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Babeldaob Island Ecosystem Initiative

Case Authors

Rebecca Gruby, Duke University, and Leila Sievanen, Heather Leslie and Tara Gancos Crawford, Brown University

Download PDF of Comprehensive Case Study


The Republic of Palau (Palau) is an archipelago comprising more than 340 islands roughly 885 kilometers east of the Philippines in the western Pacific Ocean.

With a population of approximately 20,000 and land area of 490 square kilometers, Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world. The tropical marine waters surrounding this small island developing state are vast and Palau’s exclusive economic zone extends over 616,029 square kilometers.

These waters are home to the most diverse coral reef fauna in Micronesia and the highest density of tropical marine biota of any comparable geographic region.

Though Babeldaob Island is the largest island in Palau and the second largest in Micronesia, the island has been isolated from modern development until recently.

With the completion of an 85 kilometer road circumnavigating the island in 2007, and the relocation of the government capital to Melekeok state in Babeldaob in 2006, the population and use of land on Babeldoab are expected to change dramatically.

In anticipation of rapid development on Babeldaob and associated sedimentation of the surrounding coral reefs, the Palau Conservation Society (PCS) and its partners are fostering an ecosystem-based approach to improving “ridge-to-reef management of coastal resources” on the island. In practice, this has largely involved collecting and feeding scientific information into land use planning and other policy processes at the state and national levels.

Overall, this EBM initiative may be characterized as a sustainable development project focused on land use planning with the intention of mitigating upland development threats to coral reefs and associated human communities.

MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: The Babeldaob Island Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative in the Republic of Palau may be characterized as a sustainable development project focused on land use planning with the intention of mitigating upland development threats to coral reefs and associated human communities.
    Adaptive Management: In anticipation of rapid development on Babeldaob and associated sedimentation of the surrounding coral reefs, the Palau Conservation Society (PCS) and its partners are fostering an ecosystem-based approach to improving “ridge-to-reef management of coastal resources” on the island that in practice involves collecting and feeding scientific information into land use planning and other policy processes at the national and state levels.


Mission and Primary Objectives

Phase I Mission

The Babeldaob Island Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative in the Republic of Palau in the tropical western Pacific Ocean seeks to mitigate upland development threats to the marine environment by promoting science-based land use planning and other policies directed at sustainable development.

This project intends to use EBM principles to guide development such that people and communities can prosper with minimal impact to Babeldaob’s ecosystems. The overarching goals of Phase I of the EBM cycle (2006-2008) were to “foster healthy coastal communities and ecosystems on Babeldaob Island” and “develop a collaborative process to improve natural resource management for Babeldaob Island."

Phase I Objectives

The partners identified four objectives:

  • Conduct biophysical and social science research in order to answer questions about vulnerable natural resources, their uses and management.
  • Jointly analyze research results and develop a set of environmental and social indicators, conceptual models of ecosystems of Babeldaob Island, and management and policy recommendations.
  • Create avenues for sharing and disseminating scientific and other information with key stakeholders.
  • Foster wide participation in order to build a collaborative process for resource management.

Phase II Mission

For Phase II of the EBM cycle (2009-2012), the overall project vision was refined to “healthy Babeldaob ecosystems that supports culturally and environmentally appropriate low impact development guided by scientific knowledge and strong alliances that benefit the health and well-being of the people of Palau."

To move toward this vision, EBM partners identified specific goals for Phase II that relate to four conservation targets and the “development threat”:

  • Forests: By 2020, Babeldaob’s forests maintain or have higher percent healthy coverage than initial baselines.
  • Freshwater systems: By 2020, critical rivers, streams and lakes are healthy.
  • Coral reefs and lagoon: By 2020, coral reef health around Babeldaob is maintained at 1992 levels.
  • Development threat: By 2015, all urban and commercial development that occurs in three Babeldaob states (Ngaremlengui, Melekeok and Airai) located in the priority watersheds are in compliance with land use plans and national environmental protection standards.

