Meet Andrea Uchel: Protecting World Heritage Coral Reefs through Supporting Sustainable Local Practices

As part of our contribution to the deliberations at the UN Climate Change Convention discussions at COP-27 in November 2022, Ampliseed are promoting the voices of Indigenous and Traditional Leaders working at the frontlines of climate change and biodiversity conservation, helping every day to protect and restore our natural habitats in the field. The article that follows is adapted from an interview with Traditional Leader Andrea Uchel, Chief Resilience Officer at Koror State Government, Palau.


Ampliseed Indigenous Peoples and Local Community Climate Leadership Series

Voice from the Frontline, 2022

Palau is an archipelago of around 576 islands in the western tropical Pacific Ocean. The environment forms the basis of Palau’s culture and economy, with much of the population dependent on natural resources either for subsistence or through its role in tourism, the nation’s most significant source of income. Rising temperatures, coral bleaching, threatened infrastructure, and stronger typhoons are just some of the most severe impacts faced by the Republic of Palau under a changing climate.

Palau's 'pristine marine lab' is literally right outside the rangers' houses. Image © GBRF/Sarah Castine

What are some of the opportunities and challenges you face, working in a small island state?

Coming from a small island nation, we have our pristine marine lab, literally right outside our houses. And to be able to scale up the capacity of the Koror State rangers to monitor what has been there since we came to be, it's actually quite empowering for them – not having to pay tuition fees, but being able to go outside and go to school in nature. I’ve always been really passionate about all these opportunities and projects with local rangers, and being able to scale up the rangers that we have is an important goal for me – bringing in our outside collaborators and learning on country, and using what you have to innovate. Because we don't have a lot of these opportunities come through our islands, they are not commonly available for everyone. 

A lot of the work that is being done by our local communities is already what others call sustainable practices. Being able to share that with them, and empowering them that way, is one way I work to get their buy-in and their cooperation. I was recently talking to an old woman who collects mangrove clams for her livelihood. She doesn’t call what she does as ‘sustainable practices’, it’s just how her community have learned how to do it for generations. It's a skill they’ve already acquired – it’s something that we didn't have to learn again. She also talked about how important these practices are with Palau being at the end of the production line for all these Western products coming in – we don't always get them. They are not something that we can rely on. There are times where we can’t access this produce or Western resources coming in, so we're going to have to make do with what we have, and having those traditional practices that are passed down through generations are so important for food security.

And it’s so much more than just the harvesting. She was explaining how you have to use your feet to dig for the small clam in the mangrove, and while stomping the mud with your feet you collect the clams as they rise to the surface, then you grab a mangrove leaf and put it where you harvested the clam, because that way when you go back, you'll have more. And scientists now understand that these practices help to oxygenate the mangrove mud; it’s verifying what people already knew. 

So, modern science is teaching us what we've always known all along, and it’s empowering for our communities when we can articulate or incorporate traditional knowledge and science together. Just being able to tell them that what you've been doing, that's what the scientists now have to pay thousands of dollars to go to school and come here to tell us now. And again, it just comes back to making do with what we have. Our local people realizing that the knowledge they have is really powerful.

I take pride in the fact that our reefs are still thriving, our resources are still there. I think it's that knowledge, the traditional knowledge that's been passed down, that forms the foundation we always go back to. We still learn new things, and have different management skills coming through, but having that cultural knowledge we have conserved as our foundation is an empowering tool.

The Resilient Reefs Initiative recently held a Solutions Exchange, bringing reef people together for a concentrated three-day forum to exchange ideas and solutions from on the ground. What resonated with you the most in working with others as part of this broader global team?

There's a lot that I will take home for sharing with others! But one thing I learned, is that to be resilient you have to first assess what you have, what can you use, and then you can plan to move forward. For example, how can I use the Traditional Knowledge I have moving forward with this initiative? I have to come back to that mindset, and listen to this story of how you empower cultural values and cultural settings.

It's something that I am really passionate about, because I hold dear to my heart our traditions and the culture I have in Palau, because it’s unique. You will never find it elsewhere. And being able to empower that traditional knowledge that we have, and build a future that is resilient against climate change, you need to be able to combine ecosystem, community and governance together in order to create a success of this initiative. And one thing I really liked with the Solution Exchange is that community makes a huge portion of this approach. Being able to sit in a room with so many different people like me is empowering. Initially, I thought that to be able to sit in this role, you would have to be a scientist, or you’d have to have that science background. But six months into the work that I'm doing, I realised that no, it’s more about having the ability to create change in your organization, and in your community. Being able to empower my people is something really important. I want to give back to the community.

Andrea taking part in the Resilient Reefs Initiative’s Solution Exchange workshop (held this year in Brisbane), which is designed to advance solutions that build the resilience of the world’s reefs and their communities. Image © GBRF/Bec Taylor

Ampliseed is a global network of landscape scale conservation and climate change projects, connecting practitioners with a rights-based, human-centered approach to building environmental resilience. It is supported by BHP Foundation, and facilitated by Pollination Foundation.  Together we learn, share and amplify. The Resilient Reefs Initiative is partnering with communities across five World Heritage Reef sites to respond to climate change and local threats. Established by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, this six-year, $AUD14 million program is a collaboration with UNESCO World Heritage Marine Programme, The Nature Conservancy’s Reef Resilience Network, Columbia University’s Center for Resilient Cities and Landscapes, Resilient Cities Catalyst and AECOM. The program is enabled by the BHP Foundation.