Taboos and Conservation: Traditional Conservation Sites in the Marshall Islands

Project Contributor: Nancy Vander Velde with Jorelik Tibon

In previous times, tribal chiefs could designate an island, a section of land or reef as being mo, or “taboo”. These areas were off-limits to people in general, being reserved for only certain personages and purposes. As in other countries, however, changes in biodiversity and culture have continued to increase in recent years. The Marshall Islands’ biodiversity has become threatened by invasive species, urbanization, development, and climate change. Caring for traditional resources has often been neglected as the society has moved into more contemporary systems of economics and governance. Over the past few years, however, some marine protected areas (MPAs) have been established in the Marshall Islands, and continue to be established on some remote atolls such as Rongalap, Ailingnae and Rongerik. The project “Collection and Documentation of Traditional Conservation Sites”, based in Majuro in the Marshall Islands and supported in part by the local government, documents the traditional knowledge and beliefs linked to traditional conservation sites and other traditionally taboo areas in the Marshall Islands. The Woja Conservation Area was recently established in part of Majuro Atoll, the capital of the modern Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI). Being the population centre, it is probably the most visible of the current marine protected areas in the country. There are roadside signs that serve to raise public awareness of the concept of modern protected areas.

Jorelik Tibon, who was Project Coordinator of the Marshall Islands Biodiversity Project, resides in the land adjacent to the MPA. He expresses his point of view about the current management of MPAs as follows: ‘Not enough attention is being given to understanding the new challenges of protected areas from the perspectives of the caretakers of these resources. In the past, when the authority and the law were vested with the ruling iroij, or high chiefs, the people did observe sanctions and orders issued by the iroij. Now law and order are held by constitutional governments on the national and local level, and therefore the governments need to be part of successful management of mo along with the iroij. Since the national constitution recognizes the rights of the alaps [traditional landowners], they likewise need to be involved. As landowners and other people live close to the conservation sites, they need to be part of government conservation initiatives, because they are the ones using these resources. On the other hand, for community-based conservation initiatives such as the one in Woja area, they also need the help of governments for activities in relation to which the local community lacks the expertise or resources. Assistance from the Environmental Protection Authority and the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority for marine surveys and incorporation of modern and scientific applications and approaches is vital. Local government can be useful for monitoring and policing the areas. For questions that call for more scientific studies (such as the state of water quality and likelihood of marine animal survival in the environment considering pollution and climate change impacts), additional help from outside the community and perhaps the country is required.’ The project aims to integrate traditional concepts of conservation into the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan of the Marshall Islands.

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