Social Equity and the Need to Decolonize Marine Conservation in the Pacific Islands

This essay was first published in the journal Poplar & Ivy in an issue dedicated to inclusion and decolonization in science.  

Guam delegates to the 2016 Pacific Arts Festival carried signs reading, "Decolonize Oceania, Free Guahan."

As if the prior year hadn’t brought enough trauma on people worldwide, so far, 2021 has unleashed a torrent of epic natural disasters—from fires and floods to typhoons and droughts—that have put the climate and nature emergencies at center stage. However, the global conservation community cannot adequately or sustainably address these dual crises until it first solves a predicament that has plagued us since our origins: the inequity in representation, leadership, and decision-making that flowed from the problematic history of Western and colonial visions of conservation (Bennett, 2021).

The global pandemic and the murder of George Floyd were catalysts, forcing many Americans to reckon, some for the first time, with our history of racism and colonialism. Although many people and communities have been talking about justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion for years, many conservation advocacy organizations are only recently waking up to the importance of including all people in conservation, reassessing who they are as institutions, what they do, and how they do it.

When we do not involve Americans who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color in the conservation movement in a similar, transformative, and meaningful way, we fail both nature and people.

Let me explain.

I’m from a place you’ve never heard of, and it is owned by, but not part of, the United States of America. The people born there are all American citizens and serve in the U.S. military at rates higher than any other community in our country (U.S., 2016). However, we can’t vote for the U.S. president, and we have limited representation in Congress.

Saipan, my beautiful green island, sits along the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. My father is buried there, along with all of our ancestors, their bones as much a part of the land as my living identity is today.

When the Spanish landed on our shores in 1521, they called us “Chamorro,” perhaps because of our shorn hair, and the name stuck. We sometimes refer to ourselves as the “taotao tano”; translated to English, it means “people of the land.” Along with the Spanish, our islands were colonized by the Germans, then the Japanese, and, now, the Americans. Five hundred years is a long time to be a colonized people.

The United States, a country founded by 13 former colonies, today has 13 “unincorporated insular areas,” not including the District of Columbia. Nearly 4 million Americans live in these territories today; by comparison, there were only 2.5 million people living in the 13 colonies in 1776. I think most Americans are aware that U.S. territories exist (Mack, 2017). However, little is taught about them in our schools, and we rarely hear about them on the news (Immerwah, 2019). For the Marianas, people may have heard of the World War II battles on Guam and Saipan, or they know there are military bases on our islands, but not much else.

The American citizens living in the U.S. territories do not enjoy the full rights of the Constitution that the rest of Americans do. This is a result of early 20th-century Supreme Court decisions called the Insular Cases (Torruella, 2007/2013) that answered the question of whether people in newly acquired territories were citizens, a question the country had never faced before. The court held that applying the constitutional protection of rights in the territories, including citizenship, was up to the discretion of the U.S. Congress.8 The prevailing court opinions at the time, which are still upheld today, included offensive language that deemed us an “alien race” of “savage and restless people'' unable to understand “Anglo-Saxon principles.” Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan was ahead of his time when he wrote in his dissent, “The idea that this country may acquire territories anywhere upon the earth, by conquest or treaty, and hold them as mere colonies or provinces, the people inhabiting them to enjoy only such rights as Congress chooses to accord them, is wholly inconsistent with the spirit and genius, as well as with the words, of the Constitution.”

Our communities regularly examine our relationship with the United States (Maurin, 2020), but no single agreed-upon future has yet emerged. However, there is strong agreement that we can begin right now to fix or even outright remove the social, political, and structural barriers and approaches that have disempowered our people, perpetuate inequities, and contributed to ongoing environmental degradation. In conservation, correcting these deficiencies is often referred to as “social equity.” Others have connected these ideas to “decolonization” (Belhabib, 2021). Simply put, these concepts must begin with deconstructing the barriers that have kept Indigenous peoples out of too many conservation decisions and instead center them.

This undertaking is best represented by our renaissance of cultural restoration and Indigenous identity, which has grown in parallel with the environmental movement, not just on our islands but across the entire Pacific. Indigenous peoples are the longtime stewards and owners of the last remnants of wilderness on our planet, and our leadership, values, and knowledge are the best hope we have for protecting nature and achieving the global goal to protect 30 percent of lands and waters by 2030 in a way that is equitable and just.

