To get me started I will refer to Ruth Tighe’s “On My Mind” and her comments this week regarding the proposed marine monument. I quote.
“Perhaps the offer was not made in the most appropriate manner, did not include some of the key people, did not take the traditional approach, was not sufficiently forthcoming. But that is not reason enough to reject the project. It is, after all, the project that is important, has meaning, that offers hope, not others' missteps. What is being asked of the CNMI is that it be open-minded, flexible, creative and imaginative, willing to grasp a golden opportunity when it presents itself, to take advantage of an offer that would bring the CNMI international recognition and attention, attract tourists, stimulate the economy, help fishermen, and last but not least, help preserve and protect the marine environment so critical to the earth's health”.
She’s absolutely right. Everyone should strip this proposal down and examine it for what it is. To date, for many reasons, this has just not happened.
For one, a number of people don’t like the locally hired Pew coordinator or lobbyist if you prefer. No doubt Angelo O'Connor Villagomez can be cocky and arrogant. His sense of humor often easily missed, especially by strangers. The fact remains, nearly everything he has touched on this island after returning 2 years ago has turned out pretty darn well. He’s a big part of the success of both BCNMI and MINA and the countless projects, clean ups and education that has come from his role as island-wide motivator and coordinator. Much of the buzz of optimism that once ran through many of us willing to stick it out through these tough times was fed by the level of energy and “get it done attitude” that bursts from Angelo. Ultimately, he is young and passionate. A powerful combination that will lead to mistakes along the road to many more successes. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t already wish he could start over again on this one. No doubt with experience he will bring the lessons learned here to the next pot of success he boils. Angelo is an environmentalist through and through. In Angelo’s eyes this marine park is a “no brainer”.
Unfortunately this attitude, along with a time frame that most here would consider very short (especially given the current level of distrust between the CNMI and Washington) must be considered significant factors should this proposal not take flight.
As Ruth says, the bottom line is none of this should matter. If everyone were to take a fair and open look at what has been proposed thus far, the merits to keeping an open dialogue would be obvious.
The same could be said for Mr. John Gourley’s rapid and vocal opposition to the project, which, I must say, also smells of obvious vested interest. In the end it shouldn’t matter that John, for many years, has acted as an advisor and contact person (or lobbyist if you prefer) for the troubled WESPAC advisory council. It shouldn’t matter that WESPAC is a powerful, pro-fisheries regulatory body very much against any large scale no take or limited take zones under any pretense. Of course we can understand why, doing anything otherwise would ultimately undermine their own level of control of the world’s oceans.
Some might even suggest that a few high-powered fisheries folks won’t like the fact I’ve given so much credit to Angelo’s attitude and a time frame out of their own control as reasons for the possible demise of the proposal. After all it makes it look like they had nothing to do with it despite the obvious evidence to the contrary!
Even though none of this should matter we all know it does and after speaking briefly with Mr. Lino Olopai on Thursday and then reading his letter to the editor on Friday, I’ve come to appreciate just how unimportant the facts are and how instrumental both Mr. Gourley’s opposition and the missteps taken by Pew in attempting to fast track this concept have been.
Before I continue let me reiterate what I’ve said before about what I believe to be the view of most everyone here on Saipan. The concept of a marine park is, at the very least worth discussing and potentially (if done right) it is the best thing that has come this way in a long, long time. Unfortunately, the rhetoric and misinformation has been substantial and influential.
Lino has resigned from MINA stating that he cannot and has not from the beginning, supported the Pew approach. He mentions the MINA retreat where Jay Nelson first introduced the members to the project and how put off he was by their approach. I was there. There was a lot of conversation and debate as to whether this was something MINA wanted to spearhead and take on. The issue was not the establishment of a large marine protected area but rather MINA’s role in promoting it. Ultimately, the board felt it would be too politically hot a topic for a young NGO to deal with despite majority support for the concept. The board at the time decided (as I perceived it) to concentrate on building their successful track record by biting off smaller projects that could be completed in a reasonable amount of time.
What is most interesting to me now is to recall just how vocal and prepared John Gourley was for that meeting and how he was able to immediately play on the local distrust for the federal government. I recall Lino not necessarily being against the concept of a protected area but rather he didn’t like the idea of foreigners telling the local people how to preserve and protect their own environment. Understandably he didn’t like the idea being pushed by Gourley that the local people would lose control.
As I’ve gotten to know Lino one of the things we always seem to come back to in our discussions is his belief that the local indigenous peoples are best suited to be the stewards of the land and sea. He believes that they have the knowledge necessary to conserve and live by nature’s rules. While I believe this is true and should it be the case that only the indigenous islanders have influence on the resources, I would agree with him fully. However, the fact remains with each passing generation more and more of this knowledge once seen as critical for survival is being lost. In addition, as years pass the influence of outside cultures becomes more and more prevalent as seen in both the populous numbers and the deterioration of our environment. As a net result, over time, there is a decrease in local indigenous control and the ability to influence actions and behaviors of others.
When Lino said to me the other day, “the people of the CNMI can do this, we don’t need Pew”. I asked him what the plan is for those islands and for these islands we live on now. His response, to me said a lot. With a smile he half joked “None, we don’t have one”.
Well, unfortunately, with all due respect, the absence of a plan usually means things will not work out so well for anyone. What’s really frustrating to me is given all the issues and speculation regarding who would control the waters, who would co-manage it, how the regulations would be developed and enforced, who’ll pay for it etc, few now see how the monument would actually give them (the local indigenous peoples) far more say in the way things are to be managed than they have right now.
Would it not make sense to sit at the table and be a part of the discussions and give the indigenous peoples the opportunity to protect these waters the way they want to. If it takes 10 years of writing and re-writing regulations, is that not better than never getting started and leaving all control to outside forces? Should this process happen when elders like Lino are here to pass on their wisdom? Absolutely! This is just one more reason why the time to look at this is now. Ultimately if what we see and hear is not to our liking then simply say no and take the bits and pieces we do like and incorporate them into our own plan. Of course, by waiting we’ll also need to remember it will be our own money and not that of a large, well-respected, charitable group that will make any such plan a reality.
Unfortunately, as usual, scare tactics and dissemination of inaccurate information is no match for good old-fashioned discussions based on truth and mutual respect. If the opposite were true we’d still be talking and using whatever information comes from this proposal process to either make it happen now or to assist in developing a plan that is so desperately needed for the future.
The fact that both Angelo and John have vested interests in how all this turns out shouldn’t matter to any of us. The fact is we all have a vested interest! We all owe it to ourselves, our children and our children’s children to listen, get the facts and make an informed decision based on what is good for our planet and our quality of life here, now and in the future.
In real life, facts rarely compete in a world where perceptions rule. In the case of the proposed monument the public relations game is preventing the delivery of many tangible assets regardless of whether the monument becomes a reality or not. Killing the discussions now does no one any good unless, of course, your source of revenue is WESPAC-based.