Phase II Objectives

The key objectives for Phase II are to:

  • Continue analysis and synthesis of scientific information.
  • Deliver EBM science and recommendations to decision-makers, conservation and land-use planners and resource managers in a way that is acceptable and useful to them.
  • Continue to build a culture of collaboration among researchers, managers and planners who regularly develop and implement EBM activities and use EBM deliverables to achieve their conservation and sustainable development goals in an integrated  and effective manner.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations

Palau Conservation Society (PCS)

This effort is led by the Palau Conservation Society (PCS), a local non-government organization established in 1994 with a mission “to work with the community to preserve the nation’s unique natural environment and perpetuate its conservation ethic for the economic and social benefit of present and future generations of all Palauans and for the enjoyment and education of all.” PCS is comprised of 12 full-time staff members that work with communities to achieve its mission. PCS engages in education, research, and management activities that contribute to sustainable development policies at the national and state level.

Key Parties

The initiative involves the collective participation of five key partner organizations:

  • Belau National Museum: A semi-government institution (i.e., organization that receives some of their operating funds from the national government, but are led by a Board of Directors and are able to operate somewhat more autonomously than strict government agencies that works “for the preservation and promotion of the natural heritage, exhibition of natural, cultural, social and historical values, and the development of arts at all levels." This group provides natural scientific expertise to the EBM initiative.
  • Palau International Coral Reef Center: A semi-government institution, which “conducts research that enhances knowledge and conservation of coral reef systems and their associated marine environments." This group provides natural scientific expertise to the EBM initiative.
  • Environmental Quality Protection Board: A semi-government institution and national regulatory agency responsible for setting drinking water quality standards and establishing water treatment and disinfection requirements.
  • Palau Automated Land and Resources Information System (PALARIS): A part of the national government that “has the responsibility to develop the National Geographic Information System (GIS), a centralized land and resource system to inventory and support the management of human, economic and natural resources of the Republic of Palau." This agency provides the EBM initiative with expertise in resource management, Geographic Information Systems, and social science.
  • Bureau of Arts and Culture: A part of the national government that is responsible for protecting and preserving “the tangible and intangible historic and cultural resources of Palau” and ensuring “that the opportunities for education and enjoyment of Palau’s cultural heritage are available to everyone.” This agency provides social science expertise to the EBM initiative.


Program Structure

The Babeldaob Island Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative in the Republic of Palau is implemented by a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral “EBM partnership” comprised of organizations involved in research, resource management, decision-making, communications and education in Palau. The effort is led by the Palau Conservation Society (PCS), a national non-government organization established in 1994.

EBM Coordinator at PCS

An EBM Coordinator based at PCS is responsible for “pulling together the researchers, resource managers and other stakeholders, coordinating the research components [of the initiative], ensuring that research results are accessible and shared, enabling joint analysis of the research, and developing avenues of communication and coordination among the different stakeholder groups in Palau.”

EBM Core Group

In addition, there is an “EBM core group” made up of one or more representatives of the organizations in the EBM partnership, including:

  • The Belau National Museum
  • Palau International Coral Reed Center
  • Republic of Palau Environmental Quality Protection Board
  • Palau Automated Land and Resources Information Systems/Sustainable Land Management Program
  • The Republic of Palau Bureau of Arts and Culture


During Phase I of the EBM effort, this group facilitated cooperation among stakeholders and was tasked with coordinating data management and analysis, developing conceptual models to track targets and conditions, document EBM rules and approaches, and form the basis for EBM in Palau. Neither the core group nor the partnership has been granted formal authority; however, the Environmental Quality Protection Board and the Bureau of Arts and Culture have regulatory authority pertaining to permits for development.

Research and Learning Coordinator

In Phase II, a “research and learning coordinator” assisted the EBM Core Group with developing practical and useful data for resource managers, conducting analyses that integrate biological and social data for decision-making and policy, conceptualizing and developing communications products, and ensuring that relevant recommendations and best management practices are integrated with the various planning processes currently in place.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

The main impetus for the Babeldaob Island Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative was the construction of an 85 kilometer road circumnavigating Palau’s largest landmass, which was expected to bring with it development activities and demographic and land use changes.

The Palau Conservation Society (PCS) and its partners saw an opportunity to implement effective resource-use policies and practices before broad-scale development began. At the same time, the EBM partners recognized the dearth of data available to inform basic resource use decisions on Babeldaob.

The EBM project offered partners an opportunity to collect social and ecological data that could be used to balance “sustainable development with the need to prevent the loss of biodiversity from habitat destruction and sedimentation of the surrounding lagoon and coral reefs resulting from land degradation and run-off."

