10 Sep HIGHLIGHT | Pacific Resiliency Fellows
Coming Together From Across the Pacific
By Mallory Muña, Pacific Resiliency Fellow
Over the summer, I had the privilege of spending a week and a half with 12 of the brightest, most enthusiastic, and inspiring conservationists from across the Pacific as a part of Kupu’s Pacific Resiliency Fellows program. The program is a year-long fellowship for conservation and sustainability professionals from American Samoa, Guam, Hawaiʻi, Rapa Nui, Palau, and the Northern Mariana Islands. The goal of the program is to build local capacity in smaller island areas by developing and empowering rising leaders and social entrepreneurs who are working to build more sustainable and resilient communities.
To kick off the program, all of the fellows gathered on O‘ahu for professional development trainings, cultural workshops, and conservation work. In the short amount of time I spent with my cohort, I learned so much about their lives back home, their personal journeys into the conservation and sustainability fields, and their day-to-day struggles to protect and preserve their islands’ precious natural resources. I heard the pride that filled their words as they spoke of their communities and the hope in their voices as they spoke of their visions for a better, more sustainable tomorrow.
I also could not help but feel the familiarity in their stories, as so many of them reminded me of my experiences back home in the Marianas. Uefa, a fellow from American Samoa, shared with us that her community often struggles with food insecurity and that over the years, many people have had to change their diets, supplementing fresh produce and local meats with canned goods and fast food. She explained that most local farms and grocery stores in American Samoa are owned and operated by foreign nationals who lease the land from just a handful of local families. Change American Samoa to the Northern Mariana Islands and her
statements would still ring true. In each of our own little corners of the Pacific, it’s easy to forget the many similarities and struggles that exist between our communities, and how inherently connected we all are within this great big ocean we share. Pacific Islanders, like many indigenous peoples around the world, have an inherent attachment to their natural environment. That sense of place plays a critical role in forming and preserving our identities. And like most indigenous peoples around the world, we face some of the most complex, systemic, and often overwhelming challenges – histories of colonization and barriers to self-determination, climate change impacts, and abject poverty, among others.
Sustainability challenges are infamously difficult to solve due to the fact that they are often rooted in these overarching issues. These problems almost always can be traced back to a handful of background drivers or root causes. For example, poverty is a driving force that determines much of our behavior and individual habits. To be environmentally responsible is not exactly cheap or suitable to everyone’s lifestyle. Plastic grocery bags are free, whereas reusable bags have to be bought; steel straws and bamboo utensils cost money, too, and require shipping fees since they’re not sold on island; and while reusable bottles are sold in a few shops, they are simply too expensive for the average person on Saipan.
Another powerful driver that affects people’s behavior is convenience. I can say from experience that it takes a surprising amount of mental effort to get into the habit of reusing. As someone who studied sustainability in college and currently works in the natural resource management field, even I have a hard time avoiding the situational guilt of failing my environmental responsibilities. I still sometimes forget to tell the waiter to hold the straw before he puts it in my water glass; I often don’t remember my reusable grocery bags until I’m walking up to the cash register; and I will even indulge in the occasional take-out order knowing full well that I don’t have my glassware on hand. Wastefulness, like biting my nails, is an unbelievably hard habit to break.
At the most basic level, reusable products are just more expensive and less available than their disposable counterparts, and to expect every individual to actively participate is unreasonable when you take into account that roughly 60 percent of CNMI residents are living below the national poverty line. The truth is that regardless of how much education and outreach we pump into the community, the majority of people simply cannot afford the time or money to be an environmentally conscious person. Now, couple that with a local government already struggling to ensure basic civil services and you get a community of people who either benefit from the status quo or are too tired and poor to defy it.
Despite the environmental, political, and social injustices that we may face individually, I’m still hopeful that, as a community of Pacific Islanders, we can work together to solve some of these challenges.
I am extremely grateful to Kupu for creating this initial foundation of support through the Pacific Resiliency Fellows program. From removing invasive species within Mt. Kaʻala’s native forests and rebuilding a Pā Honu pond with E Alu Pū in Waimanalo, to learning the importance of mālama pono through team-building activities and empathetic problem solving at Oceanit Inc., each minute of every day provided an opportunity to learn from local experts and connect over shared experiences. During my time in Honolulu, I also identified the social problem that would become the focus of my year-long project: reduce my community’s consumption of single-use plastic and increase local support of a sustainable solid waste management plan through a targeted behavior change campaign and interagency collaboration.
I worried that Kupu’s conservation strategies could not be replicated back home, and while we do lack many of the same resources, by the end of the opening session, I was reminded that it is entirely possible to affect change when you understand the driving factors that make people do the things they do and have the support of an empathetic community. Even though we won’t solve the problem of plastic pollution in the next year, bringing people together to commit to a more sustainable, more equitable, and brighter tomorrow would be an accomplishment in itself.
I left Honolulu feeling very inspired by the Pacific Resiliency Fellows and the entire Kupu ‘ohana that I had the privilege of meeting. The unforgettable experiences I had and the amazing people I met while in Hawaiʻi reinforced my belief that the value of conservation should not be determined by the environment’s ability to be commodified, but rather by its ability to sustain the community, nurture its descendants, and preserve our culture for generations to come.
After studying sustainability and environmental communications at Arizona State University, Mallory Muña started working for the CNMI Bureau of Environmental and Coastal Quality Division of Coastal Resources Management (DCRM) as a communications specialist. She currently helps to promote the Division’s efforts and initiatives, and coordinates DCRM’s Coral Summer Internship and Watershed Warriors program, the latter of which develops Saipan-specific environmental curriculum for a local elementary school. As a native Chamorro, she is passionate about building local capacity and empowering younger generations to become environmental stewards through early education and outreach. When not working, she is paddling for the Marianas Pacific Paddlers Outrigger Canoe team.