* Islanders eye $32 million payday
(Majuro) – Eyeing a $32 million payday, Marshall Islanders ended an eight-year holdout Saturday, agreeing to extend for 50 years the United States’ use of a sophisticated anti-missile defense base in the western Pacific.
Former Marshall Islands President and paramount chief Imata Kabua, who led island landowners refusing to approve an agreement for U.S.-use of the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll beyond 2016, on Saturday said he is ready to sign the new agreement to trigger the large payment.
Kwajalein, an atoll dotted with radar, missile tracking gear and launch pads nestled amid palm trees, has been the Pentagon’s primary site for testing missile defense technology since the early 1960s. Last month, a dummy target warhead launched from Kwajalein toward Hawaii was successfully destroyed in mid-flight by a missile launched from a U.S. Navy vessel.
But since 2003, landowners led by Kabua said the U.S. rent offer of $15 million annually was inadequate and demanded $19 million. Saturday, in the face of growing pressure from a majority of Kwajalein landowners, those holding out agreed to accept the deal as negotiated in 2003 between their government and the United States in order to gain access to a more than $32 million payday.
Landowners have repeatedly criticized the base agreement with the U.S., because they say it is doing nothing to address festering health, sanitation and utility problems on Ebeye, an overcrowded island next to the U.S. Army base headquarters where about 12,000 Marshall Islanders live in slum conditions on 80 acres (32.4 hectares) of land.
The agreement they are expected to sign on Tuesday will extend U.S. use of Kwajalein to 2066, with an option for the U.S. to renew to 2086. It also includes provisions requiring the U.S. Defense Department to provide seven-years’ notice if it wants to close the base.
“We’ve been consulting with the landowners on draft land-use agreements over the past two years to ensure they are in accordance with the military-use and operating-rights agreement (a governmental agreement approved in 2003),” said U.S. Ambassador Martha Campbell Friday in Majuro. “They’ve been steadily improving and it now looks like we’re done. Although eight years ago Kwajalein leaders vowed they would not approve the deal between the U.S. and Marshall Islands governments, this week,” Kabua said, “when (Marshall Islands) President Zedkaia is ready to sign, I will sign it with him.”
President’s office officials said Zedkaia will join landowners on Tuesday at a signing ceremony.
Motivating the landowners to drop their demands is the escalating amount of money in an escrow account, now over $32 million, waiting to be released when the landowners sign the agreement authorizing U.S. use of the military installation through 2066. The Marshall Islands constitution requires landowner approval of all leases since all land in the country is privately owned.
The current land-use agreement signed by landowners in 1986 approving U.S. use of Kwajalein expires in 2016. Under that deal, landowners have been receiving about $12 million annually in rent. The difference in rent levels was paid into escrow since 2003.
As of this week, the escrow fund stood at $32,195,821.57, said officials in the Ministry of Finance in Majuro.
Campbell said once landowners sign the agreement, she and Marshall Islands Foreign Minister John Silk will send an instruction letter to the Bank of Guam to release the more than $32 million for the landowners. This is double the annual rental payments, which are split into quarterly payments, and a quarter of the country’s annual national budget.
Confirming that a signing ceremony as announced for Tuesday should proceed as planned, Marshall Islands Attorney General Frederick Canavor Jr. on Saturday said, “We have a final land-use agreement version approved by everyone. It will secure for the Defense Department a base that is not only a key missile defense facility, but also one used for U.S. Air Force B-52 target practice, Space Shuttle tracking, and refueling for military vessels and aircraft traveling between Asia and the United States.”