Pohnpei, Federated states of Micronesia by jqy64044



     Dahl, Christopher, and Bill Raynor. 1996. “Watershed planning and management:
       Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia.” Asia-Pacific Viewpoint 37:235-253


Pohnpei is one of the the larger volcanic islands that belongs to the group of small island of
Micronesia. Analysis of aerial photography from 1975 and 1995 of the island shows a
significant loss of intact forest: a reduction from 15,008 ha (42% of island land area) to 5,169
ha (15%) during the 20 year period (Trustrum, 1996)

Pohnpei island and six outlying atolls comprise Pohnpei State, one of the four constituent
states of the Federated States of Micronesia (the FSM). The FSM were formerly part of the
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands and achieved political sovereignty in 1986. In 1990 the
total population of Pohnpei island was 30,816.

Athough the third largest island in Micronesia, Pohnpei is relatively small with total area of
129 square miles. The center of the island is mountainous and forested with maximum
elevation at 780 m. Vegetation in coastal areas is primarily agroforest or grassland and the
shoreline is fringed by mangrove forest around almost its entire extent and an offshore barrier
reef forms a lagoon. The climate is humid tropical with annual rainfall averaging 194 inches
(3090 mm).

The flora of Pohnpei's upland forests is considered some of the most diverse in Micronesia,
with a high level of endemicity. Of 767 plant species recorded on Pohnpei, 264 species
(34.4%) are found chiefly in the upland forests. One hundred and eleven species (14.6% of
total plant species) are endemic to Pohnpei and 101 species, or 90% of these, are found
mainly in the upland forests.


Natural resources management on Pohnpei

The history of use and management of natural resources on Pohnpei is complex. The
contemporary view of the 'traditional' Pohnpeian polity is of a set of internally similar but
autonomous political units: five wehi, variously translated as kingdom or district, that are
simultaneously municipalities within the post-colonial elective-bureaucratic government.1
Within this scheme the kousapw is the most durable socio-political unit. This is a localized
collection of farmsteads (paliensapw) organized under the leadership of a local chief

            1 Additional municipalities include the urban center of Kolonia (which was created as an administrative center during the colonial era and named thus by the
German colonial administration) and five inhabited atolls that are part of Pohnpei state and given municipal status.
Within the traditional political structure there were levels of integration above the kousapw.
In the conventional view a 'classic nahnmwarki system' inhered in the five traditional wehi,
but Petersen argues (ibid.) that arrangements were more diverse, both in terms of the structure
of political hierarchy and the level of territorial integration. Thus, confusingly, Pohnpeians
refer to both the five 'traditional' autonomous polities, and certain sub-divisions of these
(which at times have been essentially autonomous) as wehi. The colonial habit of indirect rule
and the Pohnpeian desire to present a strong leader to outsiders led to the elevation of the
paramount chief (nahnmwarki) to a higher status than he had previously possessed.

The island environment is classed in concentric domains. An inner core—the upland forest
(nanwel)—and the outer rings in marine space—mangrove forest (naniak), lagoon (nansed)
and ocean (nanmadau)—, all common property (luhwen wehi), surround settled coastal areas

This evidence suggests that two broad property classifications existed within the 'traditional
system.' Settled lands are within the human domain and ideologically under the 'trusteeship'
(kohwa) of the paramount chief. In practice occupation was probably stable in the form of
farmsteads (paliensapw) within a matrilineal estate that has subsequently evolved into the
territorial designation known as kousapw. Surrounding the humanized zone was luhwen wehi,
common property open to a variety of semi-secret and impermanent uses. It is clear that the
nahnmwarki had minimal control over uses within luhwen wehi beyond grants for new
homesteads. What is unknown is whether use regulation in common property areas was
exercised on more local political scales.

The development of contemporary problems of resource exploitation

The complex history of institutional regulation of resource use through traditional and
bureaucratic concepts of land tenure has had a marked influence on contemporary resource
exploitation issues. Population growth and an expanding cash economy are underlying forces
that intensify exploitation.

Besides being driven by population growth, settlement in upland areas results from the
discontinuities within the Pohnpeian system of land tenure. In practical terms this system
combines the juridical-bureaucratic apparatus that regulates and certifies land ownership with
beliefs about rights of use formed through the tradition and history previously outlined.
Population pressure on coastal land is exacerbated due to insecure tenure. In the 'traditional'
ideology the right of occupation derived from bringing land under cultivation thereby
humanizing it.

With settlement, political pressure is gradually put on municipal or state government to build
roads that improve access. These roads are not hard surfaced and often take little account in
their design for potential erosion as road gradients are often extreme. As a result, these roads
contribute substantially to sediment load in streams from erosion from the roadbed. Roads are
also part of a vicious circle in that they encourage even more people to move into previously
undeveloped areas.

