Micronesia: no island paradise. Many blame 40 years' US control for Pacific islands' economic woes
Kolonia, Pohnpei — Feathery palms sway in a breeze that is warm year-round, and the surrounding Pacific waters are packed with tuna and exotic tropical fish. But Pohnpei is no tropical paradise, nor are the other western Pacific islands that make up the Micronesian archipelagoes - some 2,000 islands across 3 million square miles. Thousands of islanders are unemployed, local bars do a booming business, violent crime is commonplace, and the islands' neophyte democratic governments are constantly in conflict.
Many islanders and even some Americans blame 40 years of United States administration - and the economic dependency it spawned. Other islanders say it is partly their own fault.
According to David Heggestad, overseer of the US government's aid program for the islands, until last fall, US aid represented 70 percent of the island nations' annual budgets.
Residents of the new island republics - the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, with Palau perhaps following soon - express doubts about whether they can ever break the financial ties with the US.
``Some people think we'll be dependent on the US for the rest of our lives,'' said Tino Donre, a trial counselor for the Micronesian Legal Services Corporation, part of the US organization that provides legal aid to the islands' poor. ``I think they made us dependent on purpose, by not funding economic development.''
For the 15 years the islanders will receive funding under their Compacts of Free Association with the US - funds over which they will now have more discretion - the priority will be building up the islands' economies, many islanders say. US government priorities over the last 40 years were education and health, not industry or practical skills, according to both US and island officials.
Island infrastructures - public works, roads, communications - are either nonexistent or poorly planned. Despite getting more than 200 inches of rain a year, Pohnpei has running drinking water only a few hours a day. When the water system malfunctions, islanders have to guess where to dig for broken pipes, because no blueprints exists.
Mom-and-pop stores, a few handicrafts, and some coconut-oil production provide scattered jobs. The one industry that thrives is government bureaucracy.
The ripest area for development is fishing, with skipjack and yellowfin tuna plentiful in these waters. The islands claim 200-mile territorial zones and require foreigners to buy licenses before casting their nets.
But Micronesians could reap more if they developed their own fisheries, said Bernard Helgenberger, a millionaire local businessman and secretary of resources and development. ``There's an estimated $100 million to $200 million exported out of our waters annually, and we only get 3 to 4 percent of that in license fees.''
But Mr. Helgenberger appears to have low expectations. ``Pacific islanders are generally people with very little initiative,'' he said. ``They don't have to provide for tomorrow - it's all here,'' either on trees and in the sea or shipped from the US.
Although many islanders and Americans dispute his view, there is little doubt that a shift from subsistence living and economics will be tough.
Island governments are hoping that foreign investors will flock to their semi-sovereign states and ease the economic dependence. Japan, which occupied these islands between World Wars I and II, is being courted most, and Japanese investors are responding by looking into tourism, fisheries, and specialized agriculture.
FSM officials say they do not want foreigners to have a stranglehold on their economies, and they are interested in developing joint ventures and in placing foreign-owned businesses under the supervision of an economic development board.
But many islanders do not want anything to distract from domestic imperatives.
``Our greatest need is simply to raise enough food, to catch enough fish to feed our population,'' said Baily Olter, vice-president of the FSM. ``That would be a great accomplishment.
As the Micronesian economies begin to move ahead on their own, predictions for success are guarded. Asked to forecast the economic future of the islands, Michael Wygant, a US liaison officer in Micronesia, was diplomatic.
``It's premature to judge the issue,'' he said. ``But if Micronesians really do wish to develop their economies, they have a good, solid opportunity to do so.''
Islanders are more optimistic, but few are unreservedly so.
``I think this is going to be the most difficult part of our history - a real testing period to see if we can make it,'' Helgenberger said. ``It will require a lot of sacrifice.''