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.”
Prior to their journey, the students participate in a semester-long preparatory course that includes learning about the history, ecology, culture and current challenges facing the island. It is led by Perkins and two other faculty members who accompany the group to Yap.
Dr. Bonnie Shishko, assistant professor of English Literature & Creative Writing Department, who came with them this year, explained some of the program that she leads: “The students reflect on their own cultural norms and on those of Yap. They’re required to keep journals throughout the program. I’ve been very pleased to see them all writing in their journals every day.”
Also leading the prep course and accompanying the group this year was Dr. Andy Tucker, associate professor of Chemistry and chair of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. T
his is his fifth trip to the island. “I grew up in Arkansas watching Cousteau’s adventures,” he said, never believing he would one day go to an island on the other side of the world surrounded by one of the oceans that Cousteau explored. After joining the Air National Guard where he became an imagery specialist, Tucker went on to earn his PhD and join the faculty at Queens University. His expertise is used during the mapping phase of the group’s work.
Among the most memorable projects for the team over the years was working with Falanruw and the Yap State Department of Agriculture and Forestry to map Imperata cyclindica, an invasive grass species that is native to Asia. “We think it may have been introduced after World War Two. It started at the old Japanese runway near the airport,” Perkins said. The plant is highly flammable, but the fire doesn’t kill the roots and, once the fire is out, quickly regrows and crowds out any competitors. “It eats into the forest. In 2001, we used location mapping and discovered something like 36 acres where it was growing. Today that’s been cut to scattered points totaling less than a quarter of an acre.”
Between 2001 and 2003, the group worked with the island’s fire department to map burned areas. The information was turned over to Yap’s fire department and has been instrumental in helping identify, prevent and contain fires that might otherwise spread. In addition, the data were used by the US Forestry Service to develop and validate their fire models applied throughout the Pacific islands.
When asked to give one or two words about their impression of Yap, the students replied with words like pristine, friendly and open, beautiful and like no place I’ve ever been. Their awe at where they landed for two weeks at the end of their junior and, for one student from Spain, his senior year, thanks to their visionary school was palpable.
“A program like this opens your eyes about the amount of difference you can make,” Perkins said. “It shows how you can move the needle in a place like Yap. The island is small enough to wrap your head around and large enough so you can really do something that will have an impact. In addition to doing the field work, we spend even more time on tech transfer and capacity building for our counterparts. Our real goal is to work ourselves out of a job.”