A balancing act between protecting ancestral lands and pursuing economic development
Saipan— As several public land leases on Saipan are set to expire this year and in the next two to three years, the people of Northern Marianas descent, or NMD, reiterates their demand to be included in the process of deciding what to do with their ancestral lands.
To Pacific islanders, the land is sacred and the economic opportunities it offers often clash with its cultural value.
“Our land is a critical resource that has sustained us for over 4,000 years but it is much more than a resource. To the local people, the land is part of us,” said Peter Perez, vice president of the Northern Marianas Descent Corp. (NMDC).
“We belong to the land and it belongs to us. If we are denied the use of our land, it harms us and our culture begins to die.”
The NMDC is banging on doors in a bid to give a voice to the people it represents.
One of the expiring leases is that of Kobe Portopia Hotel Corp. of Tokyo, which operates Hyatt Regency Saipan. Its lease is set to expire in December. The lease renewal process with the Department of Public Lands started two years ago but parties have yet to reach a final agreement.
The NMDC wrote to DPL in early July seeking participation in the discussions on the Hyatt lease renewal and demanding information about how DPL manages other public land leases.
The land agency has yet to respond to the organization’s requests, according to Perez. “DPL's constitutional mandate is to manage NMD lands for the benefit of NMDs, but as a public agency they should be transparent and responsive to the public, including NMDs and NMDC,” he said.
Article 12 of the Northern Marianas Constitution defines “Northern Marianas descent” as “a person who is a citizen or national of the United States and who is of at least one-quarter Northern Marianas Chamorro or Northern Marianas Carolinian blood or a combination thereof or an adopted child of a person of Northern Marianas descent if adopted while under the age of 18 years.”
A “full-blooded Northern Marianas Chamorro or Northern Marianas Carolinian” refers to a person who was “born or domiciled in the Northern Marianas by 1950 and a citizen of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands before the termination of the trusteeship.”
Article 12 limits the acquisition of permanent and long-term interests in real property within the commonwealth to NMDs.
Does this provision apply to public lands, as well?
“To answer this question, we need to look at the term ‘public land.’ This term should never have been used to describe NMD lands,” Perez said. “Public land everywhere else in the U.S. means land owned by the government and used for public needs, including parks, government centers, roads, etc. Sometimes it is leased for commercial use. But NMD lands do not belong to the government.”
“The CNMI Constitution clearly states that these lands remain the property of the Northern Marianas people and their descendants, and are to be managed for their benefit,” Perez said.
Earlier this year, Senate committees publicly heard Legislative Initiative 22-1, which proposes to amend Article 12 by removing the restriction on the alienation of CNMI land to allow NMD landowners to fully exercise their real property rights.
“If the term ‘NMD land’ was used instead, we would not have this misunderstanding. People would understand that these are not public lands that are owned by the government. NMD land is essentially private land held and managed in trust for the owners, the NMDs,” Perez said.
As an advocate for NMDs, Perez said his group has every right to participate in any transaction involving ancestral lands.
“These leases tie land up for decades, making it unavailable for NMDs to use.
How leases are structured makes a big difference in what benefits, if any, reaches the NMDs,” Perez said. “Who leases the land and what they plan to do with it is also important. We watch as best as we can to ensure that good decisions are made in regards to our land.”
Perez, however, said DPL has not been transparent with its negotiations and NMDs are shut out of all decisions pertaining to their lands.
Some critics, however, said the NMDC gives an impression that they don’t welcome investors who can help with the CNMI’s economic development.
“One must remember that the value of an investment is the value it brings to the partners—not just the ones who put up the money, but also those who put up the other resources,” Perez said. “NMDs put up the land, the government plays a role by providing incentives such as tax breaks and infrastructure.”
The NMDC, Perez said, does not have a problem with a good lease in which all partners benefit fairly based on their contributions and risks.
“But we do have a problem with a bad lease that is poorly structured and does provide a good return on investment for the NMDs,” Perez said.
“NMDC doesn't have an issue with investors who bring a good opportunity for us to invest our land. But if an investor suggests a deal that really only benefits them, why would we commit our limited land to that?”
Hitoshi Nakauchi, president and owner of Kobe Portopia Hotel Corp., said when he came to Saipan in 2019 to talk personally to DPL about Hyatt’s lease renewal, he was aware of the NMDs’ concerns. “It’s their land so they want to make good use of it. We should not get all the benefits from this land,” Nakauchi said. “We have to be able to share the benefit of the land. In that context, DPL and Hyatt can find a mutually agreeable position so that we can proceed.”
Besides Hyatt, the DPL’s list of leasing companies includes Shimizu Corp., Mobil Oil, Shell Oil and Pacific Telecom Inc. among others.
DPL said its partnerships with fuel companies formed a significant part of the local economy.
How will NMDC’s goal of protecting local culture and lands reconcile with the inevitable growth of infrastructure and businesses in the CNMI?
Perez said framers of the CNMI constitution recognized the cultural value of the land, hence the provision that guarantees the protection of the indigenous people’s inalienable rights to their lands.
“When rich outsiders came to our islands, we left the farms and ranches for jobs,” Perez said.
Investments in lands are touted to be the economic salvation that could raise the standard of living in the CNMI. But Perez said such a promise is not reflected in CNMI statistics.
“The 2010 CNMI census revealed 37.4 percent of 15,363 Chamorro and CNMI Carolinian individuals living below the federal poverty guideline level, including 33.6 percent of the CNMI's 3,913 Chamorro and CNMI Carolinian families,” he said.
The NMDC does not rule out pursuing legal remedies to force DPL into consulting the NMDs in its decisions on how to manage their lands.
“DPL and the CNMI government need to recognize that NMDs today constitute only 35.5 percent of the general public and therefore 64.5 cents of every dollar of lease revenue that is directed to the government does not benefit the NMDs, who own the land,” Perez said.
“We believe in a balanced approach to economic development that will not only protect the culture and the land but is also sustainable development that will benefit NMDs and is good for the community,” he added