Story 5 of 6 - Aug 8, 2023 - Palau

Kiliii Yüyan on documenting indigenous communities

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Photographer Kiliii Yüyan on documenting how Indigenous communities prioritize conservation of the natural world.
Fishing Indigenous Conservation Oceans

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Jess Chamberlain photo.

Jess Chamberlain

Senior Editorial Manager

National Geographic Explorer Kiliii Yüyan is documenting Indigenous communities around the world, highlighting the ways in which they are exemplary stewards of land and powerful resources for conservation.

Last year, The Climate Pledge teamed up with the National Geographic Society to support 15 National Geographic Explorers over three years (2022-2024) to document the global climate crisis through authentic storytelling, while illuminating the most pressing challenges, the solutions that can protect the wonder of our planet, and the communities on the frontlines. This collaboration advances early-career and established storytellers through funding, training, and the exposure necessary to drive awareness of their stories about the global climate crisis.

To commemorate International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9), we sat down with photographer and National Geographic Explorer Kiliii Yüyan. Informed by his ancestry that is both Nanai/Hèzhé (East Asian Indigenous) and Chinese, Yüyan has dedicated his life to illuminating the stories of lives bound to the land and the sea. Currently he is documenting the ways in which Indigenous peoples all over the world are leading the way in land stewardship and co-management—and how we should not simply consult them for their knowledge and wisdom, but empower them.

Juvenile blacktip reef sharks.
Juvenile blacktip reef sharks cruise in the shallows under the mangroves in a portion of Palau's Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, a UNESCO world heritage site. At this site known as shark city, tour operators will throw their leftover lunches for the sharks to eat, bringing them close for tourists to enjoy. Sharks are protected in Palau—it was the first nation to declare itself a shark sanctuary.

The Climate Pledge: Let’s start with your full project in collaboration with the National Geographic Society and The Climate Pledge. What is your focus?

Yüyan: In the past few centuries, plants and wildlife have been conserved through the creation of parks and eviction of the peoples living in them. But today the understanding has changed. Conservationists now realize that 80% of the world's biodiversity is protected on Indigenous lands, although Indigenous people are only 5% of the population. Indeed, Indigenous peoples are so successful at managing lands that what are often mistaken to be pristine environments are the homelands of contemporary Native peoples.

But as time goes by, Indigenous guardianship of land is no longer a fight that can be carried out alone. Assaults by resource-extraction interests, climate change, and even well-intentioned conservationists have become more powerful. Presenting photographic stories of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Australian tropics, Palauan reefs, Mongolian highlands, and Greenlandic coastline show us all a way forward into a healthy, vibrant, living community.

Anthias school above healthy corals.
Anthias school above healthy corals in the lagoon channel of Helen Reef, a coral atoll, in the remote SW islands of Palau.

The Climate Pledge: Incredible! Now, please catch us up on what you’ve recently documented in Palau.

Yüyan: Palau has many of the world’s healthiest coral reefs—made possible, even in some of the warmest waters on earth, by a healthy population of reef fish and sharks, making the coral highly resilient to bleaching events. Palauan culture and traditional governance has created a system where stewardship of the reef is a primary function of both leadership and the people. Today, Palau has one of the largest marine protected areas on earth, and not only on paper, but in practice.

I’ve documented their traditional storytelling, mentoring of Indigenous youth, and traditional system of governance—alongside the charismatic underwater fauna that people love, from mantas to reef sharks.

The Climate Pledge: As we commemorate International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, how do you hope your photography and the stories of these communities will foster greater awareness and understanding of their vital role in climate change mitigation and adaptation?

Yüyan: Indigenous peoples are humanity’s number one solution to the biodiversity crisis, full stop. Native peoples across the world are using their truly distinct perspectives to not only adapt to climate change, but also mitigate climate effects around the globe, especially in the remaining natural areas.

Portrait of the Helen Reef rangers in Koror, Palau.
Portrait of the Helen Reef rangers in Koror, Palau. (Left to right: Hercules Emilio, Petra Tkel, Tony Chayam.) These are three of the four rangers that confronted a Chinese fishing vessel on Helen Reef and turned it away in a 2020 incident.

