New Internationalist

Marshall Islands

Issue 376

TELL a friend you’re travelling to the Marshall Islands and, Pacific paradise in mind, they may beg to come along. The Marshall Islands are certainly remarkable. Not because they’re so beautiful - although they are - but because of the resilience of their people in the face of foreign military domination.

This, after all, is where the US tested its nukes. Within months of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Washington tested two more at Bikini Atoll. It secured UN Trusteeship over the territory in 1947, with instructions to promote Marshallese self-sufficiency and health, and proceeded to detonate another 65 - the equivalent of a Hiroshima blast every week for a dozen years.

The ‘Bravo Shot’ on 1 March 1954 was the biggest, showering fallout on the people of Rongelap and other nearby atolls. The authorities waited days to evacuate them, then moved them back three years later. ‘The habitation of these people on Rongelap Island,’ one US study noted, ‘affords the opportunity for a most valuable ecological radiation study on human beings.’

Nuclear testing ended in 1957, replaced by missile testing at Kwajalein, the world’s largest atoll. The atoll’s inhabitants were moved to tiny Ebeye. As Ebeye turned into a slum, calls for freedom grew. A Marshallese constitution was approved in 1979, followed by a Compact of Free Association in 1986 in which the ‘sovereignty’ of the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) was traded for guaranteed US access to Kwajalein, atoll restoration and compensation for nuclear victims.

But the $150 million compensation package has fallen far short. Over $1,000 million has been awarded by the Majurobased Nuclear Claims Tribunal set up under the Compact, with more in the queue. The RMI has petitioned the US Congress for another $3,000 million but has been awaiting a response for four years. Local landowners are blocking approval of the new Kwajalein lease. Loss of its most coveted missile-defence installation looms like a dark cloud on Washington’s horizon.

Meanwhile, as radiogenic cancers recede, ‘lifestyle diseases’ have become legion. Crowded on to urban Majuro and Ebeye, Marshall Islanders have embraced processed foods, and diabetes is rampant. So are alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases.

Ironically, US compensation has a downside. Compact funds outstrip productive investment and tax revenues two to one. Formerly self-reliant islanders live off US dollars and regard themselves as victims. Some complain when told they don’t have a tumour, because that means no cash. Those that do receive compensation - Bikinians, for example - are scorned as rich.

Still, Marshall Islanders have reason to be proud, not least of their transition from military domination to shaky sovereignty. Clan chief (Iroij) Amata Kabua led the way, negotiating independence. Imata Kabua, his cousin, took over in 1997, paying for his drinks with public cash and luring Asian developers through the sale of passports. In 2000, the United Democratic Party’s Kessai Note became the RMI’s first governing ‘commoner’.

Whatever can be said of government here (see Politics, below right), the Marshalls are certainly vibrant at the grassroots. With the economic rebirth of his still-poisoned Rongelap atoll in mind, 36-year-old mayor James Matayoshi is promoting ecotourism - the reefs there are reportedly pristine. Young Majuro entrepreneur Ben Chutaro is encouraging the overcrowded neighborhood of Jenrok to clean up, create jobs and earn cash for community projects through the sale of recyclables in US markets.

Matayoshi, Chutaro and their generation want justice from the US, but are mostly concerned about moving the Marshalls forward, shedding its ‘victim mentality’ and getting off US ’ welfare’. After years of injury and hardship, it’s people like these - not gorgeous beaches - that make the place so remarkable.

David Kattenburg

Marshall Islands Fact File
Leader President Kessai Note
Economy Gross national income (GNI) per capita $2,710 (Kiribati $880, United States $37,610).
Monetary unit US dollar.
Main exports re-exported diesel fuel, coconut oil, copra.
Main imports fuels and lubricants (37%), food, beverages and tobacco (19%), manufactured articles (15%). Imports are more than five times the level of exports. Two-thirds of government revenues come from the US Compact and other foreign aid and nuclear trust funds.
People 54,200. 70% of the population live in urban Majuro and Ebeye. People per square kilometre 271 (UK 245).
Health Infant mortality 53 per 1,000 births (Kiribati 49, US 7).
Environment Bikini and Kwajalein will be poisoned by radioactivity for generations; other atolls are still poisoned too. Solid waste management is a major problem, including garbage on beaches.
Culture Micronesian. There are minor cultural and linguistic differences between the eastern Ratak and western Ralik chains. Traditional classes include chiefs (Iroij), landlords (Alaps) and workers (Rijerbal).
Religion No official religion. Protestant (various denominations) 90.1%; Catholic 8.5%; other 1.4%.
Language Marshallese (kajin-majol), English.
Sources RMI Statistical Yearbook 2003; World Guide; State of the World’s Children 2005; worldinformation.com
Marshall Islands ratings in detail
Income distribution
Nuclear compensation for the 'Four Atolls' and US rent payments to Kwajalein landowners have created disparities. Clan system ensures that 'unearned income' trickles down to the majority of households; homelessness and extreme poverty are absent.
Literacy
74%. Primary education still unavailable to many children on crowded Majuro and Ebeye. Secondary education even further out of reach. More schools and teacher training required.
Life expectancy
65 years (US 77). 'Lifestyle disorders' like diabetes and heart disease more common killers than infections. 1999 Pacific Human Development Report ranked Marshalls 8th out of 12 developing Pacific nations.
Position of women
Inheritance is matrilineal and women hold 36% of seats in the traditional Council of Iroij (House of Lords). But 86% of women in a recent survey reported being victims of violence, 66% of sexual abuse.
Freedom
Three governments elected since 1979 constitution. The Marshall Islands Journal and independent radio V7M1 speak out freely on matters of public concern; human rights abuses rare.
Sexual minorities
Sodomy is imprisonable for 10 years. But no gays have been prosecuted for many years and high court judges repeatedly recommend a change in the law. Popular dance group 'Girl Power' comprises gay men, and one of the most senior clan chiefs is openly gay.
NI Assessment (Politics)
The Note Government is praised for its management skills and transparency, for reducing clan-based favouritism and for recruiting lots of young people, many of them US-educated and devoted to environmentally and socially sustainable investment. But Note takes his knocks, particularly from Kwajalein landowners who say he failed to secure adequate US compensation during the 2001-03 Compact renegotiations.

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