will impact criterion VII (exceptional beauty), criterion IX and X (biodiversity of the area and impact of increased human presence) on the property.

In its January communication, it stated, “ICOMOS would emphasize that, consistent with the appropriate safeguards and processes of the State Party, the results from the such a survey would be available BEFORE any approval is considered and that State Party must be prepared to refuse issue of Historical Clearance Permit if the proposed development will have substantive adverse impact..”

The archeological study has been conducted and is under review by the Historical Preservation Office.

Rock Island Southern Lagoon UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of 445 rock islands, covers 100,200 hectares and its aesthetic beauty combined with complex reef and rich biodiversity adds to its Outstanding Universal Value.

The RISL is also the main tourist attraction of Palau, receiving over 90% of Palau’s visitors.  At Palau’s highest tourist peak in 2015, Palau had over 160,000 visitors and over 90% of them went to Koror State Rock Islands.JellyfishLake, one of RISL’s most unique assets with Outstanding Universal Value, receives thousands of visitors a year.  Of the 445 islands, 11 are for tourists uses and one is privately owned (Ngerchelngael).  Palau National Commission for UNESCO said that RISL has a management plan that includes general use and tourist zones.  “We believe are compatible in this discussion and encourages integrated management that addresses a property that already has multiple uses.”

In its initial communication with Koror State Zoning Commission, National Commission stated that “sustainable development of Ngerchelngael is admissible in accordance with UNESCO operational guidelines.”

Online petition urges people to sign the petition saying “We do not want development on these islands.  We want to keep our islands as they are, to remember who we are.” (L.N. Reklai)