Conducting EBM activities in three areas, which encompass different levels of existing development - low, medium and high, “will provide information that will lead to the development of guidelines and recommendations for the rest of the island, as well as for Palau as a whole."

One partner explains, “the Palau EBM project basically came out of a series of discussions between [The David and Lucile Packard Foundation], PCS, the primary stakeholders in the EBM project, […] [and] it was Packard that sort of initiated the project as a cohesive, pre-planned, very organized initiative."

The Packard Foundation saw Babeldaob as an ideal site to “demonstrate EBM” due to the multiple and diverse relationships between biological, physical and human processes; the island’s high biodiversity; the small-scale of the island that allows testing of the EBM approach across a large range of coastal ecosystems; the presence of serious environmental threats and management issues; and anticipated community support grounded in a cultural history of ecological knowledge and management. Another expectation of the project was that “what is done in Palau could influence activities throughout Micronesia.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The volcanic island of Babeldaob constitutes 80 percent of the Republic of Palau’s landmass and is the second largest island in Micronesia (Kitalong 2008; Sakuma 2004a). The island is 37 kilomters long and 15 kilometers at its widest, containing 33 square kilometers of mangroves and bordering a 500-square kilometer lagoon.

The tropical ocean surrounding Babeldaob contains a barrier reef that merges with a fringing reef and a submerged barrier reef, which together boast coral diversity comparable to that of the highest diversity areas in Philippines, Indonesia and Australia.

Tourism is the main source of revenue for Palau. In 2006, 82,397 people visited the small archipelago, the vast majority of whom came to dive, snorkel and tour the famous Rock Islands. Babeldaob houses 30 percent of Palau’s population, or 5,977 people.

About one-quarter of this population is concentrated in the island’s southernmost state of Airai. The rest of Babeldaob’s population lives in coastal villages scattered throughout the island, generally leading subsistence or semi-subsistence lifestyles; however, there is relatively little agricultural production on Babeldaob due to its poor soil quality.

Most fishing takes place in lagoons and outer reef slopes, and commercial fishing is primarily limited to foreign vessels fishing for tuna in the exclusive economic zone for sale and processing outside of Palau. 


In 2006, the government capital was relocated to Melekeok state in Babeldaob and in 2007 an 85 kilometer circumnavigating road was constructed on the island.

Both developments are expected to change the population and use of land on Babeldaob dramatically. Sedimentation due to poorly planned terrestrial development has been identified as the major threat to coral reefs and associated human communities in Babeldaob.

Thus, the Babeldaob Island Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative is focused on preempting expected threats to a relatively healthy social-ecological system on this island. The project was initiated because EBM partners were concerned that the newly constructed compact road would open Babeldaob to poorly planned development in a context where there are not comprehensive formal or traditional land use policies nor capacity and technical expertise at the state level for environmental planning.

Major Strategies

The Babeldaob Island Ecosystem-Based Management Initiative in the Republic of Palau in the tropical western Pacific Ocean seeks to mitigate upland development threats to the marine environment by promoting science-based land use planning and other policies directed at sustainable development.

To accomplish its objectives, the following strategies are being implemented by EBM partners:

  • Conduct Policy-Relevant Research:The core strategy of the Babeldaob EBM initiative is generating policy-relevant research and feeding that information into land use planning and other policy processes at the state and national government levels.
  • Collaborate: To facilitate communication of information, the EBM project seeks to “build and support a culture of effective collaboration." It has done this by bringing representatives from government agencies and NGOS together to participate in its “EBM core group”.
  • Act Opportunistically: Instead of implementing “top-down EBM,” partners seek to “inject EBM concepts” into complementary projects in Palau, measuring success in terms of “how many of these different frameworks actually take our work and continue it on in their frameworks."