The Climate Pledge: Can you share with us your most memorable experience—most moving/impactful thing you’ve witnessed—while photographing the indigenous communities on the coast of Palau?

Yüyan: I spoke to one of the rangers that successfully faced off against a giant Chinese fishing vessel seeking to illegally fish Helen Reef, one of the healthiest coral atolls on earth. When I asked her why she refused a bribe of tens of thousands of dollars, she replied that Helen Reef was her community’s food source, and where she was raised. To allow the fishing vessel in would have decimated the reef, and she was thinking not only of her own food, but the livelihood and culture of her community’s children.    

Brian Fidiiy, a Helen Reef ranger, spearfishes in the shallow Helen Reef lagoon, a coral atoll.
Brian Fidiiy, a Helen Reef ranger, spearfishes in the shallow Helen Reef lagoon, a coral atoll, in the remote SW islands of Palau. For Brian, caring for the reef is more than an occupation—it is the source of food and life's activities.

The Climate Pledge: In your photographs, we see the strong connection between the indigenous peoples and their coastal surroundings. How does this connection shape their resilience and adaptation strategies in the face of rising sea levels and other climate challenges?

Yüyan: There is not only a powerful relationship between Palauans and their land and sea, but also a tremendous body of knowledge about their place. They have swam those reefs and walked those beaches for millennia, and in doing so, have an incredibly powerful understanding of how to balance the natural world while living with it. They are resilient because they have faced major crises before, from overfishing to colonization, and have a deep memory of those events. There are some climate challenges that cannot be overcome, such as rising sea levels, but because they have such a strong system of traditional governance and leaders that the people trust, they will also find ways forward.  

A traditional erosion dike system.
A traditional erosion dike system, a project by the Ngarchelong Warriors, used to prevent soil erosion into the nearby coastal lagoon of Ngarchelong.

The Climate Pledge: How has your experience with these indigenous communities influenced your personal perspective on environmental conservation and the importance of protecting indigenous knowledge?

Yüyan: What makes Indigenous peoples so successful at conservation is a completely different set of cultural values, with land as a top priority. The way forward in conservation is not to simply consult with Indigenous peoples on their knowledge, but to instead empower them to do the stewardship themselves with support. Why? Because cultural values run so deep, and cultural perspectives are so different to non-Indigenous communities that simple consultation or imitation does not work. Empowering those who have a proven track record in conservation, thus, is the simple and powerful solution.

Elder and master navigator Akilino Alvis mentors teenage boys in Echang.
Elder and master navigator Akilino Alvis mentors teenage boys in Echang, a Palauan village community of SW Islanders. Akilino is teaching the finer points as they learn to spin coconut fibers into the rope needed for sailing the traditional outrigger canoe. Fiber arts and basketry are important parts of the Palaun connection to the land.

The Climate Pledge: Your photography often presents an intimate view of the lives of these communities. How do you hope your images will inspire individuals and businesses to make conscious choices that contribute to a sustainable and resilient future for all, especially in the context of climate change?

Yüyan: What I hope people take away, especially businesses, is that climate-conscious choices will never happen when imagined from the dominant paradigm. It takes truly novel perspectives to make better decisions around climate, and that means rethinking many of the basic assumptions about how people live, work, and play in this world. That also means that businesses that are serious need to take a step back and work on creating cultures around an ethical value system that prioritizes that natural world. Without those values, inevitably, any steps toward climate consciousness are mere sticks in a river.

Aerial photo of Helen Island.
Aerial photo of Helen Island, a tiny sand island in Helen Reef lagoon—a coral atoll in the remote SW islands of Palau. The island has lost a lot of ground to sea-level rise in the past decade.

The Climate Pledge: We’re thrilled to hear your project will be published as a book! What can you share about it?

Yüyan: The book will probably be Spring 2025 (OMG), through Braided River/Mountaineers Books. It will be photographically heavy but with a lot of shorter written pieces and nearly all Indigenous contributors. It will be titled Guardians of Life, but I’m not sure about the subtitle yet. Something like “How Indigenous communities steward land through innovation”.

Learn more about Yüyan’s work through his website, and find him on Instagram.

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