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By Franklyn Te

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (May 12, 2001 – Marshall Islands Journal)---Reading the Marshall Islands Journal dated April 13, 2001, I noticed that there was emphasis to revitalize the copra industry and several ideas were being considered to develop coconut oil and maximize the use of copra raw materials.

Converting from diesel to coconut oil in running vehicles and even a power plant sounds good and would help minimize pollution and reduce the cost of generating power. This would also encourage more income for the poor and the needy.

However, I do ask the question… WHY copra? Everyone knows that copra is not a viable industry nowadays. The price for copra is so low and the supply from South America and other Asian countries is overwhelming the global industry so that it is almost impossible to compete. Given the idea of local consumption for copra products, with only 60,000 people, the Marshall Islands can utilize all the available copra being produced and still have thousands of pounds left. We need to think of other alternatives that would enhance both economic growth and sustainable resource development.

I understand that copra has been a traditional product and that most Marshallese people have been culturally inclined to produce copra. I also understand that in most outer islands, there is no other industry that people can turn to for income other than fishing and handicrafts. I believe that this should not be so and have some suggestions.

The government is trying a lot of ideas to ensure changes in the economic and social atmosphere of the Marshall Islands. I applaud this and do support projects that would enable sustainable development.

However, successful projects require quantum leaps in thinking and overall change in current mindsets. Copra in the Marshall Islands, on its own, will not become profitable unless all other copra producers around the world will close down. Business people know that in order to make a profit and regulate prices of an item, the supply needs to be controlled. That is why the crude oil producers control global oil prices via their OPEC cartel. Similarly, demand is the key to growth and right now, there is not much demand for copra, especially RMI copra.

Why not change emphasis from copra to other abundant resources such as ornamental reef fish, crabs and shrimps, seashells and seaweeds? Demand for these products has skyrocketed. The ornamental fish industry alone is a multi-billion dollar activity with no end in sight due to very high demand. Exotic seashells demand very high prices ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars per shell. I have already mentioned all these possible income-generating resources for the Marshall Islands in my briefing to the RMI cabinet ministers several months ago. I guess my suggestions may have been forgotten due to too many other priorities and emergencies within the country.

What we need to watch out for are the unscrupulous business people who would come to the RMI, strip all the resources and sell them off without the RMI government and people receiving any benefits. Many foreign and local businesses are already doing some type of "rape and pillage" activities here in the Marshall. Examples are the live rock collection and cyanide fishing activities for the aquarium and live fish trade. Researchers and scientists from the College of the Marshall Islands have already called attention to these destructive activities and have informed the government officials about the long-term damage and negative effects on the natural resources of the Marshalls. Can the RMI afford to lose out on the income that is generated from their own homeland?

Similarly, should the RMI people tolerate destructive fishing methods that have been banned in many other parts of the world?

If the government is really thinking of developing the country and encouraging sustainable development, as suggested in the recent NESS II meetings, then a drastic change in attitude, timeframe and mindset is needed. ‘Business as usual’ will not do any more. The old ways of doing things have NOT worked and the RMI has been struggling to improve its economy and social status ever since its independence.

Something NEW, unconventional and requiring a leap of faith is needed.

Spending money from Taiwan to develop copra is not a viable way of using money that can be channeled to marine resource development, education on marine resource utilization and training in marine affairs and policy. The Marshall Islands is an oceanic country with 700,000 square miles of ocean and only 70 square miles of land. Which resource do you think we should depend on for our future?

Franklyn Te is the Coordinator of the Marine Science Program at the College of the Marshall Islands.

The Marshall Islands Journal, Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960 E-mail:  Subscriptions (weekly): 1 year US $87.00; international $213.00 (air mail).

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