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January 2005

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A New Tack
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Shutting Down The ‘Baby Industry’

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Reality Check: A $100 Million Deficit

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‘No Basis For Allegations’

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Balancing Rights Of The Public And The Media
Press Ban Hurts Tongans

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Pacific Notes

Palau

Countdown To The Festival of Arts

Four months before the July 22 commencement of the 9th Festival of Pacific Arts (FPA) in Palau, its theme Oltobed a Malt ("Nurture, Regenerate, Celebrate") is already in full swing. Long-standing village signs welcoming visitors and urging them to "Keep our hamlet beautiful" have taken on revitalized meaning as the government steps up requests for island beautification. Homes and business establishments exhibit fresh coats of paint, new foliage is in evidence and the customarily clean island looks even tidier.

New bleachers going into Palau's national track field are just one of several capital improvements for the Pacific Festival of Arts scheduled for July. Photo: Nancy Chism

In January and February requests for proposals announcing contracts for final Festival projects appeared in Palau's local newspapers. Contract winners were selected in late February and renovations are in progress on selected roadways, the Senior Citizens Center, the Post Office and the eight school sites where festival participants will be housed. The Council of Pacific Arts, including 34 delegates from participating countries, met from March 2-4 at the Koror State Capitol Assembly Hall for a last status update. The organizing committee has submitted a tentative schedule of events and special activities. Security and transportation systems and new venues are undergoing test runs before being put into place for the festival.

The Palau government is showing major financial commitment to the Festival. A bill allocating $2 million to supplement festival costs-acquired through interest earnings from the Net Economic Cost Account under a subsidiary agreement of the Compact of Free Association and authorization for negotiation of a $1 million loan-was passed by the National Congress and signed in February by President Tommy E. Remengesau, Jr.

More than 2,000 participants from around the region are expected in Palau. For details on Festival activities, see the Festival website: www.festival-pacific-arts.org.

-Nancy Chism

'Underwater' Scam Surfaces

A delegation from a South Pacific nation called the United Kingdom of Atlantis suddenly showed up in Palau to offer the government a $100 million low-interest loan. But among the many glitches in the proposal was that the country's purported king, Sheikh Yakub Al-Sheikh Ibrahim, was a fugitive wanted by the United States for wire fraud, money laundering, and false statements among other charges, according U.S. authorities. And when Palau investigators used a marine law enforcement program to locate the country with the coordinates given by the delegation that visited Palau, "No land mass was shown." Atlantis was apparently still underwater.

"This goes to show that money should never be the driving issue. It can get you involved with the wrong people," says Palau President Tommy Remengesau, Jr.

According to documents they submitted to the president's office, Palau would have to pay a fee of two percent of the loan, or $2 million to UKA as part of the deal. The delegation asked to meet with Remengesau, says Billy Kuartei, chief of staff for the president. Kuartei denied the request, and instead set up a meeting with the president's senior legal counsel, the attorney general and himself. Kuartei says at the same time an investigation was begun into UKA and the delegation.

The UKA is said to be located northeast of Australia, east of Papua New Guinea, southwest of the Solomon Islands, and west of Vanuatu, according to a printout from the official UKA website, www.ukacrown.com. The website says UKA was founded in 2000 and is a democratic royal monarchy based on the Sovereign Order of Ibrahim, the oldest monarchy in the world and one-time ruler of all of the Middle East. King Ibrahim is said to be a direct descendent of the monarchy.

-Scott Radway

PMA Faces New Hurdles

Despite Air New Zealand backing out of a deal to provide key technical support in February, Palau Micronesia Air remains geared-up for an April 20 start date, says Alan Seid, president of PMA. To fly internationally, the fledgling airline must secure an Air Operator's Certificate, which shows the airline meets all safety standards and is technically qualified, Seid says. As PMA contracts an established carrier to provide pilots and maintain its planes, the fledgling airline also wants to contract to fly under that carrier's AOC. Air New Zealand was expected to be that carrier. "Because of enormous changes in its market, Air New Zealand can no longer provide us with an AOC," Seid says.