Settlement is often preceded by long-term cultivation and gradual conversion of forest by
people from coastal areas. Upland cultivation supplements existing areas under cultivation
and/or "prepare[s] for a permanent and inheritable homesteading area" (Mauricio, 1993, p.

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei   2
216). Planting of the shrub Piper methysticum, locally known as sakau, is perhaps a special
case of this process and has emerged as one of the foremost reasons for forest conversion.

Cultivation, settlement and road building result in three broadly defined impacts. First, more
intensive renewable resource exploitation is becoming unsustainable. This is clearly the case
for certain avidly hunted bird species such as the Micronesian pigeon (Ducula oceanica) and
purple-capped fruit dove (Ptilinopus porphyraceus). Second, land clearance, especially where
it leads to permanent loss of vegetative cover (for example, in the case of un-sealed roads),
increases soil erosion. Soil fertility loss is less of an issue than the downstream impacts of
sediment: coral reefs, an ecosystem particularly vulnerable to suspended sediments, are in
close proximity to runoff sources because of the small size of the island system. (The distance
from the highest point on the island to outer barrier reef is everywhere less than 10 miles.)
Finally, forest conversion due to cultivation or settlement results in loss of species
biodiversity. As terrestrial endemism is relatively high, local extinction of a species would be
equivalent to its complete loss.

History of the watershed management program

As early as 1983, when the USDA Forest Service and local foresters teamed up to do a
vegetation survey (ibid.), it was evident that inland movement and deforestation in the island
interior was rapidly increasing. The Pohnpei State Division of Forestry requested assistance
from the Pacific Islands Forester’s Office (United States Department of Agriculture Forest
Service Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry- Honolulu) to delineate and develop legislation to
establish a watershed area made up of much of the interior upland forests located on public
lands and also to provide for the protection of the coastal mangrove forests.

Utilizing 1975 aerial photos of Pohnpei, a 1982 soil survey (Laird, 1982), and aerial
reconnaissance, the actual watershed boundaries were determined by "carefully mapping,
from the air, places [on Public lands] where people have not yet settled on the highly erodible
soils" (Anson, et. al., 1985). The two agencies also closely cooperated in developing the
legislation through a series of drafts, with the result that in 1987, the Pohnpei State
Legislature enacted "The Pohnpei Watershed Forest Reserve and Mangrove Protection Act of
1987" (S.L. 1L-128-87). The law assigns all watershed and mangrove forest management
responsibilities to the Division of Forestry of the Pohnpei State Department of Conservation
and Resource Surveillance.2 It also designated a 5,095 hectare Watershed Forest Reserve on
public lands in the island interior.3 The legislative intent was that all utilization of the area by
residents of any particular municipality must be coordinated with State officials so that
continued expansion of homestead farms, agroforestry and sakau cultivation would be

However, it became evident during initial extension and education efforts by the Division of
Forestry that communities had not been adequately involved in the development of the law.
Community awareness was virtually nonexistent, and the proposed rules and regulations,
failing to recognize traditional Pohnpeian resource use in the upland forest areas, were almost

                In an effort to down-size, the state government reorganized its administration in 1996. The Division of Forestry is now an "office" within the Division of
Conservation and Resource Surveillance. This Division is in turn part of a Department of Resource Management and Development that combined a number of previously
existing departments.

                Management authority for 5,525 hectares of mangrove forests, also public land by virtue of being below the high tide mark, was also granted to the Division
of Forestry under this law.

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei                                        3
universally rejected. Boundary survey teams made up of Department of Lands and Division of
Forestry employees were turned back in many areas of the island, and several near-violent
incidents occurred. These setbacks led to the formation in 1989 of the Watershed Steering
Committee (WSC), an interagency task force made up of representatives from various state
government and non-government agencies. This group wanted to help implement the
legislation both by coordinating government actions and seeking the involvement of
communities and their traditional leaders.

With funding from the US Forest Service and subsequently the South Pacific Regional
Environment Program (SPREP) a pilot watershed extension project was begun by the WSC in
late 1991. Representatives from government agencies involved with natural resources and
land management visited each kousapw on the island several times to discuss the value of
forest resources and the details of the 1987 legislation. During this process, which was not
finished until early 1993, proponents of the legislation became increasingly convinced that
the kousapw, which are at the core of daily life on Pohnpei, should play a leading role in
decision-making about and management of forest resources. This was reflected in increased
participation by village chiefs (soumas) in the program, both as members of the WSC and in
coordinating the education program. The education effort was in many ways a sustained
dialogue with local leaders and resource users. Through this dialogue it was also realized that
conceptually the need to manage or regulate use should somehow be extended beyond the
relatively narrow focus of the Watershed Reserve. When confronted with the possibility that
the government might in fact assist communities to gain some measure of control over local
resources, interest increased in the management of lowland and coastal marine areas.

