By Graham Earnshaw
MAJURO, Micronesia, Aug 22, Reuter – If paradise means tiny palm-fringed desert islands set in a turquoise coral sea, then Micronesia in the northern Pacific might be it.
That is, if you ignore the 50 per cent unemployment, one of the highest birthrates in the world, malnutrition and a hopeless addiction to free U.S. money.
Tony deBrum, former foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, describes the island states as having been illegitimately conceived, and accuses Washington of having sorely neglected their economic development.
“The U.S. succeeded in planting some seeds of democratic thought and political development, that was the single positive element (of the U.S. administration),” deBrum said. “The economy stinks, no real attempt at self-sufficiency was made.”
The Micronesian islands, strung out between Hawaii and Asia, could become strategically important if Washington closes its Philippine bases, if the Soviet Union becomes more active in the Pacific or if deep-sea mining becomes a reality.
In the meantime, these dots in the ocean are puttering along, trying to deal with the fall-out (some of it nuclear) from 40 years of U.S. administration.
The United States ran them as a United Nations Trust Territory after forcing Japan out towards the end of World War Two, using two atolls as testing grounds for atomic bombs and ensuring the vast Pacific area remained an “American Lake”.
Two sections were declared independent states in 1986 — the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), but only a handful of other countries have recognised them so far.
Some countries argue Washington ended the trust agreement in contravention of U.N. rules. But many people, both inside and outside Micronesia, still do not believe these new countries are truly independent.
Washington controls the defence of both states and their economies are entirely dependent on U.S. aid, amounting to about 1,000 dollars for every man, woman and child per year.
Cynics suggest the United States is happy with Micronesia’s addiction to U.S. funds, which account for virtually the whole budget of both countries.
“Maybe that’s the U.S. intention, so that we are always dependent on them,” said businessman John Sonden on Pohnpei island, capital of the FSM.
Asked if the region could break its dependence on U.S. cash, FSM President John Haglelgam said he thought it possible, though not during the 15 years of the current agreement, or compact, with the United States.
“I am not optimistic it will happen during the compact period, but it will happen 25 or 30 years down the road,” he said.
“When people see how we are progressing, they will start thinking about the FSM as a sovereign nation and start to make efforts to make it a viable nation,” he added.
The ready supply of U.S. money, guaranteed at least for the next 13 years, has sapped any initiative for private business development, pushed salaries up to uncompetitive levels and encouraged official inefficiency and waste, critics say.
Officials of both the Marshall Islands and the FSM say that if and when Washington turns off the money tap, their main hopes for alternative income are tuna fishing and deep-sea mining.
Mass tourism is seen as only a distant hope — the islands are too far away and too undeveloped to be of interest to most tourists in the immediate future.
But the seas of Micronesia are the richest tuna fishing grounds in the world. On the seabed below, is a vast store of cobalt, manganese and nickel, although the technology needed to scoop them up at a reasonable price does not exist yet.
Tuna already provides a small but steady income from the sale of licences to foreign fishing boats, and fines extracted from ships found fishing illegally. Licences for deep-sea mining would do the same.
But with birth-rates soaring and couples regularly raising eight or 10 children, what the islands need is not more free money but employment opportunities.
It comes back in the end to the way the United States administered the region for 40 years. Very few people seem to think the U.S. record is good.
“All the welfare programs available in the U.S. were made available here whether they were needed or not,” said one American living in Majuro. “When you get people eating canned tuna instead of fresh tuna, it’s crazy.”
Salvation Army Major Benton Markham said the affection of Micronesians for American “junk food” was causing malnutrition, especially among children.
“Our contribution to the culture here has been Coca-Cola, cigarettes and candy,” he said. REUTER GAE MS NNNN