Australia and Pacific

The Marshall Islands and the U.S.

The Marshall Islands is a sovereign state in the Pacific Ocean, recognized as such by its fellow members of the United Nations. But the Marshall Islands forms an unusual country in several regards. Its population is small (62,000) and its land area meager (70 square miles), yet its tiny atolls spread across a vast swath of the Pacific; if one includes its Exclusive Economic Zone of sea-space, the Marshall Islands is a large country (see map). The sovereignty of the Marshall Islands, however, is less than complete. According to the “Compact of Free Association” signed in 1986 when independence was gained, this former U.S. “Trust Territory” allowed the United States to retain responsibility for its defense. In return, the islands were promised substantial subsidies and other benefits.

Technically speaking, the Marshall Islands is an “associated state,” defined by the Wikipedia as “a minor partner in a formal free relationship” with a larger sovereign country. The United States has two other sovereign associates in the Pacific: Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. A similar compact of free association links New Zealand to the Cook Islands, but the latter is not considered sovereign and does not belong to the United Nations. It supposedly has the right, however, to declare independence if it so chooses.

One perk provided by the Compact of Free Association is the right to travel and work freely in the United States. The American center of Marshallese culture is Springdale Arkansas, home of Tyson Foods—the world’s largest chicken processor. Some 10,000 of Springdale’s 70,000 residents hail from the Marshall Islands. Originally, Marshallese living in the U.S. were eligible for immediate health care coverage under Medicaid, but that provision expired in 1996. The current House of Representatives health care bill would restore Medicaid coverage, but the Senate bill would not. The issue is important because most Marshall islanders in the States work for low wages in chicken abattoirs, an injury-prone environment, and the community has very high rates of diabetes. (The Marshall Islands also has the world’s highest rate of leprosy.)

The Marshall Islands faces long-term economic challenges as well. U.S. subsidies are declining, and in 2024 the major “compact grants” from the American government are set to expire. As a result, on January 4, 2010, Asian Development Bank officials urged the country to start generating surpluses that it could put into a trust fund.

The Marshall Islands play an important role in U.S. military affairs, however, which may lead to continuing subsidy streams. The islands are the primary home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which covers no less than 750,000 square miles of sea-space. The Reagan Test Site’s main facilities are on the small islets of Kwajalein Atoll, which ring one of the world’s largest coralline lagoons. The lagoon forms, in essence, the world’s largest target, well suited for testing missile accuracy (see map). Understandably, Kwajalein residents are not very happy with the situation. Almost all of them have been forced onto one island, Ebeye. Refugees from nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll were resettled on the same island in the 1950s. Today some 13,000 to 15,000 residents are crowded onto a mere 80 acres of land. Not for nothing is Ebeye called “the Slum of the Pacific.”

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Australian Camel Invasion

Feral Camel Range

The remote Aboriginal village of Kaltukatjara (“Docker River”) in Australia’s Northern Territory is currently under siege – from camels. Severe drought has driven some 6,000 dromedaries into the community, where they wreak havoc by knocking over fire hydrants and busting into houses – right through the walls in some cases – in search of water. The community’s 350 residents have been reportedly living in fear of the feral animals for the past two months. The situation recently became critical after the animals blocked the town’s airstrip, effectively preventing medical evacuations.

Wild dromedary camels are extinct in their native homeland of Arabia, but they have thrived as an introduced species in the arid Australian outback. Up to a million wild camels now inhabit Australia, their population reportedly expanding at a rate of 18 percent a year. They are so numerous in many areas that they are degrading the vegetation, threatening indigenous animal species, and contributing to dust storms that span much of the continent. The Australian government has recently dedicated A $19 million to a culling program. In the Kaltukatjara area, the Central Land Council has brought in helicopters to herd the animals out of town. According to current plans, 3,000 will then be shot. Animal rights activists in urban Australia and abroad are incensed at the proposed cull; locals are more upset by the fact that the carcasses will simply be allowed to rot rather than being processed for meat.

Much of Australia has been in the grips of an extreme drought for the past decade. This year, however, prolonged rains fell in many areas. Rainfall was so heavy in parts of Queensland and New South Wales that normally dry basins were flooded, including the massive saltpan known as Lake Eyre. But in central Australia – prime camel habitat – drought conditions unfortunately persist.

Camels are not the only problematic feral species in Australia. Wild goats, cattle, horses, hogs, and even water buffalo are numerous in many areas. Ranchers in Western Australia have for some time rounded up wild goats from helicopters so that they can be exported live to the Persian Gulf states, where they are especially valued for the feasts that mark the end of Ramadan. Some people would like to do something similar with camels, as the Camels Australia Export website (http://www.camelsaust.com.au/) shows. According to the website, camel oil is a particularly valuable commodity, “lower in cholesterol than other animal cooking fats, [and] also suitable for manufacture of soaps and cosmetics. Camel oil based products have unique properties with baby dermatology creams being one specialist product.”

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