Palau, Above the Waterline

By Kali Staniec

Originally published at

One of the highlights of my days diving in Palau was zooming through the Rock Islands on the boats travelling to and from dive sites. Numerous and densely forested, these limestone islands provide an incredible backdrop to the archipelago’s crystal clear waters, yet as my dive boat wove its way through the islands it interested me that though I had become familiar with the culture’s strong ties to the sea, I knew relatively little about traditional relationships with the land.

The author stands by a bai, or traditional men’s house, in old Ngerkeai Village. Photo by Stephen Holle.

According to the island nation’s origin story, it was the body of a fallen person, strewn across the blue Pacific that gave rise to forested islands of Palau. It is said that after the being’s – Chuab’s – body was covered in a mat of branches and leaves, the Palauan people were born from its remains, forever linking them to the land in a way that is reflected by the complex traditional system of land rights that has colored local culture since Palau was first settled roughly 4,000 years ago. Since its exposure to German, Japanese, and American cultures, however, the tiny republic finds itself caught in the crosshairs of conflict between modernity and traditional land practices, a disruption that has changed the way Palauans manage their land.

Prior to contact with Europeans, Palauan society was an intricate system of interrelated family units: villages usually consisted of ten clans, which in turn included several lineages. To this day each village shares communal lands and structures. I had the opportunity to visit the beautifully decorated bai, or traditional men’s meeting-house, of Ngerkeai village where important governing decisions are made. In these community structures decisions regarding land distribution among the clans of the village were made. Originally, the concept of individual ownership did not exist; instead, resources were shared among the families and territory was held collectively, with individuals working and thereby “owning” land as they needed it, their ownership dissolving as soon as their need did. Land could not be transferred to other clans without high-ranking women’s approval, and even then the transaction would create a quasi-kinship bond between the two involved groups.

Though famous, Palau’s Rock Islands still hold many undiscovered cultural sites. Photo by Kali Staniec

Periods of foreign control of the islands challenged this system. German occupation introduced formal boundary lines to many areas of Palau. The Japanese shifted the economy from subsistence to market and officially sanctioned individual property ownership (Harrison 2000). During these times the islands also saw the beginning of the abuse of traditional land right systems, with colonial governments and militaries seizing land and redistributing it according to their own needs. During World War II Japanese soldiers built gun emplacements throughout the Rock Islands, many of which remain hidden in the jungle, barely visible from the water’s edge. These beautiful islands suffered during the war in the Pacific, as U.S. forces frequently bombed the Japanese stronghold, with the city of Koror all but leveled.

American control after World War II brought a new system of hearings and courts for determining land rights and the return of parcels to their originally caretakers. These hearings were very slow, in an effort to accommodate a people unfamiliar with such processes. In 1996, the Land Claims Reorganization Act was passed to improve the quality of the hearings and expedite the land claim process. But it also heightened the requirements for being a Land Court judge (Harrison 2000). Complicating the process is the fact that to Palauans land holds important cultural significance in addition to economic benefits.

Author photo by Madi Swayne.

The conflict between Western land ownership and traditional practices has shaped Palauan culture today. There is a large disparity in wealth among land-holding families; though land can be owned only by native Palauans, it can be leased to foreign businesses. Consequently, much of the money from the country’s growing tourism industry never reaches the landowners or other citizens. The land determination courts lend themselves to protracted deliberations, and some Palauans have been frustrated by the time and resources required to pursue ownership. The traditional land-tied clan system was the traditional means of social security, and with its diminishment new social structures are necessary to deliver services to an ever more urbanized population.

But perhaps most significant to Palau’s future are the implications of changing land policies on the area’s pristine natural environments. As Erica Rosenberg explains in her article The Politics and Progress of Palau, “if traditional leaders were once the stewards of the lands and seas, however, their traditional power is often now wielded on behalf of modern developmental goals and personal economic interest.” (Rosenberg 2010). Foreigners must secure permission from Palauan landholders to move forward on development projects, but the prospect of financial gain is tempting for. Because landholders are sometimes not familiar with off-shore legal and financial rules, actual gains are sometimes not proportioned to impact. Although these shifts of land policies were, in hindsight, inevitable given globalization, respect for traditional land views remains a salient topic as Palau looks to the future

About the author:

Kali Staniec is a sophomore in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences working towards a degree in Anthropology with a minor in Environmental Studies. By participating in the Guam and Palau course she hopes to gain new perspectives on the ways different cultures interact with the natural world.


Futterman-Collier, Ann, Kathleen Sadao, Caleb Otto, and Anthony Polloi. “Perceptions of the Social, Cultural, and Psychological Well-being in Palau.” Pacific Health Dialogue 4.1 (1997): 28-34. Pacific Health Dialogue. Web. 18 May 2012.

Harrison, Jessica Y. “Land Determination in the Republic of Palau.” Diss. University of Wisconsin Law School, 2000. Land Determination in the Republic of Palau. University of Wisconsin – Madison. Web. 18 May 2012.

Hezel, Francis X. “Anthropology’s Contribution to Social Problems Research in Micronesia.” Micronesian Counselor. Micronesian Seminar, Mar. 1995. Web. 18 May 2012.

Lucey, Nick. Babeldaob Bai. 2007. Photograph. Babeldaob, Republic of Palau. Flickr. Web. 18 May 2012.

Palau: Society.” Pacific Worlds. Ed. Mariano Laimoh. Pacific Worlds & Associates, 2003. Web. 18 May 2012.

Rosenberg, Erica. “The Politics of Progress in Palau.” Cultural Survival Quarterly. Cultural Survival, Fall 1996. Web. 18 May 2012.

Editor’s note: Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife is offered as part of an experiential summer program offered to undergraduate students of the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. This course takes place on location at the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on Catalina Island and throughout Micronesia. Students investigate important environmental issues such as ecologically sustainable development, fisheries management, protected-area planning and assessment, and human health issues. During the course of the program, the student team will dive and collect data to support conservation and management strategies to protect the fragile coral reefs of Guam and Palau in Micronesia.

Instructors for the course include Jim Haw, Director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies David Ginsburg,, SCUBA instructor and volunteer in the USC Scientific Diving Program Tom Carr and USC Dive Safety Officer Gerry Smith of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies.

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