U.S. Interior's Office of Insular Affairs Director Nikolao I. Pula Jr. said “the future of the Pacific is what we make of it” as he called on Pacific leaders to work with one another and with the federal government to battle financial hardships, develop their economies, and protect their environment.
Pula was the guest speaker during the opening ceremonies of the Association of Pacific Island Legislatures' 31st General Assembly.
The APIL meet drew over 100 CNMI and visiting dignitaries including those from Guam, Hawaii, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap, Kosrae and Kiribati, collectively dubbed the “Blue Continent.”
Pula shared OIA's work over the last three years to help empower island economies address high energy costs, collect first sets of economic data, assess school needs, and further pursue partnerships against a backdrop of significant budget slashes.
“Today is our opportunity to be proactive, emboldened, and ready to unitedly determine our way forward,” he said toward the end of his 18-page prepared remarks, but was adding to it or veering away from it as he saw fit.
But Gov. Benigno R. Fitial, in his welcoming remarks, did not hide his frustration with the federal government because he said legislation can still be passed by the U.S. Congress with grave repercussions for the CNMI.
Fitial said because the CNMI lacks a “voting” delegate to Congress, the islands rely on the U.S. Department of the Interior to address most of the Commonwealth's concerns with the federal government.
“Some of the other Pacific Island territories may also appreciate the difficulties encountered by the CNMI. Many of our local political and economic issues are also related to some of your concerns,” the governor said.
The CNMI now has a nonvoting delegate, Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP), but he cannot vote on legislation. But Sablan has said he has been working with Democratic and Republican members of Congress to help advance the CNMI's interests.
Fitial and Sablan don't see eye-to-eye on a host of issues, including approaches to immigration and economic development.
One of the issues that Fitial wants the federal government's concession is the CNMI's longtime request related to submerged lands, particularly to be allowed to develop its underwater resources and the pursuit of greater economic opportunities.
“In essence, all we are asking for is to be treated the same way as U.S. coastal states. They are afforded a portion of economic benefits within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone. I urge you all to look into the CNMI's position to see whether your respective jurisdiction can benefit from it as well,” Fitial told APIL members and guests assembled in the CNMI House of Representatives chamber on Capital Hill.
Fitial also used the occasion to take a swipe at the CNMI's own Legislature.
“As legislators, you all hold a very important role in pursuing and implementing solutions to our economic and political problems. This is why it is important for the legislature and the executive branch to work together. After all, you are all elected representatives of the people,” Fitial said.
Fitial declared a state of emergency for three major government entities-the NMI Retirement Fund whose Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition was dismissed by a federal court; the Commonwealth Utilities Corp., and the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.
While the CNMI House of Representatives' leadership is pro-administration, the Senate has taken the role of checking and balancing the administration's moves.
Challenges and solutions
Rebluud Kesolei, president of APIL, said in an interview that the priority issue now among APIL members is strengthening their economies and protecting their environment.
Kesolei, a lawmaker from Palau, said most APIL member jurisdictions have limited flights, as well as costly shipping costs, that impede the development and maintenance of their tourism. Some islands, he said, have flights only once or twice week.
He hopes that other airlines will also invest in the Pacific just like what Continental Airlines/United Airlines did.
The APIL president also said island territories including his home island of Palau, Kiribati, and the Marshall Islands are now seeing the impacts of global warming and climate change, with some atolls now submerged in water.
The four-day APIL general assembly on Saipan also saw presentations yesterday on tourism and airlines.
In the CNMI, the co-chairs for this year's APIL meeting are Senate floor leader Pete Reyes (R-Saipan) and Acting Speaker Felicidad Ogumoro (Cov-Saipan).
Pula, in his remarks, emphasized the value of working together to create sustainable economies. Pula oversees the daily work of the U.S. Interior's Office of Insular Affairs.
He said over the last three years, under President Barack Obama's administration and the leadership of Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Areas Tony Babauta, the work that OIA has carried out throughout the Pacific “has been more thoughtful, coordinated, and increasingly creative as we have had to deal with significant slashes to our budget.”
Pula, from American Samoa, talked about OIA's projects over the last three years that he described as targeted and far-reaching: renewable energy, collecting the first sets of gross domestic products data ever for U.S. territories, assessing the status of schools and education systems and ways in which OIA has explored unconventional partnerships “that will in the long term translate into tangible economic development opportunities for our island communities.”
Costs of energy in the region are unsustainable so OIA has helped islands develop a responsible blueprint for the kind of energy they wanted to implement, specifically renewable or alternative energy such as solar, wind, sea current, and geothermal.
Pula said OIA partnered with the U.S. Department of Commerce so that for the first time in the history of the nation, data about economies have been collected to better understand their economic and make informed economic decisions and policies.
OIA also launched the Insular Assessment of Buildings and Classrooms, or ABC, initiatives, in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps has been assessing the physical state of insular public schools to better address needs.
Pula also talked about economic development partnerships that go back to indigenous roots and seek indigenous solutions for creating opportunities by implementing eco-regional priorities throughout the Pacific to strengthen fisheries management and establish broad-based conservation networks.
'The Coca-Cola lesson'
Pula shared Melinda Gates' experiences in working with the Gates Foundation. Melinda is the wife of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Mrs. Gates saw a fascinating trend throughout the world that does not discriminate on race, gender, religious affiliation, or social status and that is the world's love for Coca-Cola.
Pula said in Mrs. Gates' assessment of the success of Coca-Cola, she saw the importance of data to measure progress, employ continuous feedback, immediately put knowledge back into the product, back into the market.
“What else is Coke good at? She discovered Coke's efficiency at tapping into that local entrepreneurial talent,” Pula said.
Pula said Mrs. Gates identified a third component that ultimately drives Coke's success and that is their ability to effectively market their product.
The OIA director urged the application of the Coca-Cola lessons to the region by doing preliminary research, by focusing locally and creating a demand for local products, and marketing the Pacific.
Pula said there are 74 to 75 million Chinese and Japanese tourists in the region.
“How do we get our share? Also, do we have the facilities to welcome and to entertain tourists who would be happy and spend money on our shores? These are the questions which determine whether we can take out tourism industry to the next level,” he said.
Fitial, a former lawmaker, said he is also a strong advocate of regional collaboration.
“Through the Micronesian Chief Executives' Summit, I have joined my fellow heads of state in adopting regional best practices aimed at addressing the most pressing matters affecting our small islands. As this year's theme suggests, I too believe that together, we can strengthen our local economies throughout the Blue Continent. Together, we are the Blue Continent,” he said.