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By Gemma Q. Casas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Nov. 22) - Disappointed over the Marianas Public Lands Authority’s decision to hold confidential negotiations with a company seeking to mine volcanic ash from Pagan Island, the local watchdog group PaganWatch has officially sought the federal government’s intervention to stop the bargaining talks.

PaganWatch, which represents Chamorro and Refalawasch people and their supporters working to protect the pristine island of Pagan, asked U.S. Interior Sec. Gale Norton and Deputy Assistant Sec. to Insular Affairs David Cohen to intervene on the yet-to-be-formalized deal between MPLA and Azmar Intl. Trading Co. CNMI, Inc. for the sake of the indigenous people.

"We realize that a the fight could be taken up in federal court, but that is a fight that requires extensive time and money. We hope that by your intervention and influence, the obvious unethical and illegal action of exclusion by MPLA can be stopped," the group said.

In their letter to Norton and Cohen, PaganWatch president Cinta Kaipat said the indigenous people of Pagan "seeks to participate in the determination of the future of their lands" to no avail.

Kaipat’s group is accusing MPLA of ignoring their pleas to be fully represented in the negotiation "as a result of many political and personal relationships between board members and Azmar supporters."

Variety contacted MPLA and Azmar representatives for comments but failed.

"PaganWatch has been working for many months to get indigenous representation on this monumental decision to mine the 5th largest island in the Marianas. All our efforts are ignored by the board of directors of MPLA who alone are deciding on this issue. They do not allow us to see any documents, nor to know the terms discussed," Kaipat said.

"Although the doors are closed to us, they are open to Azmar supporters. These supporters include members of the CNMI Senate.... We have made every effort at a local level to get MPLA to allow the indigenous people to participate but to no avail," she added.

On Nov. 16, the majority members of the MPLA board voted to start negotiating with Azmar on its application to get a permit to mine, extract and sell pozzolan from Pagan Island subject to strict confidentiality.

The decision was reached despite Azmar’s failure to successfully submit to MPLA all documents requested of it such as funding source with U.S. banks, prospective financial statements, etc.

PaganWatch expressed fear the mining activity in Pagan would mean the end of their simple life.

"Our small, beloved island is under threat of being strip-mined by permission and permit from MPLA.... If Pagan is turned over for mining, there is little doubt that it means the end of the simple life that the residents of Pagan love and cherish," said Kaipat.

"...the permit requestor has no mining experience, no operation plan, no environmental impact plan and secure funding for the project, there is great risk of significant and permanent harm to the land and surrounding waters as well," she added.

Azmar, however, is not the first to get the mining permit. In previous years, MPLA granted mining firm J.G. Sablan a mining permit in Pagan but it did not do any major mining activity through the years.

In an earlier interview, Azmar stressed it will follow all requirements, including providing the environmental impact study, once it gets the mining permit from MPLA.

The firm also stressed it plans to build a school and provide employment to the local people.

MPLA officials for their part, in an earlier interview said, they want to give Azmar the opportunity, especially now that the CNMI needs another major industry.

But PaganWatch said MPLA has no right to sell their land without their consent.

"PaganWatch takes the position that what MPLA is doing is illegal because it violates the word and intent of the Covenant Agreement and the CNMI Constitution that both recognize the public lands belong to the indigenous people. When the CNMI government created MPLA to administer permits, they did not simultaneously give away the indigenous peoples right to decide on how their lands are to be used. Yet the local government seems powerless or unwilling to stop MPLA," the group told Cohen and Norton.

The 15-day ongoing negotiation between MPLA and Azmar is set to end on the second week of Dec.

Then it will go back to the board for the final decision.

November 22, 2004

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