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

The EBM initiative’s success will be assessed through monitoring a suite of indicators developed for ecosystem health from the ridge to the reef, including indicators for:

  • The entire ecosystem
  • Coral reefs, estuaries and mangroves
  • Sea grass and other critical fish habitats
  • Lagoons
  • Freshwater streams and marine environments
  • The forest floor
  • The forest canopy


During the first several years of the EBM initiative in Palau, progress has been made in a few key areas:

  • Development of Ecosystem Health Indicators: A group of indicators were developed to facilitate monitoring of ecosystem health from the ridge to the reef along the road system, including indicators for the entire ecosystem; coral reefs, estuaries and mangroves; sea grass and other critical fish habitats; lagoons; freshwater streams and marine environments; the forest floor; and the forest canopy.
  • Informed Decision-Making: Through scientific studies of the area, the EBM effort has produced a better understanding of the ecosystem that has led to the creation of nature reserves and influenced land-use planning efforts.
  • Enhanced Collaboration: The EBM initiative has enhanced collaboration among agencies that historically did not work directly with one another.


Factors Facilitating Progress

Factors facilitating EBM implementation in this context include: 

  • Small Scale: Palau’s small size has made it easier to demonstrate ecosystem-based management by facilitating the collection of information and access to decision-makers.
  • Simultaneous Initiatives with Complementary Goals: Conservation institutions and other national and regional initiatives have developed simultaneously with the EBM project, and these other efforts have complementary goals such as the engagement of stakeholders in active management of resources in Babeldaob. Such initiatives provide opportunities for transferring EBM science, principles, and recommendations to decision-making groups during early phases of their planning and development efforts.
  • Local Receptivity to Conservation: EBM partners explain Palau is a country with an ancient history of environmental stewardship; thus, it is relatively receptive to conservation concepts.



Challenges to EBM implementation in Palau include:

  • Insufficient Infrastructure for Using Scientific Findings: Currently, Palau does not have the institutional infrastructure to receive the scientific information being generated by the EBM effort and apply it to relevant policy-making processes.
  • Research Synthesis: It has been difficult to translate incoming research results such that they are easy for stakeholders to understand. The EBM effort in Palau is also struggling to decide how much science is enough; at which point the system is well enough understood to act. Further, partners have been negotiating when to use research results - before or after they have been published. 
  • Community Support: There is some difficulty maintaining political will and landowner support for land management in Palau due to uncertain land tenure and limited local experience with terrestrial management and conservation.
  • Limited Local Expertise: Palau is a small island; therefore, there is limited expertise among the population to draw from. Further, the country’s remoteness makes it difficult to attract people to come work in Palau for long periods of time.
  • Mismatches between EBM Models and the Palauan Context: There is incongruity between existing models of EBM and the Palauan context, especially as it relates to scale.


Lessons Learned

Through its activities of the last five years, the Palau EBM effort has learned:

  • Importance of Partnerships: Partnerships that harmonize and integrate management activities enhance efficiency and promote mutually accepted solutions to ecological issues.
  • Importance of Understanding Existing Institutions and Decision-Making Processes: EBM practitioners need to fully understand the context in which they are operating and must identify opportunities to connect their work to present organizations, policies, programs and management processes. Engaging local personnel will help gain insights into traditional authority structures and community administrative procedures. Socio-cultural research may also inform understanding of formal and informal decision-making processes.
  • Effective Use of Science: Science can help with regards to identifying management targets, threats, and actions. To ensure scientific recommendations are implemented, research needs to address prioritized management questions, including social and economic issues; scientific investigations should have practical application; and research results need to be clearly communicated to decision-makers.
  • Effective Means of Education and Communication: In the tropical western Pacific Ocean context, important messages are usually communicated most effectively through casual gatherings. It is also important to follow up printed messages with verbal communication and to allot sufficient time and resources to such activities in project proposals and plans.
  • Project Monitoring: EBM monitoring plans need to be directly linked to management targets and threats and include a variety of biological and socioeconomic indicators across all ecosystem types contained by the management area.
  • Utility of EBM Tools in this Context: EBM practitioners should note that there may be legitimate socioeconomic and/or governance limitations that prohibit communities or site managers from carrying out management activities in places that EBM tools prioritize for protection. Whether or not EBM tools’ outputs fulfill local objectives may ultimately determine if EBM tools are successful in this region.
  • How to Scale up EBM: EBM principles are applicable at larger spatial scales and can be incorporated into national and sub-national policies and programs.


Website Links

Palau Conservation Society Website:

Belau National Museum Website:

Palau International Coral Reef Center Website:

Palau Bureau of Arts and Culture Webpage: