The Republic of Palau (or Belau, as it is locally called) is the western most island group of the West Caroline Islands, which are a part of Micronesia. Micronesia is the general name for the island groups of the Carolines, the Marshalls, the Marianas and the Gilberts. The Philippine island Davao is over 500 miles to the west, and the southernmost islands of Palau (the Southwest Islands) are actually closer to Indonesia than they are to Palau. Flight connections to Palau can be made through Guam, Manila or Taipei.
The local language, Palauan, is spoken throughout the islands, except for the Southwest Islands, where the people speak a Yapese dialect. Palauan is primarily a spoken language, and much confusion exists about the correct spelling of names. Almost every land map that exists on the islands spells the names differently, since there is no set standard. Most names have been Americanized so they are easier to pronounce.
The Americans who made the first rough maps of the islands and reefs after WWII used the letters "W", "P", "Y", and "V" (letters which did not exist in the local language). Some of these new spellings are so widely used, few people now remember the original words. Belau is the correct name for the country, but Palau has been used more by foreigners. The Spaniards started it by calling the islands "Los Palaos". The British changed it to "The Pelew Islands", and the Germans finally settled on "Palau". Palauans use both names at present, and until a final decision is made on all spelling methods, confusion will abound. I have used the more popular spelling of words in this book, at times also mentioning the traditional names if they are still used a lot.
Through the many different foreign influences over the last two centuries, Palauans have kept their proud nature. Some of their traditional beliefs and customs still survive today even though the people may look very westernized to visitors.
Only about l5,000 people inhabit these islands today, and there is a large gap between generations. The older generation was raised during the Japanese occupation, and many still speak fluent Japanese. The younger generation was raised under American influence, and speak English. Many families who are able to afford it send their kids to the United States or Hawaii for high school and college. Many do not return, since they can find better jobs elsewhere. As a result, there is a shortage of young professional Palauans on the islands. Forty percent of the population works for the local government, and most of the rest work for fishing or tourist related businesses. Filipino workers are imported in large numbers for jobs as carpenters, maids, secretaries, etc. Attorneys (both local and American) abound , as do lawsuits to settle the many land disputes on the islands.
Land confiscated under the Japanese occupation is now being returned to the original local owners and their descendants (if known). Land can belong to an entire Clan instead of one person, and it is not unusual for as many as 20 people to try and claim the same piece of land until it is settled by the courts. This is a major obstacle for development. Foreigners can lease land, but cannot own it.
The geology of the area is unusually diverse. In the north are two small atolls, while the main island of Babeldaob is mostly volcanic and rises up 700 feet at places. Koror is partly volcanic, partly limestone. The Rock Islands are pure limestone (these are the remains of ancient coral reefs which were lifted up out of the ocean millions of years ago by volcanic forces). Palau rests on top of an undersea ridge of volcanic mountains, part of the "Pacific Ring of Fire" known for its undersea activity. One of the deepest trenches in the ocean is just east of Palau, and is over 27,000 feet deep.
As ancient coral reefs die, the porous limestone is further shaped by natural forces. Rain and decaying vegetation form acids that help shape the caves, marine lakes and formations found in the Rock Islands. The waterline is further eroded by waves and marine life, giving the islands their mushroom shape.
CEDAM International named Palau 'One of the Seven Underwater Wonders of the World', a well deserved title. Aside from the spectacular coral reefs and fish life, the scenery above water is also hard to beat .
Although the majority of visitors to the islands are divers, there is much to explore for historians, archaeologists, bird watchers, and hikers. Some people never explore beyond the beautiful beaches of the Rock Islands.
Even though there are over 200 islands, Palau is a very small area, and the Rock Island lagoon is a delicate treasure which could easily be ruined by mass tourism. A recent law prohibits any structures from being built on these islands in an effort to keep them as they are now. Ugly concrete shelters with tin roofs started to show up on some beaches, while plans for floating hotels and cabins were being discussed. This law came just in time.
A small cluster of islands, known as "The 70 Islands", was set aside as a wildlife preserve in l956, so endangered Hawksbill turtles and birds could nest there peacefully. Patrol boats and enforcement by local authorities is needed badly to prevent over hunting of several endangered species around all the islands like the Hawksbill turtle, the Saltwater crocodile, the Fruit bat, and several species of birds.
When you become familiar with the Palauan people you see their proud and stubborn nature. Palauans have not been able to stand against the outside world as a united nation because they have always been too busy fighting their local wars between villages and Clans. In the last century these fights have been fought in the political arena.
Politics has become the national pass time. Palau was the last U.S. Trusteeship left in the world until the Compact of Free Association was approved after ten votes by the people, and an amendment to the constitution. On October 1,1994, Palau became independent, and will receive nearly US$450 million over a 15-year period, while the United States has certain harbor and airfield rights on Palau.
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