But Seid says after a recent trip to New Zealand, he expects to reach a new agreement with another carrier shortly. Seid could not disclose the name of the new carrier until a deal was reached. "We still think April 20 is doable," Seid says. PMA first approached a foreign carrier to operate under its AOC because the Palau National Aviation Administration lacked the capacity to issue one for international flights. PMA is seeking a New Zealand carrier because the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority, which issues AOCs for the country's carriers, has long been supportive of other Pacific Islands airlines, says James Bradfield, chief executive officer of PMA.

With its first plane set to arrive April 16, PMA plans to fly four flights per week to Guam, and two flights per week to the neighboring islands of Yap, Chuuk and Ponphei. Plans are also for one flight per week direct from Palau to Saipan, three flights to Manila and two flights per week to Darwin, Australia. The Darwin flights are aimed at opening an untapped tourism market for the region. The second plane set to arrive in October would commence direct flights from Palau to Japan.

A Japanese group that put in $1 million into the airline has been bought out, Seid says. The Japanese investors did not see eye-to-eye on the direction of the airline, so an arrangement was made for a Palauan investor to buy the group's shares, Seid says.

-Scott Radway

Speaker Gulibert Ousted For Alleged Affair

Speaker Mario Gulibert. Photo: Floyd K. Takeuchi

The Palau House of Delegates removed Speaker Mario Gulibert in early March, saying a publicized affair alleged between Gulibert and an American lawyer who served as House senior counsel was undermining the credibility of the lawmaking body. The House also voted, 9 to 5, to remove House senior counsel Rachel Dimitruk, asking for her immediate resignation. Gulibert will continue serving as a delegate.

"This was an embarrassment to the House," said Delegate William Ngiraikelau, who became the new vice-speaker in the power shift.

The alleged affair burst into the public arena after Gulibert's wife was accused in court by Dimitruk of spitting at her and throwing a rock at her rear car windshield. Dominica Ngoriakl was found guilty of malicious mischief in October and the court case was carried prominently in a local newspaper.

Ngiraikelau says following the trial, House delegates waited several months for Gulibert to meet with them and "explain the situation." Ngiraikelau adds Gulibert would have avoided the controversy by stepping down, or if Dimitruk had resigned. Gulibert could not be reached for comment.

Prior to the vote on the House floor, Gulibert said his relationship with Dimitruk was personal and had never affected the work of the House, which he characterized as productive and marked by an unprecedented level of cooperation among delegates.

He then charged that the new leadership had political motives. "A relationship between two people is a personal issue, but I think you saw this as an opportunity to remove me from the position of speaker," Gulibert told delegates, according to a translation of the House session. "I wish we would have taken time to discuss these problems, since they're internal problems; it is not a problem of the work being done by the House of Delegates."

New Speaker Antonio Bells said the issue became public when the court case hit the newspapers and the public began criticizing the entire House for not taking action to resolve the issue. Bells also says Gulibert's relationship with a senior legal counsel, who worked for all the delegates, was an unacceptable conflict of interest. If Dimitruk was not the counsel for the House, their relationship would not have become a public issue, he says.

-Scott Radway

CNMI

Businessman Charged For Bombing Rival Firm

How does a competitor, who lost 70 percent of his business to his rival, avenge his losses? Bomb his equipment, or at least that's the believed motive behind what Marvin Leon Guerrero is alleged to have done. He pleaded not guilty to the charges in U.S. federal court in Guam in late February, and bail was set at $1 million.

Guerrero, who owns Communication Specialist Inc., (CSI) on Guam and Saipan, is alleged to have hired two men to bomb I-Connect towers on Saipan in his attempt to cripple his competitor. The explosion also damaged communications equipment of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That's when FBI agents from Honolulu, Guam and Saipan entered the picture, conducted an investigation and less than a week later, arrested three people, all from Guam.

The incident occurred on Mt. Tapochao, Saipan's highest peak, about 10:40 p.m. February 7. Residents who live in the area heard a loud explosion and saw the communications tower burning. Both I-Connect and CSI operate cellular telephone services on Saipan and Guam.

