Palau is the 7th smallest nation in the world by GDP. But the island nation in the Western Pacific Ocean is also one of the biggest innovators when it comes to environmental conservation. In 1979, it became the first country in the world to vote for a nuclear-free constitution, banning nuclear weapons
. In 2009, it turned its waters into the world’s first shark sanctuary. In 2015 it turned a 500,000 sq km area into a marine reserve, banning oil drilling and fishing by foreign trawlers.
So Palau Pledge is the latest example of the country’s commitment to conservation. Launched just over a year ago (with two years of dogged legwork before that), the Pledge was devised in response to tourists littering the beautiful beaches and treating paradise like a garbage dump. It was kick-started by Nanae Singeo, Jennifer Koskelin-Gibbons, Nicolle Fagan and Laura Clarke and is chaired by the First Lady of Palau, Debbie Remengesau – the women had been drawn together over a mutual passion. With the help of Sydney-based agency Host/Havas, they introduced an ingenious perspective-flipping project that turned the country’s entry visa stamp into a pledge to protect the local environment – which visitors have to sign. The Pledge has been signed by 150,000 people.
The project is rooted in local cultural wisdom, says co-founder Laura, which values the natural environment. While Pacific island nations will suffer the most acute impact of rising sea levels despite producing minimal CO2 emissions (countries like Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands are at the greatest risk of disappearing completely), places like Palau are leading the way and showing what is possible.
“They have been custodians of a culture of conservation for millennia,” says Laura. “I think what we can take away from this and what we try to talk to other politicians around the world about is that this ancient cultural wisdom is something that we need to pay attention to. I think it’s in a lot of cultures but we ignore it. That’s one of the big lessons: that we need to go back to basics. We need to put the environment before profit.”
Of course, Palau’s size has also been advantageous when it comes to implementing the Pledge – Laura first met the First Lady at a cocktail party. Now that she is trying to spread Palau’s message and ideas with governments in Western countries, Laura says she’s keenly aware that the access to politicians and legal bodies in Palau has been incomparable. But despite the relatively small size of the country, enacting the pledge required months of negotiation with government bodies. Though the Pledge launched in December 2017, it has only recently been incorporated into the country's legislature - because whatever the size of a country, changing the law is a slow and tricky process. In November 2018, the government enacted the Responsible Tourism and Education Act, which encompasses the pledge and a host of other measures.
Although it’s challenging to navigate the administrative challenges, other countries have taken notice of the Palau Pledge and implemented their own version, inspired by their own cultures. There’s the Icelandic Pledge
and New Zealand’s Tiaki Promise
was launched in November. In September, Hawaii launched the Pono Pledge
. It’s non-mandatory because the US state can’t change federal laws, but local authorities have thrown their support behind publicising it to engage as many tourists as possible. The team has even been invited to speak at the United Nations, so world leaders are taking notice.
In Palau, the team is moving onto phase two of the project. They’ll be launching a world leading business accreditation programme, an educational curriculum for school-aged children that blends STEM education with conservation – and they’re looking to grow the programme internationally by launching a global leadership scheme. They’re also working with Host/Havas to develop a tracking tool to provide hard facts and insights about the impact the pledge has had on visitor behaviour. These initiatives will be greatly helped by the €323,280 recently donated to the project by Cannes Lions
. That money represents the entry fees generated from submissions into the Sustainable Development Goals Lion.
As Laura explains, all four co-founders have been working on the project pro-bono to date and grants that they’ve received to date have been tied specifically towards making and producing materials and not the people power required to take the project to the next level.
The funds also represent a final magic touch after a year of awards success. As well as winning the Sustainable Development Goals Grand Prix, they also took the Titanium and Direct Grands Prix at Cannes. Elsewhere they won two Black Pencils at D&AD, two Grands Prix at the Clio Awards and two Grands Prix at London International Awards. And at a time when the industry is debating the value of awards, for Laura and the team they’ve been invaluable in pushing the Palau Pledge agenda forward with NGOs, philanthropists, foundations and corporates.
“It’s been so great for us, because every award brings awareness and credibility in the corporate world,” says Laura, who explains that in the early days they faced push back from the conservation community, who were rather closed off to four women from the comms world bringing their new-fangled, nudge-inspired innovations. “You can’t win an award like that on a global scale and not have people go ‘oh hold on, maybe they’re onto something’.”
Listening to the story of the past three years, it becomes apparent that beneath the big story – the achievements, the accolades, the ambition (which really does run to planet-saving levels) – there’s another smaller, intimate story that’s deeply human and no less inspiring. The four co-founders would never have described themselves activists or environmentalists before their Palauan mission. Laura describes the germination of her own passion to help Palau: spending months chasing tourists up and down the beach telling to pick up their rubbish. Before coming together to help protect Palau, Laura worked in PR, Nanae worked for 20 years in marketing at Procter and Gamble, Nicolle worked at Arnold Worldwide and Jennifer held a high-level comms job in global banking.
“So booze, banking, drugs, chocolate and dog food!” laughs Laura. “These women are incredible. You’d be so inspired and we all come from different places. Jen is Palauan. Nanae is from Japan and married a Palauan and so has Palauan children. Nicolle is from Boston, and her husband like mine found a job there. So, you had an incredible mix of the visitors and this beautiful Palauan culture.”
The friendship that has emerged is profoundly inspiring. What they’ve achieved is not just a rallying cry for the creative community, proof of the impact that creative thinking can have on the world – it’s also something that we can all learn from as human beings. It’s the story of individuals coming together through a shared passion, pushing past the naysayers and making a difference. And, right now, in January 2019, a time of New Year’s resolutions, that’s a pretty powerful thought.
“Whenever one of us struggles, the other three are there to pick that one person up. This morning I needed a pep talk. There’s stuff you have to deal with on a daily basis. We keep each other going,” says Laura, fondly. “We’re a tribe of women on a mission.”