3 Aug 2016

UNESCO funds sought to preserve Pohnpei's ancient capital

From , 5:03 am on 3 August 2016

Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia is hoping for millions of dollars in conservation help for its ancient ruins which have just been internationally recognised.  

Dozens of artificial islets which make up the centuries-old capital Nan Madol received UNESCO World Heritage status last month.

The FSM's National Preservation Officer Augustine Kohler has been working on the UNESCO listing for the last few years and he told Sally Round later this year the FSM plans to apply to UNESCO for funds and other help to conserve the site.

AUGUSTINE KOHLER: Nanmadol is a very very sacred place for us Pohnpeians. This is where all our customs, culture and everything is derived from. Nanmadol used to be the ceremonial and religious centre for all of Pohnpei and at one time it was almost like a dictatorship. It was one man rule, the Saudelors, but after that the nahnmwarki system came in and today we still have the nahnmwarki chiefly system.

SALLY ROUND: How old is the site itself and I understand it's not just one site? It's a series of artificial islets?

AK: Correct. It's 92 plus artificial islets erected on the shores of the south eastern side of Pohnpei. Most of the rocks that were used to build this area are not from that region. They came from the north, the northern side of the island. Our oral history claims that all of the islands came together and built the site. I would say that building started about 4 or 500 AD, the initial construction of Nanmadol, 4 to 500 AD. We're still conducting studies but it took a lot of years and a lot of people to build.

SR: Can you just describe what is there, what are on the islands, for somebody who's never been there. Can you just give us a picture.

AK: At the present all you find is this impressive architectural work of stone monuments, ceremonial centres etc since there are no buildings any more. But each of the islets, according to our oral history, has a function. So you have a residential area for the rulers, you have the place where they fixed the food. So this entire site is kind of isolated from the main island, so these are where the rulers, the elite of our society used to live. The estimate is that it could hold up to about 2000 people.

SR: So quite a civilisation there. How did they actually build it because these buildings, these structures are actually artificially built up in the sea?

AK: Exactly, exactly and the boulders, some of these weigh tonnes. So that is the mystery. I mean they must have some kind of machinery, engineering expertise to have been able to build on the shore. And these are all man-made islands so to speak.

SR: So do people visit them? Can you get to them easily?

AK: Yes. It's accessible both by land and by sea. You can walk the way, but again this is a very recent thing because this used to be a very sacred, tapu place. A lot of Pohnpeians today haven't even visited this site. It's because it's sacred and we still believe that spirits roam around there so it's not really easy for locals to just come and visit. But it's becoming a little bit more open now.

SR: Is it in good condition?

AK: It's in great condition especially, we call it Nandauwas, the central ceremonial centre is very impressive.

SR: And do tourists visit? Is it being marketed as a tourist attraction?

AK:  We're literally starting that now. Our first goal was to have it inscribed as a World Heritage Site, to have the international community recognise it, appreciate it and at the same time offer assistance in our management and preservation plans.

SR: And after that is it something you'd want to develop? A tourism attraction?

AK: Those are in the pipeline. Definitely it's going to be probably the biggest drawcard for FSM at the moment but we also have to be conscious of the fact that it's an old site so we do want to limit the number of people who are coming and how it's used to preserve it.

SR: Getting this UNESCO World Heritage listing - what does that mean  for Pohnpei, for the FSM?

AK: I think it's the recognition by the international community, that we have a significant site here, on island, that we want to share and experience with the rest of the world and at the same time asking them for their support and assistance in helping us manage and preserve it for future generations.

SR: And what do you hope to get out of it, financial help to preserve the site, is that what you're hoping most for?

AK: Not only financial but technical assistance as well. We need capacity building for our own people to be able to do the preservation and management. During my presentation, after accepting  the inscription, I requested that ECOMUS send out a couple of experts to help us with our preservation and we have three main concerns , removing the silt from the channels, and the second one is stabilising the stone walls for renovation, and site clearing. We have encroaching mangroves in the area.

SR: And without this help what do you think might have happened to the site? Is it in danger of crumbling away? Is sea level rise a problem?

AK: Yes, sea level rise, decay is already happening as you can imagine. It's an old site. So we really need expertise, engineering experts, marine experts. Whether we should actually remove the silt, let the free flow of the waterway or will that impact the site itself if we allowed the water to freely flow as it used to? And also in removing some of this vegetation, the mangroves, how will that effect it? Some of the roots are entangled in the ruins itself. We want to be sure that whatever we do we don't facilitate a faster decay of the site as it is.