We should not pursue economic development in the Northern Islands
Written by By Anastasia Schweiger
MANNGINGI’ is a Chamorro practice I learned while growing up in Tanapag. By bowing one’s head, kissing an elder’s hand with your nose, and saying nora or not, manngingi’ is a simple but profound gesture that shows one’s respect for the manamko. It is a respect that my father has taught me all my life, a deep respect for this place that I call home.
So when I prepared for today’s topic, I realized that very few people and very few countries have given the Northern Marianas and its people the respect they so deserve.
Throughout the CNMI’s history, foreign powers have made major decisions for these islands without knowing much about them, let alone having the common decency to ever visit them when making those decisions.
This history has been nothing short of disrespectful, an insult to the cherished tradition of manngingi’.
However, I fear that now, we stand poised to make that same mistake about the Northern Islands, about which we know very little and to which many of us have never been.
That is why I stand here today to argue that we should NOT pursue economic development in the Northern Islands.
To begin with, in the spirit of manngingi’, rather than seeing them as the ultimate jackpot, we should treasure the Northern Islands as family heirlooms that we preserve for future generations.
We need to live by the Native American proverb:
“We do not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
With that in mind, we have to remember that the profit of today may be the ultimate sacrifice of tomorrow.
For instance, mining pozzolan may be the next black gold rush, but it will strip Pagan dry, leaving it polluted, barren, and vulnerable to erosion.
Commercial farming may make us the bread basket of Micronesia, but like other countries that have over-farmed their soil, that could suck the land of all its nutrients, leaving it infertile for countless generations.
And commercial fishing could result in overfishing that depletes our oceans of the one food staple that the islands have relied on for centuries.
Yes, these economic developments may bring money today, but what about tomorrow?
What happens when we have mined the last ounce of pozzolan?
What happens when we have harvested the last coconut?
And what happens when we have caught the last fish?
When that happens, we will realize that we cannot eat money.
Like the Iroquois nation, when making decisions, we must consider their impact on seven generations into the future.
If we are to ensure that our islands are here for the next seven generations, rather than developing the Northern Islands, we should preserve them.
This brings me to my second point.
In order to preserve the Northern Islands, we need to enact legislation that gives us more control over these islands.
Current federal legislation gives the CNMI jurisdiction over less than three miles off the coast of each island. That leaves hundreds of miles of ocean that we have absolutely no control over.
How are we to protect against overfishing in those waters?
How are we to prevent illegal undersea mining?
How are we to regulate any kind of maritime activity?
The U.S. Coast Guard may patrol these waters, but who decides what is acceptable and unacceptable in our submerged lands?
Shouldn’t those decisions be made by the people who live in these islands?
But it’s not just about submerged lands.
As far back as 1971, a Use and Occupancy Agreement between the U.S. government and the former Trust Territory governments permitted the use of Farallon de Medinilla as an aircraft and ship ordnance impact target area. In other words, a place to drop bombs, all for one measly payment of $20,600.
And now the U.S. Department of Defense wants to do the same with Pagan, destroying its environment, its character, and its people?
As Northern Islands Municipal Council member Diego Kaipat put it, “If Pagan is taken by the military, residents will become the real endangered species.”
Aside from the military, even environmental activities have taken away our control of the Northern Islands.
Specifically, the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument gave the federal government control over almost 100,000 square miles of the entire Northern Marianas, or about a third of the CNMI.
So between submerged lands, military lands, and environmental lands, our commonwealth controls only a small fraction of the actual area of the NMI.
How are we to preserve our commonwealth, let alone the Northern Islands, without the basic authority to make decisions about these islands?
We cannot protect, we cannot preserve our own home if we don’t even have the keys to that home.
Therefore, the U.S. Congress must enact legislation that gives the CNMI more authority to regulate its own waters.
Only then will we be in a position to preserve all our islands, not just the Northern Islands.
However, I know that more control will require that we become more responsible in how we handle our islands, which brings me to my third and final point.
In order to preserve the Northern Islands, we need to become better stewards of all our islands.
And that will only happen when we change the way we think about economic growth.
Famous British economist, John Clapham, once said, “Economic advance is not the same thing as human progress.”
We, in the CNMI, have proven this point all too well.
Just look at us now. What did the economic advance of the 80s and 90s bring us?
A large influx of foreign workers that overwhelmed our infrastructure and led to human rights abuses resulting in federalization.
A real estate rush that led to families turning on each other and ultimately losing much of their land.
And the construction of more hotels and garment factories than we ever needed which led to red-flagged beaches, sewage overflows, and Mount Puerto Rico.
Sure, these things brought in money, but at what cost?
Communities plagued by crime, drugs, gambling, and domestic violence?
A government driven into corruption by bribery, greed, and cronyism?
And a westernized culture that values money over family, friends, and community?
Yes, there has been economic advance, but not human progress.
The solution to these problems, and the key to becoming better stewards of our islands, can be found in what I started with: the essence of manngingi’.
In his book, “The Rope of Tradition,” Lino Olopai demonstrates this essence when describing the traditional way of building a canoe. Noting that a breadfruit tree provides the best kind of wood for a canoe, Lino explains how before the canoe is even built, the family on whose land the tree is found is consulted at length, sometimes for several weeks. And even when the family finally gives permission to cut down the tree, the canoe builders carry out a ritual that involves talking to the spirit of the tree.
This traditional process of building a canoe is not a simple and quick financial transaction. You don’t just order it online and have it delivered. It is a dialogue that cultivates relationships, community bonds, and appreciation for both nature and people.
It’s not about cost. It’s about value. It’s not about money. It’s about respect.
And to me, that’s what manngingi’ is all about: respect.
Today’s topic asked us to “take into account the needs of the residents of the Northern Islands.”
Well, in my opinion, they deserve more than just being taken into account. They deserve our utmost respect.
Because who else has been on the front lines fighting the militarization of the Northern Islands?
Who else has learned to live in balance with nature?
Who else respects their islands as much as they do?
So, no, we should do more than just “take their needs into account.”
We should salute them, and learn from them, and listen to them.
Because they live by something my Uncle Frank Aguon taught me a long time ago growing up in Tanapag, that if you take care of the land, it will take care of you.
And that is what we must do. We must take care of the Northern Islands and honor them as we would honor our own manamko’.
And in the spirit of manngingi’, let us bow our heads in humility, kiss them with love, and treat them with respect.
A Mount Carmel High School senior, the author is this year’s winner of the 29th Attorneys General Cup Speech Competition.