Indigenous peoples understand the fragility of the balance of nature, as most of us consider ourselves kin to nature. My ancestors witnessed environmental destruction—Pacific Islanders caused the greatest bird extinction in the history of humankind as we migrated from island to island with our appetites and invasive species—and, in response, we developed traditional strategies and ethics for restoring what we damaged. These ancient values, passed down through the oral tradition, inform our decisions today when we are faced with modern threats such as industrial fishing, pollution, and climate change, making Pacific Islanders international thought leaders in global conservation.

The great Pacific scholar Epeli Hau’ofa wrote, “No people on earth are more suited to be guardians of the world’s largest ocean than those for whom it has been home for generations.” The earliest heralds of the global climate emergency were leaders from low-lying Pacific atolls, with heroes such as Minister Tony de Brum from the Marshall Islands championing the Paris Agreement. The highest concentration of protected area networks and locally managed marine areas are all in the Pacific, too. Kiribati, Palau, and Hawaii are home to large-scale marine protected areas bigger than most countries. The Marianas, my home, are stewards of the iconic Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.

However, I don’t want to give you the impression that all conservation efforts in the Pacific are successful. Many have failed. And although the vast majority of Pacific Islanders support ocean conservation, some initiatives are met with opposition by local communities. For example, during the past year in the Marianas, there have been several conservation initiatives that have been supported, with others opposed, and to the outside observer, this may seem very confusing.

Communities’ decisions to support or oppose conservation measures are very simple to understand once you realize that the process of ocean conservation matters greatly. How decisions are made and who gets to make them can make all the difference, especially with Indigenous peoples and other marginalized communities of color.

The aforementioned Mariana Trench Marine National Monument, one of the largest protected areas on the planet, went through a process this year in which a management plan was put forward by the federal government for public comment. The process was mostly uncontroversial (Press Release, 2021), as the protected area was designated more than 12 years ago and had the longtime support of a local, Indigenous-led organization, the Friends of the Mariana Trench Monument. The group has engaged with the community for years on the biological and cultural importance of the Mariana Trench and the surrounding waters. The comment period ended with letters of support from elected officials, local and national nongovernmental organizations, scientists, Indigenous elders, and other community leaders. Thanks to the high level of community engagement and involvement, the islanders are excited about the opportunity to implement the management plan and support the process.

At the same time, the community was going through a parallel process to designate critical habitats for threatened and endangered coral reef species. The mechanics of this designation were similar in that proposed rules were posted to the Federal Register, and local communities were asked to comment. But rather than support, there has been near-universal opposition to listing this critical habitat (Clymer, 2021).

In my view, the difference is that the federal agencies proposing the critical habitat listings did not engage with the local communities in a meaningful way. They did not explain how the listings would help or harm the community, did not offer different solutions to address the threats that corals face, and exempted waters that are controlled by the U.S. military, which was particularly inflammatory for some (Pacific Daily News, 2021).

This was a missed opportunity because everyone in the community agrees that corals are important and threatened, but ignoring the ownership of these resources by local people and making decisions on their behalf without local input has seriously impaired the ability of government agencies to protect nature. In fact, in the very same summer, the local community rejected critical habitat designations for coral reefs, local groups sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Pacific Daily News, 2021), saying the agency failed to protect critical habitat for 23 species in the Marianas.

All the differences in these three examples came down to equity and community engagement. There is strong scientific evidence that protecting at least 30 percent of the ocean will benefit nature and people, but if we don’t pay careful attention to who gets to make decisions and how people are engaged in making them, we will only continue to exclude and harm people.

It is very difficult to talk about the interplay of conservation and Indigenous peoples without first acknowledging that colonialism still exists in the United States and the world today. This is a painful reality. And although some leaders are making efforts to address it, it is clear—for example, in the United States’ relationship with Indigenous Americans—that governments need to strive for more. Focusing on social equity is the right thing to do, and there is strong evidence that equitable approaches lead to more durable outcomes.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland inspired me when she said, “In spite of our agonizing history, Native American people find much to celebrate. The songs, dances, culture, and traditions surrounding planting and harvests, the prayers that are sent upward for healing and peace, and the welcoming of children into our families, are all reasons for us to keep moving forward with optimism” (Gorman, 2018).

We cannot change history, but we can learn from it. We can counter the legacy of colonialism by advancing inclusive and equitable approaches to conservation that are more collaborative, people-centered, and locally-led. By doing so, both nature and people will benefit.

The references in this essay are listed on the Poplar & Ivy website.


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