Beginning in 1992, the government's effort to develop a management program that placed
community participation at its center began to attract additional outside interest. The Nature
Conservancy, a large American conservation organization, which had already begun activities
in the Micronesia, hired a local field representative to assist the Forestry Division in
implementing a community-based approach to management. At this time SPREP provided
assistance for the FSM to develop a National Environmental Management Strategy. Pohnpei
state's watershed management program was identified and given high priority within the
document. As a consequence, the Asian Development Bank, which had funded preparation of
the Strategy, advanced a technical assistance package that included five main components: (1)
development of computer-based geographic information system (GIS); (2) provision for new
aerial photography (flown in late 1995), (3) technical assistance to develop a detailed
integrated watershed management plan, (4) identification of sustainable income generating
opportunities and preparation of a pre-feasibility study for future loans, and (5) funding to
establish a project office.

This two-year technical assistance program began in 1994. SPREP, through its United
Nations Environment Program-funded South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Program, is
also providing comprehensive support over a four year duration. SPREP funding, rather than
focusing on technical aspects of the program, is intended to facilitate community-based
activities. An important component includes salary for a Conservation Area Support Officer
within the Pohnpei State Division of Forestry who can devote full time to the community
involvement aspect of the program.
Community-Based Planning

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei   4
A two week workshop in July, 1994 explored the possibility of using and adapting techniques
variously described as rural appraisal, participatory appraisal and participatory research
(hereafter termed PRA for 'participatory rural appraisal') as a basis for community
involvement. The workshop included a field component undertaken in one of the island's
watersheds, involving the five kousapw in that area. Subsequent development of a process to
facilitate community involvement and participation in decision-making about resource use
has focused on this area to explore and test methods.

PRA, as a philosophy and a suite of techniques, has emerged out of a growing appreciation of
the need to fully involve the beneficiaries of development programs in their design and
implementation. Parallel changes have occurred with regards to natural resources
management and conservation (e.g., West & Brechin, 1981). The recent attention given to
sustainable development demonstrates the linkage between conservation and development; it
is perhaps unsurprising that changes in thinking should occur in both fields. PRA stresses a
'bottom-up' approach that focuses on understanding the needs of the target audience and
demands their involvement as a source of information and often as a participant in decision-
making. PRA is not a substitute for a broader program to manage watershed resources; rather
it is a set of techniques that can be used in many of the planning phases of a community-based
watershed management program. In addition, the philosophy of PRA, that local people should
be actively involved in the planning and implementation of programs that affect them, fits
with a community-based approach.

For the watershed management program PRA has perhaps become more of a symbol of
community involvement rather than a discrete procedure. This is reflected throughout
Pohnpei's Watershed Management Strategy (Pohnpei Watershed Project Team, 1996)
produced in early 1996 with support from the major external players mentioned above. The
document marks the conclusion of Asian Development Bank technical assistance. Rather than
the detailed spatial management plan envisioned at the outset, this document is schematic and
pitched to the Pohnpeians outside of government that are now playing a major role in
planning and management. (Subsequent to its publication in English it was translated into
Pohnpeian.) The years 1994-1996 saw the refinement and application of PRA in the area used
for the workshop field component mentioned above and two other areas of similar scale.
These municipal sub-divisions (pwihn), a collection of several kousapw, were formalized
during the colonial era, but in some cases may represent earlier autonomous polities discussed
by Petersen (1990, pp. 144-145). Pwihn, with populations of about 500 and a recognized
place within the municipal and traditional political hierarchy, appear to be the appropriate
unit for community-based planning and management. However, the size of management units
is largely self-determined and can vary. For example, in one municipality (wehi), where the
nahnkin (lieutenant to the paramount chief) is particularly charismatic, planning and
management are being centralized at the municipal level.

Management-related tasks are summarized in the objectives of the Watershed Management
Strategy. An initial task, implemented through the education program discussed above, was to
mobilize support, at both the community and political level, for management. Aside from the
development of broad-based support, this effort has also helped to change attitudes towards
the spatial orientation of management. Initially, efforts focused on securing the Watershed
Forest Reserve from further encroachment. As mentioned earlier, with increased community
participation an appreciation has grown, driven foremost by community interest, for

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei   5
comprehensive management. Land outside the Reserve needs to be considered, even if the
powers granted by watershed legislation do not apply.

