Now that the board of directors of MPLA has voted to deny Azmar’s permit request, it would appear that a long, difficult fight has come to a close. MPLA’s action ended the immediate threat to Pagan. But the underlying situation that caused the crisis remains.
When the concerned citizens of the CNMI, and friends of these islands worldwide joined together to fight back and protect the land and people of this community by forming PaganWatch, we made it clear that we were not simply opposed to what appeared to be an unscrupulous and highly suspicious permit requestor. True, we fought tooth and nail to bring information on Azmar out into the open so that all could see that they were neither qualified nor prepared to safely and fairly mine our beautiful island. But all the while we knew that the Azmar problem grew out of a serious, underlying problem with our government. That problem is that there is no mechanism in place to allow for meaningful participation by the owners of public lands in how their property is utilized and managed.
Public lands are the property of those of Northern Marianas descent, as is clearly stated in the Covenant agreement and the CNMI Constitution. Over the years, the CNMI Legislators have made several attempts to create and empower appropriate agencies to manage public lands. But somehow, somewhere along the line, the people were left out of the resulting decision-making process. Their right to prior and informed consent to how their ancestral lands were to be used was forgotten.
It would appear that MPLA has listened to the public outcry, but then again, they have never made any statement that their decision to deny Azmar’s permit request was based on anything other than Azmar’s failure to provide the required documents. They did, however, move to create a task force to study the mining opportunity. So the question is, will MPLA allow the public to participate in the task force? Let’s hope so. If so, then perhaps the fight is indeed over.
Let me also take this opportunity to respond to some criticisms of PaganWatch that have appeared in the letters to the editor recently. One common criticism is that PaganWatch is against mining and is anti-business.
PaganWatch is neither for or against mining. What we are for is community empowerment. We are standing up for your right as an indigenous person, as well as your right as a newer member of the CNMI community, to participate in the momentous decision of whether or not to mine the island of Pagan.
PaganWatch is absolutely not anti-business. But we are anti-bad business. We are defending the right of the community to understand who is making the investments, how they will make their money back and how, ultimately, this business will benefit the islands. If a qualified, responsible investor appears who takes into serious account and responds to the needs of the community, PaganWatch will applaud its efforts. Azmar’s offer, on the other hand, was extremely one-sided and amounted to gross exploitation. Which makes it somewhat disheartening to hear people lament the loss of a few million dollars, when in fact the Azmar deal would have amounted to the loss of billions of dollars, according to Azmar’s own numbers.
We have stated, from the beginning, that the pozzolan resources need to be independently evaluated before any permits are issued. This is because we uncovered the fact that Azmar was relying on hearsay as to the value of the pozzolan and the expenses and risks involved in mining it, and the government was, in turn, relying on Azmar to provide them with this information. Even worse than the prospect of losing billions of dollars due to the lopsided revenue split that Azmar proposed was the possibility of seeing the destruction of the beautiful island of Pagan for a never-realized potential few million.
We have also been asked to say where “our” buyer is, as if the CNMI has some kind obligation to take a bad deal if it can’t find a good one. The answer to that is the task force. Provided that the task force does its work properly, not only will the risks and benefits of the pozzolan opportunity be known, but all the stakeholders, in government and the community, will have been involved in the decision on whether or not to proceed with mining. If yes, then they will work together to put the project out for bid. With such comprehensive community buy-in, a developer can be assured of a smooth permit process if their bid is accepted. This has been our recommended approach after talking to various companies in the mining business, because this is what a business-friendly government should do to reduce the risk to potential investors and help them succeed. Once again, who is on the task force is the pertinent question. If all the stakeholders are not represented, then the risk to developers of having their project blocked by a denied permit from any of a number of regulatory agencies or by community objections will still exist.
Criticism and debate is healthy when it is fair and open. PaganWatch has no hidden agenda; we simply want to protect the rights and interests of the community. Ken Moore, Jeffrey Finley, Don Farrell, Thomas Arkle Jr., Jesse Palacios, Glen Palacios, Pedro P. Castro and Rob Erickson, all closely associated with Azmar, cannot say the same. To others who may be critical of us, we accept and respect your right to a different opinion. We will continue to speak out in defense of your rights, as well as ours, to be fairly represented and to participate in our government.
Peter J. Pangelinan Perez