A Tale of Two Microstates: Ideas for A Climate-Smart & Nutrition-Sensitive Future


April 27, 2023

While the focus on the key purveyors of a changing climate is rightly increasing, it is important to keep in view simultaneously, the attendant issues besetting smaller states.

Two such countries are the Republics of Palau and Marshall Islands (RMI) in the Micronesia Region. A young (1994) microstate, Palau has a population of some 21,000. Its COVID-dampened GDP is about $218 million (2021) down from a peak of about $300 million in 2016. Tourism a key economic driver, contributed over 45% in past years, with agriculture, fisheries, and forestry’s at under 4%. Poverty headcount (at national poverty lines) was reported at 24.9% (2006).

RMI with a total population of about 42,000 (2021) declared independence in 1979. The public sector accounts for almost 50% of its total GDP ($260 million in 2021), and agriculture/fisheries contribute around 20%. While RMI’s GDP has overtaken that of its neighbor’s, poverty is prevalent; the 2002 Household Income & Expenditure Survey (HIES), estimated a national poverty rate of 53%, with an estimated 37% of the total population living below the “basic-needs income line.” Stunting afflicts over a third of the children under 5, while the mortality rate is nearly double that of Palau’s at 30 per 1.000 live births.

Over 80% of the population in both countries is urban. The islands have a tropical climate and are biologically rich, with nearly 90% of Palau’s total land area covered by natural or planted stands of trees, while 52% of RMI’s landmass is under forests.

Key Challenges to a Sustainable Agri-food Future:

Under a quarter of both Palau (20%) and RMI’s (23%) workforce is engaged in agriculture. Women are the primary agricultural producers, working on mainly subsistence production, characterized by land and water constraints, low market access, finance, logistics, knowledge and technology gaps. Coastal fisheries are important but dwindling.

Natural disasters, and ongoing changes to marine and terrestrial ecology continue damaging local infrastructure, agriculture and fisheries. Together with gender disparities and violence, poor market access and capacity constraints, a changing climate threatens food and nutrition security, and will exacerbate socio-economic deficits and inequities.

Pathways to An Inclusive, Climate-Smart & Nutrition-Sensitive Future

Punctual action on three key interlinked opportunities can help change this climate-driven fate:

Opportunity #1: Enhancing Nutrition Security: Palau and RMI rely heavily on food imports and the poor spend a good share of their budget on it (over 50% in RMI, World Bank 2016). Malnutrition and obesity are prevalent in both countries.

– While their agro-ecology disallows an ambitious scale-up of domestic food production, there is room to: improve productivity of indigenous crops and fruits; produce diverse crops (including leafy greens e.g., chaya, amaranth, kangkong, beach cowpea; root vegetables, e.g., sweet potatoes, turmeric, etc.; and fruits indigenous or introduced); augment near-shore/coastal farming/aquaculture of seagrass or seaweed); strengthen food quality –healthier preparation and conservation practices; and reduce food loss and waste. Increasing households’ knowledge on nutritious and varied diets and healthier lifestyle choices, are necessary too. Implementing strategies for value-added products and new income streams such as eco-tourism, with stronger linkages to domestic and tourism-oriented markets, will be important complements.

Opportunity # 2: Addressing Climate Change: Palau and RMI are highly vulnerable and due to climate change, hydrometeorological disasters are increasing, while sea-level rise is a critical challenge. Prolonged droughts have adversely affected productivity, and fresh-water supply shortages loom large. Meanwhile, coastal landings – critical to diets, are declining.

– Local farmers and fishers have been using traditional practices to mitigate extreme weather impacts and enhance resilience. But beyond these, widespread, and systematic adoption of climate smart agriculture (CSA), animal husbandry and near-shore fishing practices and technologies, must be promoted. These could include soil management, incorporation of seaweed/domestic waste for soil amendment and better feeds; pasture improvement, use of forage banks, silvo-pastoral solutions; and, watershed management, small-scale water harvesting, et al. Education on the risk of over-exploiting the coastal fish resources, and adoption of conservation techniques, are necessary.

Opportunity #3: Closing Gender Gaps: Despite a matrilineal system, socio-cultural norms, including pervasive gender-based violence, and constraints to the control of land and other assets, reinforce women’s inequalities and poverty traps. Moreover, most of the poor live on remote outer islands, hindering access to social services and economic resources.

– As elsewhere, access to quality socio-economic opportunities, and representation in decision making roles are fundamental to improving broader development outcomes. Targeted policies, awareness building– targeting men and women, and tailored initiatives, to strengthen women’s know-how and capacity, are required.

Addressing climate change and reducing gender disparities are fundamental to a sustainable, robust agri-food landscape in Palau and RMI.

Figure 2-18: World Bank Group. 2016. Systematic Country Diagnostic for the Eight Small Pacific Island Countries: Priorities for Ending Poverty and Boosting Shared Prosperity. © World Bank, Washington, DC., page 23.

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