North Carolina students explore island environment, culture
Colonia, Yap— Imagine having an international study experience built into your college tuition rather an as an expensive option. Imagine knowing from your first day on campus that you will be traveling to some place in the world that you may never have dreamed of going or even heard of.
That’s what the entering freshmen at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina eagerly anticipate when they arrive on campus. At some time during their college years, they will travel. One of the places some of them will opt to go is the remote island of Yap.
Dr. Reed Perkins, a professor in the school’s Environmental Science & Chemistry Department, had also never heard of Yap when he was his students’ age. It wasn’t until he was studying for his PhD at Oregon State University more than 20 years ago that Perkins signed up to go to Saipan for a Micronesia and Pacific Island Program and learned about the region.
Joining the Queens faculty in 1998 soon after graduation, Perkins was put in touch with renowned forestry expert and long-time Yap resident, Dr. Marjorie Cushing Falanruw, who invited him to visit the island to discuss the idea of adding Yap to the college’s John Belk International Program. Perkins arrived in 2000 at his own expense and met with Falanruw as well as then director of Education, Henry S. Falan, who is now the state’s governor, and the late Charles Chieng who was director of the Yap Community Action Program until his death in 2010 and an active environmentalist. “He became our mentor and our guiding light,” Perkins said.
Since then, up to a dozen students have arrived in Yap every spring to work with governmental agencies. But, Perkins said, “We don’t steer the canoe. We only paddle it. We take our direction from agencies that include the EPA, Agriculture and Forestry, Historic Preservation, Marine Resources, Department of Education and others. We are here to support them, not tell them what we think they need.”
The first order of business when the group arrives on the island for their two-week stay is to set the work schedule. The first couple of days are spent introducing the newcomers to the island, but by the time Monday rolls around they begin to learn about their first assignments.
In the second week of their stay, the group of 11 students and three faculty members meets with their local partners and residents of the island to determine how to best use the drones and GPS devices they brought along. “They tell us how they want us to deploy the devices,” said Perkins.
“The focus of our current work is the Salty Taro Project,” Perkins explained. “We’re mapping the extent of the impact of saltwater intrusion on taro due to rising sea levels.”
In 2013 and 2014, women in 117 of the 120 villages throughout the island were surveyed by a staff member of the Department of Agriculture to determine where they grow their taro and which patches are perceived to be saline.
“We then entered all of the taro patch locations and conditions into a Geographic Information System – a spatial database used for mapping. When we analyzed the data, the results were shocking. All over Yap, people were reporting salty taro up to 5 meters in elevation. It was like a bathtub ring around the island. Considering that most Outer Islands have a maximum elevation of 5 meters, it’s safe to assume they’re facing an even greater impact on food production.”
With 40 percent of Yap’s population of 11,000 inhabitants living in the Outer Islands, the potential for them to relocate to the main island presents a serious challenge. “And,” Perkins continued, “67 percent of the best areas on Yap to grow taro are within that five-meter elevation, which means two-thirds of the area that is optimal for production would be lost. This project,” he added, “has been significant due to the importance of taro to the Yap way of life. Take away taro and you take away a big part of Yap’s culture.”