MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Jan. 24) - Traditional landowners from Kwajalein Atoll, which hosts the key Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands, said Wednesday that the newly signed 83-year, $2 billion lease to the United States does not provide adequate funding.

The landowners are objecting to the deal that was signed by government leaders from the United States and the Marshall Islands in Honolulu last week without their participation.

The landowners, who have formed an organization called the Kwajalein Negotiation Commission, said the new U.S.-Marshall Islands agreement is not enforceable because the landowners have to give their permission for use of this boomerang-shaped necklace of coral islands.

If the U.S. uses Kwajalein for the full 83 year term—the U.S. is allowed to terminate early, provided it pays a multi-million dollar penalty fee—it will inject about $2 billion in direct land rental payments, community development assistance and environmental protection funding.

The new lease, giving the U.S. use of Kwajalein through 2066 with an option to extend for an additional 20 years, underlines the critical importance of Kwajalein to the Bush administration’s missile defense strategy. This central Pacific atoll has seen a significantly stepped-up testing schedule since President Bush took office.

Although the Marshall Islands government has been negotiating with the U.S. to extend the U.S. lease of Kwajalein, the landowners control the use of Kwajalein through traditional land ownership of the 93-island atoll.

"Our offer to the U.S. government to extend the lease at Kwajalein for another 50 years was made on the basis of security to the United States and fairness to the people of Kwajalein," Kwajalein Negotiation Commission chairman Christopher Loeak said Wednesday. The U.S. offer, which is the basis of the newly signed agreement, "is insufficient to provide for the people of Kwajalein and fails to account for population growth and inflation. We will not be bullied into a long-term deal with the United States or the Marshall Islands government by their refusal to meaningfully negotiate with the landowners."

The landowners are demanding $19.1 million annually in rental payments, compared to the present $11.3 million annual payment. The new U.S.-Marshall Islands deal provides for a hike to $15 million on Oct. 1, with a further increase to $18 million annually in 2014. The rental payments are adjusted upward for inflation. The lease also includes up to $500 million in community development funds over the 83-year life of the pact.

The KNC has been participating in the missile range talks between the U.S. and the Marshall Islands since last June, when the KNC and Marshall Islands negotiators issued an eight-point proposal under which the Kwajalein people would agree to extend the use of Kwajalein for 50 years.

"Despite much constructive dialog and negotiations, however, the U.S. government and the KNC failed to reach an agreement concerning these terms," Loeak said. "Notwithstanding the KNC’s continued offer to negotiate and discuss mutually acceptable terms, the Marshall Islands and the U.S. agreed to terms without the participation of the landowners in the final round in Honolulu."

Loeak said that the landowners are now reviewing the terms of the agreement signed last week. But, he said, as presently drafted, the deal "fails to support the long-term needs of the people of Kwajalein, providing insufficient support for the landowner’s trust fund and providing insufficient compensation for use of the land."

January 24, 2003

For additional reports from the Marianas Variety, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/ Marianas Variety. 

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