Image of the beach and palm trees in Micronesia.

Plants and People of Micronesia

Michael Balick and collaborators

Micronesia, in the western Pacific Ocean, is a region of vast but poorly explored plant biodiversity, with many unique species found nowhere else on earth. This is the result of the isolation of the individual islands, their diverse topography, and the fact that they are found very far from continents that would otherwise dominate their floras. Micronesia contains over 2000 individual islands spread throughout 3.5 million square miles of ocean, an area approximately the size of the continental United States and is located about 2500 miles southwest of Honolulu. The NYBG’s work in Micronesia involves the study of the botany and traditional utilization and conservation of the flora across a ca. 1500-mile-long transect from the islands of Kosrae and Pohnpei in the east to The Republic of Palau in the west. Initiated in 1997, the program is entitled “Plants and People of Micronesia.”

To carry out the research, three centers of research in these island nations were formed at local NGOs on Pohnpei and Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and in The Republic of Palau. This program has involved creating teams of scientists and local community members who have explored some of the most remote and little-known parts of these islands to collect plants and fungi, to produce annotated biodiversity inventories, as well as information on how plants and fungi have been used traditionally for food, fiber, construction materials, medicine, and for other purposes. This information is being documented in papers, books, and databases. There is also an ethnomedical training component of this project, designed to build an understanding of the relationship between public health and biodiversity. One aspect of this is the preparation of primary health care manuals for Pohnpei, FSM and the Republic of Palau, where, working with local and international physicians, plants were evaluated for their potential use in treating common health conditions. Through the College of Micronesia-FSM, an ethnobotany course has been developed with Prof. Dana Lee Ling, the first of its kind in the region, and hundreds of students have participated in this class, designed to foster a better understanding of the importance of plants in island life.

This work in Micronesia comes at a particularly important time in the history of conservation efforts in this region. The “Micronesia Challenge 2030”—one of the globe’s most ambitious efforts to protect native habitat, announced at the 8th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity in 2006, calls for the effective management of 50% of the near shore marine resources and 30% of the terrestrial habitats throughout Micronesia by 2030, and to be a voice for sustainability and climate change. Armed with the knowledge of plant diversity, particularly the locations of endemic and rare plant species, and an understanding of the ecology of the habitats where they are found, conservation planners can demarcate the most important terrestrial areas. More information about the research on the biodiversity of Micronesia can be found in the Biodiversity Reference Lists.

Past and Present institutional partners in this work have included The National Tropical Botanical Garden, The Beth Israel Continuum Center for Health and Healing, The Conservation Society of Pohnpei, The Micronesia Office of The Nature Conservancy, The College of Micronesia, The Pohnpei Council of Traditional Leaders, Pohnpei State Government, the Kosrae Conservation and Safety Organization and Kosrae Island Resource Management Authority and The Belau National Museum/Natural History Section. Through a recent partnership with Rutgers University’s Center for Agricultural Food Ecosystems (RUCAFE), we are working on a climate resilient food security plan for farming households across the Federated States of Micronesia. The baseline report has been written and is currently under review.

More information can be found in the following books and monographs:
Ethnobotany of Pohnpei: Plants, People and Island Culture
Pohnpei Primary Health Care Manual; Health Care in Pohnpei, Micronesia: Traditional Uses of Plants for Health and Healing
Palau Primary Health Care Manual: Health Care in Palau, Combining Conventional Treatments and Traditional Uses of Plants for Health and Healing
Ethnobotany of Palau: Plants, People and Island Culture, Volume 1.
Ethnobotany of Palau: Plants, People and Island Culture, Volume 2.
Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Pohnpei, Federated States of Micronesia with Local Names and Uses. Herrera, K., D.H. Lorence, T. Flynn and M.J. Balick. Allertonia 2010 (10):1-204.