The Plants and People of Micronesia Program

The Plants and People of Micronesia Program is a long term science and conservation based effort to help promote preservation of biodiversity, cultural knowledge and native habitats on three Micronesian sites through investigation of the flora, traditional knowledge, and human health issues. This research supports efforts to identify priority areas for conservation and can help meet the goals set by the Micronesia Challenge and local Biodiversity Strategic Action Plans. Currently the project is being managed by Dr. Michael J. Balick, Vice President for Botanical Science and Director of the Institute of Economic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) and Dr. Wayne Law, Postdoctoral Research Associate at NYBG. Drs. Balick, Law, and collaborators work closely with the nongovernment organizations Conservation Society of Pohnpei (CSP), Kosrae Conservation and Safety Organization (KCSO), and The Belau National Museum (BNM) with local staff on Pohnpei, Kosrae, and The Republic of Palau, along with the Micronesia Office of The Nature Conservancy. The program can be divided into two major parts; biodiversity inventories of a broad range of island habitats and ethnobotanical surveys of traditional plant utilization.

The program seeks to document the complete diversity of plants on these poorly known but geographically and biologically important areas of the earth. These islands have unique native plants, as is illustrated by high rates of endemism, and understanding the diversity of the flora can provide insight into biogeography and spread of plants. Threatened by invasive plants and changing ways of land management, it is imperative to have a record of what plant species are present. As has been said, “knowledge of what exists is essential to conserving it.” While exploring the islands, we collect and record occurrences and ranges of plant and fungal species. Working with KCSO in an area of Malem, Kosrae, these surveys have led to the development of a protected area. Partnering with exploration and collection of plant and fungi species are collaborators from the National Tropical Botanical Garden, Kauai, led by Dr. David Lorence and from San Francisco State University, led by Dr. Dennis Desjardin. Voucher specimens are collected and stored in regional herbaria—preserved plant collections—being developed and enhanced on Palau and Pohnpei through this project and are used to create plant checklists for the islands, in order to know what is present. An illustrated checklist of the vascular plants of Pohnpei has been published in Allertonia (2010). A provisional checklist of Kosrae is available. A provisional checklist of the plants of Palau has been published in A Field Guide: Native Trees of Palau (2008) and an updated checklist is available. As the program continues to expand to other areas, additional surveys and inventories will help guide the production of similar such resources.

By studying Ethnobotany, or the traditional knowledge of how people use and manage plants in all aspects of life and the legends that involve plants, we seek to learn ways to effectively protect the islands resources and help develop natural resources that can be used in a sustainable manner. This knowledge is unique to each of the islands, and indeed each of the villages and municipalities, and is significant to the island’s culture. As traditional practices are replaced by modern activities, concern for the fate of the biodiversity in the region fades away. This increases the rate of wilderness conversion and reduces terrestrial and marine habitats. As the importance of plant species and their uses are forgotten, so does the value of conserving the forests. By documenting this knowledge, each of the islands will preserve knowledge of a culture that is eroding away due to westernization as well as to establish “prior art” and “prior knowledge” that protects the intellectual property of these Micronesian cultures. The knowledge of plants, along with information on their harvest and uses, will be carefully preserved in books like The Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants People and Island Culture (2009) as well as databases at the local partner organizations. Traditional resource management systems involve a greater concern for sustainability than do many modern systems, and this documentation will help identify the most important and useful species and help promote their wise use. There is also an important public health component of this program that involves training physicians and health care professionals in traditional medical practices, particularly as they involve plants. This ethnomedicine fellowship, offered through Beth Israel Continuum Center for Health and Healing, is directed by Roberta Lee, M.D. and Stephen Dahmer, M.D. and has included physicians, health care professionals and medical students in Micronesian fieldwork. Some of the lessons learned have been employed in the participant’s own practices in the Micronesia, the United States and elsewhere, through the field of integrative medicine. Dr. Lee and collaborators are also preparing a primary health care manual based on local traditional medical practices for each of the three island sites. The Pohnpei Primary Health Care Manual: Health Care in Pohnpei, Micronesia: Traditional Uses of Plants for Health and Healing (2010), has been published and describes treatment of common conditions with traditional plant preparations from Pohnpei. Because the remedies cannot exist without an intact environment, we were able to show the link between conservation, cultural knowledge, improved public health and quality of life.

A National Science Foundation grant (#0743375) “A Biodiversity Survey of Pohnpei and Kosrae Islands, Federated States of Micronesia; Understanding the Impact of Anthropogenic Disturbance on Plant, Fungal, and Stream Biodiversity” is supporting the methodically precise investigation of plant diversity on Pohnpei and Kosrae, and also investigating how human land use practices affect plant, fleshy fungi, and stream biodiversity, along with water quality, and sedimentation. The work will carefully analyze the plant diversity in clearings of Piper methysticum or Sakau fields, and compare them with uncleared areas as well as abandoned clearings. Stream research is led by Dr. Richard MacKenzie of the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service, who is analyzing the impact of Sakau clearings on nutrient levels, sedimentation, and biodiversity of aquatic insects, freshwater shrimp, and freshwater fish. Dr. Desjardin and Dr. Brian Perry of University of Hawaii, Hilo lead the collection of fleshy fungi. Dr. Balick is the principle investigator for this project, along with co-principal investigators William Raynor of The Nature Conservancy, and Drs. MacKenzie, Lorence and Law.

This applied conservation and biodiversity survey will support the important goals of the Micronesia Challenge as well as the various Biodiversity Strategic Action Plans for each island, by aiding in identification of critical habitats, endangered species, and invasive and alien species that pose a threat to the local flora and habitats, as well as documenting the uses of the flora and traditional sustainable management practices that could help build local economies while conserving the environment.

(Photos from top: Collecting in Pohnpei, Collecting in Kosrae, Collecting in Palau's Rock Islands, David Lorence collecting)