Conceptually, the delineation has shifted from concentric boundaries differentiating
environments (e.g., forest, settled lands, lagoon) to radial boundaries defined by cohesive
political divisions capable of self-management. Similarly, the legally-defined boundary of the
Reserve has always been problematic since it was mainly based on public land boundaries. As
a result, the Reserve boundary is being re-delineated as part of the community-based planning
process so that it encompasses the indigenous concept of nanwel (upland forest) and relies on
recognizable geographic features rather than an abstract line. This more holistic approach to
management is reflected on the part of state government by the Governor's call in early 1996
for the integration of on-going efforts to implement coastal resource management and land
use planning into the watershed management program.

A second objective is the continued development of community-based institutions for
management. The Watershed Management Strategy proposes 14 management units
encompassing as few as two kousapw (but in this case covering a large, culturally significant
and largely undisturbed area of forest) to an entire municipality, as mentioned above. The
community planning process culminates in a documentary Community Action Plan. This
serves as an agreement between the management unit and the state government on the
specifics of resource use in that area. The local chiefs (soumas) designate a watershed
management committee for the management unit, comprised of "Community Conservation
Officers." Their duties include (Pohnpei Watershed Project Team, 1996, p. 33):

An hierarchical structure of management committees is proposed to coordinate activities and
link communities with state government (Figure 2). The success of the management program
hinges on the effectiveness of these community-level institutions. As Elinor Ostrom (1992,
pp. 301-302) points out, in order for community-based management to work people have to
believe that current actions will seriously harm a resource that is important to them. They
must collectively develop resource use rules that most everybody will follow. In general, the
cost of decision-making must not outweigh the benefits of regulating access and use. An
effective administrative structure, what Ostrom calls an "appropriator organization," (ibid.,
pp. 297-298) must effectively facilitate these demands. She argues that such organizations
must have clearly defined membership, a clear set of rules regulating resource access and
withdrawal, flexibly derived through an acceptable decision-making process and a process for
conflict resolution.

The emerging watershed management committees on Pohnpei rely on existing local,
'traditional' institutional 2: Pohnpei Watershed Co-Management Network (Source: Pohnpei
Watershed Project Team, 1996, p. 32) To support the planning function of watershed
management committees an indicative spatial plan has been produced, organized around a
matrix based on land suitability and tenure (Trustrum, 1996). The Asian Development Bank-
funded geographic information system, holding data on vegetative cover, soils and slope, was
used to develop the plan. However, at this point data in the GIS on tenure is relatively limited.
Inclusion of available cadastral data would help make delineation more detailed. But some
aspects of tenure are inadequately captured in cadastral data so mapping of locally perceived
tenure boundaries by community members will also be necessary. For example, if
community-derived adjustments to the reserve boundary are made, GIS data should be
modified to reflect the change.

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei    6
 In addition, the "public" land tenure category in the matrix (see Table 2) is rather vague. The
GIS designer defines this as "Land areas which are not legally under any special government
management control, but nevertheless are not private lands" (ibid., p. 17). Currently this class
covers public lands outside the Reserve. But given the complex history and somewhat
confused nature of land tenure on Pohnpei it is likely that beliefs about tenure status of lands
differ among communities and between communities and the state government. More work
with cadastral data and community perceptions will be necessary to clarify the situation. Six
land management zones are derived from the matrix. The five zones outside of the Reserve
are defined (Pohnpei Watershed Project Team, 1996, p. 50) as follows:

                     Limited Use Reserve: government lands with some use restrictions; focus on
                      low impact sustainable use;

                     Community-supported Reserve: commonly-held lands with community-
                      supported restricted use; management focus on conservation and preservation;

                     Community-based Management: commonly-held lands with some use
                      restrictions; management focus on low impact sustainable use, including
                      controlled sakau planting and some agroforestry;

                     Landowner Education: private lands located in environmentally sensitive
                      areas; management focus on education private landowners in sustainable land
                      use; and,

                     Development: various tenure lands located in areas that are not
                      environmentally sensitive; management focus on sustainable development.

