By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Tommy Remengesau Jr: The environmental legacy
Palau became the world’s model for ocean conservation in 2015 when President Tommy Remengesau Jr. signed a landmark measure establishing the Palau National Marine Sanctuary. The ambitious initiative closed 80 percent of Palau’s Exclusive Economic Zone to commercial fishing while maintaining 20 percent for domestic fishing and food security. The initiative seeks to protect not only Palau’s marine resources, but also the world’s tuna stocks.
This is the most remarkable legacy that Remengesau will leave upon his retirement from politics. But he won’t take full credit for the achievement. “This legacy did not just happen during my administration. It is the people’s legacy, the fishermen’s and resource owners’,” said Remengesau, who is turning over the baton of leadership to his successor and brother-in-law, President-elect Surangel Whipps Jr. “I’ll be out of office and I know my successor will continue this.”
Remengesau is one of the most vocal world leaders who seek to address climate action and protect the environment. “The Paris Agreement was a good start for the whole world but we would like to see more progress and implementation,” he said. “The scientific community has done a lot of research and provided information. Now it only takes the political will of the nations to act on them.”
Under Remengesau’s leadership, Palau became the pioneer of other bold environmental initiatives that further drew the world’s attention to this Pacific nation of 18,000 people. In 2009, Palau became the world’s first shark sanctuary— inspiring many other countries, including the Maldives, Honduras and Marshall Islands to follow suit.
Last year, Palau became the first country to ban sun cream that is harmful to corals and sea life. In December, Palau became the first country in the world to change its immigration policies to engage its tourists in the nation’s efforts to protect its environment. Upon arrival, visitors are required to sign the Palau Pledge that makes them commit to act in an “ecologically and culturally responsible way.”
Remengesau’s political accomplishments at home did not go unnoticed. In 2007, the Time magazine named him “Hero of the Environment,” describing him as “part of a change that the world needs to see.” In 2013, he received the inaugural Pacific Champion Award, an honor bestowed as part of the Pacific Islands Environmental Leadership Award, and in 2014, he was named “UNEP Champion of the Earth.”
He was among the 14 world leaders of the Ocean Panel committed to sustainably manage 100 percent of ocean area under national jurisdiction by 2025, guided by Sustainable Ocean Plans. The countries will bring a holistic approach to ocean management that balances protection, production and prosperity to nearly 30 million sq km of national waters – an area the size of Africa.
“It is important that policies are made to make sure that our ocean is 100 percent sustainable,” the outgoing president said.
Despite its sound policies, however, Palau is faced with new challenges including climate change, ocean acidification, increasing pollution and illegal fishing.
In his remarks before the Ocean Panel on Dec. 2, Remengsau said, a Sustainable Ocean Plan will set Palau’s framework as the nation builds on the Palau National Marine Sanctuary’s initial implementation and begin to develop a domestic artisanal fishing sector. “It will identify our needs and opportunities and guide the development of our partnerships to support our sustainable development,” he said. “Getting the right balance between protection and production will not happen by accident – it is something that we need to actively plan for, and to live up to our ocean traditions and heritage,” he said.
Palau is among the 10 countries in the world that remain Covid-free. The president had to choose between economy and public safety. He closed the nation’s border, resulting in zero tourism. The circumstances that paralyzed Palau’s main industry, the president said, further underscored the value of the ocean in relation to his nation’s security and livelihood.
“When you talk about the downfall of tourism, you find yourself relying a lot more on the ocean for economic security,” he said.
Remengesau is Palau’s ninth president and the first to be elected to the top political seat four times. He was first elected President in 2000 and was re-elected in 2004.
Constitutionally limited to two consecutive presidential terms, Remengesau was elected in 2008 as Senator in the Palau National Congress (Olbiil Era Kelulau), where he served until his election as President again in 2012 followed by re-election to his fourth and present term in 2016.
He is leaving with some unfinished business, mainly the renegotiation of the expiring provisions of the Compact of Free Association with the U.S. But Remengesau expressed confidence that his country will be in good hands.
He will now step aside and go fishing.