Marshall Islands Correspondent

MAJURO, Marshall Islands — Marshall Islands President Hilda C. Heine led back-to-back national leadership dialogues with business leaders and non-government groups the first week of March in the latest round of government efforts to boost partnerships in both sectors.

The theme of the government-business dialogue was “Securing land for investments = Securing land for our future” — but the conversation mostly veered onto other development topics until Pacific International Inc. CEO Joseph “Jerry” Kramer refocused the group of 60 people on the generally acknowledged number one hurdle to development in this western Pacific nation.

Construction, fisheries and economic growth received significant talking time at the dialogue session held at Marshall Islands Resort’s Melele Room. Then Kramer took to the microphone and said, “We are neglecting to look at our biggest problem.” He went on to say that the land issue is “the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.”

“People want a place they can build and leave to their children,” Kramer said. “You all can go to the United States, work for a few years, go to a bank and get a house and the land around it that is yours to keep for your children. None of you can do that in the Marshall Islands.” He said this is one thing that is driving young people away from the Marshall Islands.

Kramer noted that report after report by donor agencies list land as a major hindrance to economic development in Marshall Islands. “The issue is sensitive because we respect our Irooj (chiefs) and custom,” Kramer said. “But if we want to progress, we need to address the land issue.”

He said Marshall Islands case law, confirmed by the country’s Supreme Court, shows that submerged land and reef areas adjacent to islands have been recognized as public lands. Despite this, the parliament adopted a law in 2008 that says submerged land belongs to landowners. He called on the government to repeal the 2008 law so that donor funding for future developments that use submerged land to build on will benefit the country, not just a few landowners.

Responding to Kramer’s comments, Heine acknowledged that land is an impediment to development. But, she added, “We have to work with it, work around it. I’m not an advocate of getting rid of the land system.”

She said the government needs to revisit the 2008 law. At the same time, she said out-migration is a trend throughout U.S.-affiliated islands and the reality is people can’t be blamed for seeking better education or jobs. “We need to make the future better here, but we can’t compete with the U.S.,” she said.

“I don’t want Hawaii in the Marshall Islands,” Heine said, observing that in Hawaii, few Hawaiians own land. “We have to be careful we don’t disenfranchise Marshallese,” she said. “We need to find a balance. Development, but with rights of people protected.” mbj