‘Truly engage with us’

Posted on Jul 01 2021

House Natural Resources committee chair Rep. Sheila Babauta. (Photo: Screencaptured from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation)

The federal government must increase its commitment and support to protecting Earth’s waters, and the CNMI must have a seat at the table when issues affecting its people are being discussed.

Rep. Sheila Babauta, who chairs the CNMI Legislature’s House Natural Resources committee, raised these concerns at the recently concluded Capitol Hill Ocean Week 2021, convened by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and participated in by leaders from around the globe on sustaining the health of the world’s oceans.

Babauta shared the complex environmental issues affecting the CNMI, which ranges from microplastics that wash up on its shores, to the growing military impact, all of which threaten the health of the islands’ natural resources.

Babauta spotlighted the need for the federal government to ramp up its commitment and support to protecting the CNMI waters, stressing how the local community will not stop, and is committed to the implementation of solutions with all local, regional, national, and international partners to face the complex climate crisis.

“We are a territory. We are a commonwealth in political union with the United States, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that big decisions are being made without our free, prior, and informed consent. …We must have a seat at the table when big issues that affect us are being discussed,” she said.

She also called for an increase in federal programs to “match the size of the ocean,” and for increased hiring at the local level to help build local capacity and ensure that the community’s collective voice is represented.

‘We are an afterthought’

Babauta also pointed out during the discussion that in cases of cross-sector coordination, especially affecting the CNMI’s natural resources, “consultations with” does not equal “consent.”

This was in reference to a question asked by Pacific Basin Development Council executive director Esther Kia’aina as to how the CNMI’s territorial status affect its ability to address climate change and natural resources management.

Babauta said that, while the island is in a political union with the United States, and where locals are U.S. citizens, when it comes to development of policies and federal regulations, the CNMI is an afterthought.

“We are an afterthought. That makes the implementation and expected outcome often difficult to realize for our community and our governments, impacting accessibility, development, and economic growth, ultimately affecting our health and our quality of life,” she said.

She added that the island’s lack of representation in the U.S. Congress in terms of the inability to vote on Capitol Hill, and the locals’ inability to vote for the U.S. President, despite being citizens, continue to leave the CNMI extremely vulnerable.

The legislator also said that while funding from the federal government, in particular, the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, will assist the people of the CNMI, it “further blurs the boundaries” and the relationship between the two governments, and one that “simply serves as a short-term solution—a band-aid for climate change.”

“What good is all that money, all that funding, when we have major, major threats at our doorstep, threatening our natural resources our oceans, the health of our community?” she asked.

Babauta, a staunch natural resources advocate, has been working with environmental activists on the island to oppose any increase in destructive military trainings in the CNMI, particularly its Northern Islands.

“The Department of Defense has definitely made it very clear that they have consulted with us. However, ‘in consultation with’ does not equal ‘consent.’ And so having a voice at the table is what matters, and is what we really, really need when it comes to these big issues that are affecting us here in the Mariana Islands,” she said.

‘Truly engage with us’

“Although we have had the opportunity to engage with the U.S. federal government through 902 consultations at intimate levels to report our concerns and communicate our grievances, it’s important for us to discuss what happens after those discussions,” Babauta said.

Section 902 of the Covenant provides that both the U.S. and the CNMI governments will consult regularly on all matters affecting the relationship between them, and that at the request of either government, special representatives will be designated from both parties “to meet and to consider in good faith such issues affecting the relationship,” and where after, a report, and recommendations are to be made. These meetings and discussions are known as the 902 consultations.

“A report is generated, it is shared, it is read, then what? The federal departments continue to push through with their agenda and their mission, leaving our concerns and grievances in the water. At least that’s how we feel,” Babauta said. “I believe that the federal government must remember that free, prior and informed consent is the foundation to self-determination and self-governance—language that is in our agreements with the United States.”

The legislator also appealed to the federal government to “truly engage” with the CNMI community when policies, regulations, and plans are being discussed. “Translate these plans into our languages, go into our villages, knock on doors, talk to the leaders at the table, don’t host gatherings at a hotel and call that a consultation and consent. Truly make the effort to hear the voices of our community.”

“There’s so much that we can learn from our indigenous brothers and sisters in the Pacific. This blue continent has a lot to offer the world, solutions to the climate complexities, the climate issues, toward climate justice for all of us,” she added.

Iva Maurin | Correspondent
Iva Maurin is a communications specialist with environment and community outreach experience in the Philippines and in California. She has a background in graphic arts and is the Saipan Tribune’s community and environment reporter. Contact her at
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