Blending Science Knowledge with Ancient Traditions

Program trains in sustainability, biodiversity, human health, and more.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

On Yap, a Pacific island that is part of Micronesia, the native people fish the traditional way. They construct kites made of bread fruit leaves, the spines of the Pandanus plant and coconut fiber rope, and fly them over the reef, dropping their lines to attract long-nose needlefish. These are the only fish the islanders want, and the only ones lured by this unusual gear.

“It’s ecologically sound and sustainable, and they have been doing it for generations,” says Robert H. Richmond, a research professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “More importantly, no Western scientist could teach them a better way.”

Richmond tells this story to make the point that marine and environmental science training must be relevant to the region, and include not just current science and technology, but an awareness of the unique cultural aspects of the communities that will benefit, in this case, Pacific Islanders. 

“Historically, the United States was given a protectorate role to help the islands segue from the end of World War II into the 20th Century, but the people who came in as advisors brought a set of opinions different from those who live on the islands,” he says. 

“Somebody could come in and tell the people of Yap that their kind of fishing technique is a waste of time, and they could use more efficient gear.  Well, that kind of gear might be really good for Lake Michigan, but what the people of Yap are doing is very appropriate and the only way to handle their fisheries,” he adds. “We could try to get them more efficient and better ways of doing it, and possibly drive their resources into extinction.  Many of the people who’ve come in over the years have had the best intentions, but didn’t know how to bridge the science with the cultural attributes of these unique islands.”

Richmond directs the Partnership for Advanced Marine and Environmental Science Training for Pacific Islanders, a program for local students that is trying to close this gap. The goal is to blend up-to-date scientific knowledge with the ancient traditions that have served the islanders well over thousands of years.

“Many of these islands don’t have people well trained in modern sciences,” he says.  “There is great traditional knowledge among them, but they didn’t traditionally have to deal with such things as, for example, organophosphate pesticides.”

The program serves students who attend the American Samoa Community College, the College of Micronesia-FSM, the College of the Marshall Islands, Northern Marianas College, and Palau Community College. It is part of the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program. The NSF is supporting the program with $837,000 over three years.

The Pacific Islands contain highly diverse and unusual coral reef and terrestrial ecosystems that currently are under stress and deterioration due to numerous factors, among them overfishing and coastal pollution from sedimentation and the increasing use of agrochemicals. Because many of the islands have in the past depended on the U.S. mainland to provide trained scientists and technicians, many environmental and technological programs have failed due to lack of involvement.

Many believe that the future of the islands and their populations will depend heavily on the technical skills and knowledge of the local people. The hope is that by training local people in these skills, they will become more invested in their homeland’s environmental future.

“The oceans are in trouble,” Richmond says. “We have some of the most incredible resources in the world that range from absolutely pristine to pretty well compromised.  And the people who will sustain them are Pacific Islanders, not people from the outside.”

The program seeks to produce culturally-connected Pacific Islanders who will be specifically trained to serve their home islands in natural resource assessment, protection and restoration, and who can provide information to the broader international community on the special problems experienced in island nations relative to topics such as resource sustainability, protection of biodiversity, pollution control and the connection between environmental and human health.