TINIAN—Gov. Eloy S. Inos said yesterday he is pursuing Covenant Section 902 consultations with President Barack Obama for the return to the CNMI of 3-mile submerged lands surrounding five islands that are either part of the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument or under lease to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Lawmakers separately said yesterday they have the governor’s back in initiating 902 talks with the White House so that resources would be “returned to their rightful owners.”
Other possible issues for 902 talks, however, are “so fluid,” including those involving U.S. military plans in the region, Inos said.
Section 902 of the CNMI’s Covenant with the United States allows for periodic consultations between the two governments “on all matters affecting the relationship between them.”
Either party can initiate the consultations. The representatives to these discussions are appointed directly by the CNMI governor and the U.S. president.
Inos’ plan is to initiate 902 talks on the return of the submerged 3-mile lands around Farallon de Pajaros (Uracas), Maug, Asuncion, Tinian, and Farallon de Medinilla.
“Anything over 3 miles will require an act of Congress. That’s something we may not be able to bring to the 902 table,” Inos told Saipan Tribune at yesterday’s groundbreaking for the West San Jose Village Homestead on Tinian.
House vice speaker Frank Dela Cruz (Ind-Saipan) said he supports the governor “100 percent” in pursuing 902 talks because “after all, this is what is spelled out in the Covenant—all matters of concerns between the U.S. and the CNMI should be through 902 talks.”
Rep. George Camacho (Ind-Saipan) said the submerged lands belong to the people of the CNMI, “whether or not there are minerals or other resources yet to be discovered.”
“The way it was taken away was really not fair despite strong opposition by the people and the leaders. It was literally taken away without much negotiation. The monument needs to be returned to the rightful owners, the people of the Commonwealth. As for FDM and Tinian, we did enter into a lease agreement. The most we could do is renegotiate the terms for future usage,” Camacho said.
He said the CNMI needs to “take back 100 miles if possible.”
“We can protect our own land and submerged lands as the people of the Commonwealth and for its best interest,” he added.
Rep. Janet Maratita (Ind-Saipan) supports 902 talks on submerged lands, saying it is an “important step to better our relationship and address issues and provisions in the Covenant that need to be clarified and resolved.”
“It will bring positive closure to these issues. Equally important is the need for continued dialogue,” Maratita added.
The last time the CNMI government initiated 902 talks with the U.S. was in 2007 during then governor Benigno R. Fitial’s term. The topics included interpretation of Covenant provisions on immigration, minimum wage, and taxation.
On Jan. 15 this year, Obama withheld return to the CNMI of five islands’ submerged lands until management deals can be completed on them.
But the presidential proclamation didn’t include Inos’ request for a 180-day period for a management agreement to be completed rather than an open-ended timeline that could mean the CNMI won’t be able to control the remaining submerged lands for years to come.
A law that Obama signed four months ago gave the CNMI control over submerged lands 3 miles around nine of its 14 islands, making it the last U.S. coastal state or territory to own its offshore lands.
Senate floor leader Ray Yumul (Ind-Saipan), for his part, believes 902 talks is not the approach to tackling submerged lands but rather a sit-down with the U.S. Navy secretary and other federal agencies that the president noted in his presidential proclamation.
“Certainly we can try both avenues though,” he added.
This year marks the 38th year since the establishment of the unique relationship between the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States through the signing of the Covenant.
From 3 miles to 12 miles
The governor reiterated that proposed 902 talks on submerged lands would be confined to 3 miles because congressional action is needed on anything beyond 3 miles.
The CNMI previously requested control over 12-mile submerged lands but this was shot down.
“So since the other coastal states have 3 miles, they made it equitable, for us to get 3 miles also. But unlike other coastal states, there are certain exceptions to the transfer to us—FDM, Tinian and the Marine Monument,” Inos said.
The CNMI House of Representatives adopted Friday Rep. Felicidad Ogumoro’s (R-Saipan) resolution urging Congress to recognize the Northern Marianas descents’ control over its exclusive economic zone—the submerged lands and water extending 200 miles around the islands.
Inos said the 200 miles will be hard to come by, or even 12 miles.
If it were up to him, he wants the CNMI to focus on the return of all the submerged 3-mile lands first “and then see how things go, and then we will go in for an extended jurisdiction.”
“The problem is, I don’t know that we would be granted the 12 miles…But again, we’re unique. The CNMI was not acquired by anything other than through negotiations so we will invite the U.S. to come back to the negotiation table and deliberate through that process,” he said, referring to 902 talks.
Like House Speaker Joseph Deleon Guerrero (Ind-Saipan), Inos would also like to hear from the federal government whether it has granted permits or licenses to international companies wanting to mine Marianas seafloor for reported multimillion worth of high-grade hydrothermal deposits.
Upon preliminary checking, the governor said there seems to be no permit issued to any seafloor mining companies.
The speaker said it would still be important for the CNMI to know “what’s out there.” Considering that the CNMI controls most of its submerged 3-mile lands now, questions arise as to the CNMI’s authority over ongoing or future seafloor mining activities.
Deleon Guerrero, on his way to Washington, D.C. later this month, will be meeting with U.S. Department of the Interior and Department of Defense officials on a host of issues including the reported minerals and military plans in the CNMI.