QUIET TINIAN FACES PROSPECT OF MAJOR CHANGE

Feature

By Gemma Q. Casas SAIPAN, CNMI (Mariana Variety) - There are less than a dozen grocery stores and very few restaurants around this tiny island which is home to about 3,800 people.

The idyllic lifestyle amid a backdrop of beautiful beaches on Tinian has attracted thousands of tourists over the years but the island’s domestic market remains very small.

The possibility of hosting 4,000 American service members and an undetermined number of their dependents should the Japanese government decide to endorse the relocation of the Futenma Airbase in Okinawa, Japan to their island has sparked optimism among the people here.

The 39-square mile island shares a rich history with the U.S. and Japan since World War II.

The American forces used the island as a base during World War II to launch the atomic bomb attacks against the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that led to the end of the war.

During the Covenant negotiations in the 1970’s with the U.S., the island leaders agreed to lease two-thirds of Tinian’s public land to the U.S. military for a one-time fee of US$17.5 million.

The money was entrusted to the Marianas Public Land Trust for investment.

The first of the 50-year lease agreement will end in 2028 with an option for another 50-year renewal.

In 1994, the CNMI and the U.S. Department of Defense signed a leaseback agreement for a portion of the leased public property for small agricultural and grazing activities, leaving the military with a total of 14,651 acres or 5,929 hectares.

By 2014, these lands which have been idle for so long will finally see military activities with Japan and the U.S. agreeing to realign their forces, including relocating 8,000 American troops from Okinawa, Japan to Guam.

Tinian is expected to be used by the military for its regular drills and exercises.

Tinian has been eagerly waiting for them.

"Tinian has been waiting for the U.S. military to come for over 30 years," said Mayor Ramon M. Dela Cruz.

About 200 to 400 Marines will conduct training exercises on Tinian every week once the Marianas buildup project is implemented.

But Dela Cruz said their people are also looking forward to the possibility of hosting Futenma which the Okinawans want out of Japan.

A seven-member parliamentary panel in Japan is set to recommend this month to Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama if Futenma should be relocated to the Northern Marianas -- to Tinian in particular.

Hatoyama has until May to decide on what to do with Futenma which Okinawans claimed has caused many troubles on their island.

Dela Cruz said Tinian welcomes Futenma not only because of the economic benefits that it will bring to their island.

Tinian also hopes to get more aid from both the U.S. and Japanese governments in terms of infrastructure and healthcare.

The mayor said Tinian has only one doctor and its clinic is "very bare," hardly able to meet the medical needs of their people.

If the military comes, he said there is a strong probability that their healthcare facilities will dramatically improve.

"We only have one doctor and one physician assistant and very few nurses," he told the Variety. "If the military comes, we may have more medical equipment and maybe a medical team to serve our people."

"We need a more permanent installation here. We welcome the Futenma Airbase. We’ve been waiting for it," he added.

Residents interviewed by this reporter agreed with their mayor but they are also concerned about unnecessary environmental degradation caused by military activities.

Still, unemployment on Tinian stands at about 15 percent, and resident said the military’s increased presence would inevitably attract more businesses -- and create more jobs.

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