As noted, this plan is indicative: it is used as an input into community-based planning. The
results of the planning process, summarized in each Community Action Plan, will then be
used to modify this GIS-based spatial plan. Through this process the spatial plan will shift
from a normative picture of management to a summation of the agreed upon spatial pattern of

Because environmental problems are linked to other social and economic issues, a third
objective of management is to identify sustainable development opportunities. Community
Action Plans, in addition to specifying the structure and process of management at the local
level, are a mechanism to involve communities in such a process. However, considerable
external support is necessary since knowledge and skills are limited at the local level. An
example of such support is an assessment of a range of activities in agriculture, cottage
industry, tourism and renewable resource harvesting for their "compatibility," defined as
activities that are "environmentally and economically sustainable and culturally appropriate"
(Van't Slot and Raynor, 1995, p. 1). Since sakau production is a major cause of forest
conversion this is a focus of current work. Research on the economics of sakau production
and marketing has been initiated. Further research is also needed in order to understand what

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei         7
conditions are necessary to make sakau production in lowland areas attractive once again.4
This work to develop sustainable income generating opportunities is, or course, of interest to
the Asian Development Bank and supports the pre-feasibility study that outlines its future

Lessons learned

The coastal vegetation has been extensively modified by human residence over the last 2,000
years with species composition altered in favor of plants with social or economic value.
However, a combination of strong traditional respect for the upland forest, heavy human
depopulation during the last century, and relatively difficult access to inland areas has, until
recently, spared the upland forests of Pohnpei from much of the disturbance and destruction
that has occurred in the island's lowlands and on other Micronesian islands.

It has been nearly a decade since implementing legislation to allow watershed conservation
was passed, yet much remains to be done before a fully functioning management program is
in place. Fulfillment of the remaining objectives in the Watershed Management Strategy—
revision of laws and policies to better reflect a community-based approach, development of
resource monitoring parameters, training for community members involved in the program
and eventual outreach to other FSM states with similar problems—lie almost completely in
the future. It was expected that a comprehensive watershed management plan would be
completed in 1996, at the conclusion of Asian Development Bank assistance. This has been
pushed back to 1998 since an island-wide plan depends on completion of Community Action
Plans for each management unit. Similarly, the spatial plan cannot be considered really
complete until the results of community planning are entered into the GIS.

This slow evolution reflects the difficulty of a community-based approach. Readers may be
tempted to dismiss the process as too slow and unwieldy. After all, by the time a management
program is fully in place how much forest will be left to manage? But for participants this
approach appeared to be the only alternative. The conventional bureaucratic and instrumental
approach failed; in a time of diminishing external aid and government down-sizing
government institutional capacity will be further threatened. Although the origin of a
community-based approach was reactive, its strengths have begun to emerge through an
appreciation of its appropriateness to Pohnpeian society. This can be described in two ways.

First, Pohnpeian political culture values autonomy; paramount chiefs play a delicate
balancing act between the exactions of tribute and the social benefits resulting from
centralization. A dynamic political history has featured constant fusion and fission of political
units. This suggests that the small management units developed through the community-based
process are historically relevant. Further, the conditions that Ostrom (1992) outlines for
successful "appropriator organizations" generally depend on organization within small
communities where communication and effective mutual monitoring and sanction can be
carried out. The proposed hierarchical organization of management institutions (see figure 2)
mirrors traditional political relations which Petersen (1990, pp. 146-147) argues are
"ambiguous:" the paramount chief depends on local chiefs (soumas) to effectuate activities
such as organizing the production of tribute items.

                Prior to the early 1980's most sakau was grown at lower elevations. In 1982 a major drought caused much of the sakau to die off and cultivation shifted to
moister upland areas. The accelerated shift to sakau production for market provided an incentive to continue growing sakau in upland areas. Aside from faster growth rates,
upland sites offer greater security from theft, a major problem now that sakau has become commodified.

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei                                        8
Second, community-based management addresses a crisis of legitimacy that affects both the
traditional and state-constituted political systems. While the state has usurped most of the
instrumental functions of the chiefs, it has not completely displaced or assumed the
legitimacy accorded to traditional leaders. However, this legitimacy is not based on autocracy;
as Petersen points out (1982b, p. 66), "the true locus of authority in Ponapean communities is
the community itself. An able chief is respected and listened to, but he founds his authority on
his ability to listen." Community-based management promises local control over spatially
discrete resources that are considered to legitimately "belong" to that community. It is a
process of lending the power now vested in juridical-bureaucratic government to much more
long-standing socio-political units. Power is not precisely vested in authority; rather, in
Pohnpeian fashion, authority—the traditional chiefs—symbolizes the return to communities
of autonomous, consensus-based decision-making over things of substance. The approach is
in a sense an act of reconciliation—it draws on and reconfirms those aspects of both political
systems that are considered legitimate.

The watershed conservation program on Pohnpei should be considered a qualified success.
Change in opinion during the past six years—from bitter opposition to general support—is
the most visible aspect of this success to date. For all the participants it has been a learning
process, one in which a unique community-based approach—suited to the social and political
conditions of Pohnpei—is being developed.

Watershed Planning and Management: Pohnpei   9

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