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Saipan Tribune Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands

June 18, 2001


By Aldwin R. Fajardo Staff Reporter

Military exercise is one thing the islands’ indigenous people must deal with when they voted in favor of the Covenant that created the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in association with the United States more than two decades ago. Environmental protection was apparently the least of their priority then.

Local officials are singing another tune now. They clamor for another round of more extensive environmental assessment survey of Farallon de Medenilla, an island north of Saipan, following a series of U.S. military bombing exercises in the area feared to have caused serious destruction in the surrounding reef.

They are concerned about the possible damages caused by military exercises in the area and want the U.S. Navy to take a closer look at the islet’s surrounding reef.

We all should be concerned. Despite previous assurances by U.S. officials that the Navy was taking precautionary measures to prevent any damage to the island and the surrounding reef, CNMI officials are not convinced.

They may be holding valid reasons, bolstered by the recent decision of President George W. Bush to halt similar military exercises in an island in Puerto Rico which, like the CNMI, is a U.S. territory.

We have reasons to believe that there really is a need to carry out a more comprehensive, unbiased survey of Farallon de Medenilla to determine whether or not CNMI should ask the U.S. Department of Defense to stop the military exercises in the area.

Farallon de Medenilla is one of the Western Pacific's biggest depositories of coral reef. It has 300 miles of pristine reef -- a habitat of precious corals and other marine life. It is a natural resource that takes hundreds of years to restore when destroyed.

To prevent any possible whitewash of future studies, or doubts on the credibility of results and findings, the U.S. should start seriously considering proposals to involve local participation in the new assessment of the damages in the area.

The lease agreement for the Farallon de Medenilla under Sections 802 and 803 of the Covenant guarantees that the U.S. defense department will be responsible for whatever happens to the island and reviews what will have to be done to restore and rehabilitate it.

It has been used for bombing and target practice by the U.S. military, mostly when conflicts arise in neighboring Asian countries and the Persian Gulf. It was used as a training ground for battle by some American soldiers who were sent to Kosovo in late 1990s.

The issue concerning the destruction of marine resources and fisheries around Farallon de Medenilla from the U.S. military bombing exercises had previously been identified as among those that should be discussed with federal officials through another section in the Covenant -- the 902 roundtable discussion.

But U.S. officials said the CNMI's comments on environmental issues surrounding Farallon de Medenilla island should be brought to the attention of the U.S. Naval Forces-Marianas Commander, who stubbornly insists that the islet sustained very minimal damages, if any at all.

The U.S.-CNMI Covenant, reached between the two governments in the late 1970s, remains a major reason behind the Commonwealth's apprehension in pursuing to regain control over Farallon de Medenilla from the U.S. Department of Defense in spite of environmental concerns.

Nevertheless, a section of the Covenant says that if the U.S. determines that it no longer needs the military lands it leased in the Commonwealth, the leases can be bought back from the U.S. Whether or not that will happen, no one can tell.

Should we just wait until not even a single trace of Farallon de Medenilla is left to prove that this island north of Saipan once existed?

The views expressed are strictly that of the author. Aldwin R. Fajardo is the editor of the Saipan Tribune, who has covered business stories for years.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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