According to information filed by the FBI at the federal district court on Saipan, an FBI agent from Honolulu and a local investigator from the Department of Public Safety found a crow bar and wire cutter in tall grass nearby. The agent went to the Saipan Ace Hardware store and saw an identical crow bar on a display shelf. The sales representative scanned the label inventory that showed the crow bar and wire cutters were sold on the afternoon of February 7. The surveillance cameras of the interior and exterior of the store showed a man, later identified as Peter R. Mendiola, purchasing the crow bar. Another individual, later identified as Andrew Quiambao, paid for the wire cutter.

The two men were observed getting into a Nissan sedan. With the help of Joeten Motors at San Jose, the authorized dealer for Nissan cars, and Budget Rent-a-Car at Saipan International Airport, it was determined that the car was rented by Andrew Quiambao on February 6. On February 12 Mendiola and Quiambao were interviewed on Guam by the FBI and admitted to purchasing the items at the hardware store and using them to break into the I-Connect facility to cause the explosion, according to court documents. The same day on Saipan, Marvin Leon Guerrero admitted to the FBI that he hired Mendiola and Quiambao and even bought the gasoline used to destroy the facility, court documents say. All three were arrested and charged with arson, malicious damage to and destruction of government property. After pleading not guilty, they are now awaiting trial dates.

-Frank S. Rosario

Marshall Islands, CNMI

Two Colleges On The Edge

Both the Northern Marianas College and the College of the Marshall Islands are facing possible loss of accreditation-but the NMC's position is considerably worse following the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges', which is part of the U.S. Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC), rejection of the college's progress report of June 2003 and the mid-term report in January 2004. (Pacific Magazine Publisher Floyd K. Takeuchi is a commissioner with the ACCJC.)

This in part prompted the NMC Board of Regents to force the resignation of President Kenneth E. Wright February 20. "I accept full responsibility for the loss of confidence that necessitates this unhappy conclusion to our professional relationship," Wright said in his resignation letter. "That loss is made all the more difficult because I continue to hold this board in high regard."

For both colleges, U.S. accreditation looms large. Accreditation allows access to U.S. federal Pell grants and other student aid-in Majuro, this accounts for more than 50 percent of the college's budget. In addition, without accreditation, students cannot transfer credits to American colleges and universities.

Acting NMC President Tony De Leon Guerrero said other problems with Dr. Wright were the purchase of La Fiesta Mall in San Roque for the second campus on Saipan that resulted in NMC losing $50,000 a month in maintenance costs and the proposal to shut down instruction classes on Tinian and Rota islands. "The board's perception was that Dr. Wright was viewing the accrediting commission's warning lightly," Guerrero said. "That is just the opposite of the Board's position. This is a major concern."

Meanwhile, the College of the Marshall Islands (CMI) is not meeting U.S. standards for operating the Majuro-based college and time is quickly running out for the college to fix the problems, the head of the U.S. accrediting commission said shortly after the WASC commission's meeting in San Francisco in January. Although the commission accepted CMI's progress report, it left the college on probation-which is only one step away from losing accreditation. "They need to move to correct the problems and move quickly," says Dr. Barbara Beno, chairperson of the accrediting commission. "The message is: Hurry up."

But time is not on CMI's side to comply with five major eligibility requirements, as well as to show "significant progress" on dozens of recommendations made by a commission team that visited the school last November.

"We acknowledge that CMI's done a lot of work," Beno adds. "They are making an effort. But it's still not good enough. It has to be faster and better." CMI is required to submit another progress report to WASC in early April, and another WASC team will visit probably in late April, she indicated.

-Franks S. Rosario and Giff Johnson

Kiribati

Tong Cuts ATR-72 Losses

Saying that Kiribati could not continue absorbing the losses from operations of the leased ATR-72 aircraft, President Anote Tong cancelled the lease and directed that the plane be returned to France in early March. This ends a 15-month Air Kiribati experiment in servicing the mid-Pacific route between Fiji and the Marshall Islands with the 70-seat plane. Since taking office last year, Tong has continually expressed reservations about the cost of ATR operations.

At the end of February, ATR, Air Kiribati and Kiribati government officials met in Nadi to discuss possibilities. There was reportedly interest from Air Pacific in buying the plane to continue the service. But that apparently has not come to fruition. Radio Australia reported that Air Kiribati lost "several million Australian dollars" since it began leasing the plane in July 2002. The plane sat on the tarmac at Tarawa for nearly six months until various air certificates were organized allowing it to begin service in December that year.

