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Next generation offers hope for vanishing Micronesian mangroves

June 27, 2022

The more than 600 islands of the Federated States of Micronesia contain breathtaking beauty: dense tropical forests, picturesque waterfalls, and some of the world’s healthiest coral reefs. Spanning nearly 2,000 miles across the western Pacific, the country’s size and isolation have given rise to a diversity of cultures, traditions, and languages. 

Luan Gilmete is a native and lifelong resident of Pohnpei, one of the FSM’s four main islands. A co- founder of KOHWA Incorporated, a local environmental and community organization, she has spent a decade trying to preserve Pohnpei’s fragile environment, help its people face the impacts of climate change, and empower girls and women. A recent partnership with Seacology helped her further this mission.

Luan was paired with Seacology through IREX’s Community Solutions program, a professional-development fellowship that links community leaders around the world with US-based nonprofits. After a four-month training, fellows design and carry out a six-month community project. Informed by her extensive experience with KOHWA and other organizations, Luan knew she wanted to concentrate on mangroves. 

Much of the Micronesian coastline is lined by dense mangrove forests, which shield communities from storm surges, support marine biodiversity and fisheries, and help slow climate change by sequestering enormous amounts of carbon. But as is the case in too many places, they’re being lost quickly to development and pollution. 

Luan has seen the consequences up close. As sea levels rise, Micronesian communities are struggling to keep up, and the destruction of mangroves has made it even harder. Last year, seawater inundated some of the islands’ low-lying areas, fouling wells and ruining crops like taro, a staple of the local diet. Villages and NGOs are working to replace ruined wells with alternatives like rainwater-collection systems, but this can only help so much, especially on the drier islands closer to the Equator. 

“We are all experiencing these issues, but the people on the outer islands are intensely experiencing them, and experiencing them first,” Luan explained. “So many of our mangroves are being destroyed by dredging. There was barely anything we could do because developers got the permit from the higher-ups. The small conservation groups made all these attempts to stop them, but they weren’t always successful.”

Much of Pohnpei's coastline is home to dense mangrove forests.

Pollution threatens the health of Micronesia's mangrove ecosystems.

In putting together her project, Luan came at the problem from a different direction by partnering with the Pohnpei Girl Scouts. To teach the next generation of leaders on Pohnpei about the importance of the island’s mangroves, her project organized events with the Micronesia Conservation Trust (a leading environmental NGO across the region and frequent Seacology partner) and Madolenihmw Youth Empowerment, a group that organizes coastal cleanups and educational field trips on Pohnpei. The response was excellent.

“They’re so excited and full of energy,” she said of the students, who range from fourth to seventh grade. “They’ve always seen mangroves, but they weren’t aware of all the roles they play until now.” 

“We did a group activity and one of the questions was ‘if you were president of the country, what would you do to save our mangrove forests?’ They came up with such smart answers, from banning deforestation to enforcing the existing laws on littering.”

Luan also sees the project as a way to empower women and girls in communities that have historically excluded them from decisions on resource use. She explains that women, in Micronesia and beyond, are often disproportionately impacted by climate change, water scarcity, and other issues, yet too often haven’t been part of the conversation.

“Women are traditionally responsible for storing water for their households. They’re responsible for the work that requires water, such as laundry, cooking, doing the dishes,” she explained. “But when it comes to questions such as ‘where will we put this tank?’ women are not involved. During droughts, women know best how to conserve water. But when these decisions are made, they’re often not made to address their needs.” 

Despite the mounting challenges, Luan is optimistic. Attitudes are changing. Community and conservation leaders are learning valuable lessons from unsuccessful efforts. And when it comes time for the young people she’s working with now to lead, they will be equipped with solid information about the environment–and the determination to manage it well.

Luan and Pohnpei Girl Scouts meet for an educational activity.

Project participants show off new reusable tote bags, part of an effort to fight pollution.