Sat, Nov 15, 2008 - Page 5 News List

Traditional owners stand to lose out in Marshall Islands


Traditional landowners at a US missile base in the Marshall Islands stand to lose nearly US$21 million if a stalemate over a new lease is not broken by Dec. 17.

Landowners at the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll in the western Pacific are locked in a rent row with the US and have refused to accept a US-Marshall Islands government deal to extend the lease for the atoll until 2066.

Rental payments in excess of the existing lease provisions have been placed in an account that has grown to US$20.7 million since the new deal was signed in 2004.

The US Congress set a five-year deadline for the Marshall Islands government to secure landowners’ backing for the new agreement and this will expire on Dec. 17. If the deal is not ratified by then, the US$20.7 million will return to the US Treasury.

Marshallese Foreign Minister Tony deBrum said yesterday he wanted the Bush administration to give US president-elect Barack Obama’s transition team “the opportunity to look at it before the drop dead deadline.”

He said delaying the deadline could help resolve the problem.

But US Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Clyde Bishop said this week the agreement for use of Kwajalein until 2066 had been approved by both governments and the US government expected the Marshall Islands to abide by its terms.

Bishop confirmed that if the Kwajalein landowners do not agree to a new land use agreement by Dec. 17 the funds would return to the US Treasury.

In the 2004 agreement, the annual rent for Kwajalein increased from about US$11 million to US$15 million, but landowners are demanding US$19 million.

Meanwhile, inflation adjustments have increased the annual US rent to more than US$17 million this year, Bishop said.

DeBrum said he would travel to Washington later this month to see what the US Congress could do on the Kwajalein issue.

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