The halt in service will prove beneficial to Air Marshall Islands that flies Majuro to Tarawa each week, and took a revenue hit from the Air Kiribati operation. It may also open the door to an Air Nauru initiative to launch services from Brisbane connecting Nauru with Majuro, Tarawa and Nadi.

-Giff Johnson

FSM

Governors Denounce Amnesty Plan

With the quickness of a tropical downpour ripping through a canopy forest, Federated States of Micronesia Governors Rensley Sigrah (Kosrae), Johnny David (Pohnpei) and Vincent Figir (Yap) have doused the notion of amnesty for FSM Congressional leaders. In separate letters addressed to FSM President Joseph Urusemal and Speaker Peter Christian, the state leaders said that any attempt at amnesty through congressional bill 13-76 will not be supported, and should be dropped. The letters were a collective response to legislation introduced in January by Congressional leaders granting sweeping protection against the misuse of public funds over the period of the first Compact. "Just the mere thought to bring it into Congress is immoral, unethical and should not be condoned," Sigrah says in his letter to Urusemal.

"Introducing and entertaining the (amnesty) bill shows the international community that our country condones and even supports corrupted activities by high officials of our national government," wrote Governor Figir in a letter co-endorsed by traditional leaders. "It shows the state leaderships and decent people of our nation that Congress are more concerned about themselves than the…need for better social, economic and political development."

-Olivier Wortel

Cash For Kava, But At What Cost?

At the rate Pohnpei's famed rainforests are being destroyed, its self-proclaimed title as the "Garden State" of the Federated States of Micronesia may become a misnomer. The native tropical rainforests, which control the flow and purity of water that is the lifeline for countless villages, are the linchpin to Pohnpei's natural heritage. But today, what many families see in these finite forests is a fistful of dollars from clear-cutting sakau plantations. Sakau-known popularly as kava-is the cultural cornerstone of Pohnpeian society. Now it's become a prized cash crop that is causing a virtual strip-mining of the forests.

Sakau (kava) has become a major cash crop in Pohnpei, generating an estimated $5 million annually for sakau farmers. But conservationists say this level of production is destroying Pohnpei's rain forests at an alarming pace. Photo: Giff Johnson

Sakau generates approximately $5 million a year for 5,000 farmers. "People know that sakau is really good if you cut all the trees down," said Nett area sakau grower Sonsper Helgenberger. "If you leave the big trees sakau doesn't grow good."

The impact of this explosion in sakau cultivation is beginning to show in dramatic ways: torrential rains in the latter part of 2003 combined with deforested sakau plantations on steep slopes above Meitik to rip away an entire mountainside of topsoil, exposing large swaths of rock.

"Somebody's got to think about the future," says Bill Raynor, The Nature Conservancy's Micronesia program director, based in Pohnpei. Raynor has been working to save the forests in Pohnpei for the last 15 years. "I think that's what the chiefs used to do, but now no one's doing that," he says.

Aerial and satellite photography has shown a decrease of original forest from 42 percent of the island in 1975 to 13 percent in 2002. Much of this loss can be directly attributed to sakau plantations.

Lt. Governor Jack Yakana says involving the chiefs in order to get effective conservation results is essential. "I want the government to be partners with the traditional leaders in regards to the environment and conservation because then we will become very effective," he says.

There's some indication that the persistence of the Conservation Society of Pohnpei, a group that targets sakau planting and the environmental problems it's causing, is slowing down the sakau clear-cutting. Of about 750 forest clearings from 2000 to 2003, more than 60 percent occurred in 2000, with significantly fewer the past three years, suggesting that education efforts are having an impact.

"People complain about climate change, but this forest clearing also affects our island climate," says CSP environmental educator Ben Namakin. "It is not an effect from a far away country, it is here and we are creating the change ourselves."

-Olivier Wortel


EXCLUSIVES:

South Pacific Regional Environment Programme

- Environmental Economics

- The Economics of Climate Change

Brigham Young University of Hawaii

- Preparing Tomorrow's Leaders Today

Marshalls Billfish Club
All Micronesia Fishing Tournament Marks 12th Anniversary



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