26 Jun 2013

Northern Marianas 'alienation of land' restrictions under review

4:55 pm on 26 June 2013

Lawmakers in the Northern Marianas will have to make a decision soon on whether to support an initiative to relax restrictions on the alienation of land in the Northern Marianas.

The controversial change to Article 12 of the CNMI Constitution needs a majority vote of both houses of the legislature and voter ratification, but does not require approval from the Governor.

Sara Vui-Talitu has more:

Our correspondent in Saipan, Mark Rabago, says for some time now, efforts have been growing to try and amend constitutional laws around native land. He says there's a hurdle to overcome - traditional native landowners' and lawmakers' resistance to change.

"MARK RABAGO: When the CNMI constitution was approved, there was a provision there for land alienation that basically keeps the land in the ownership of indigenous people. They wanted that, so that the CNMI won't end up like another Hawaii where the native people don't even own their land."

Mark Rabago says land in the Commonwealth is also limited.

MARK RABAGO: Anything that talks about the land here is very very contentious. The CNMI only has a very small land area and a lot of it is already utilised by the US Military so they are quite sensitive when it comes to land.

One landowner, Vince Seman says he understands such concerns but economic circumstances for people have drastically changed.

VINCE SEMAN: Our only industry really is our tourism industry but there really isn't that same type of outside investors coming in. So what's going on now is that we have very few indigenous people with the type of financial resources to be able to make purchases in a down economy, people losing their jobs, people get sick, kids still need to go to college. And oftentimes people would only have their one piece of land as their only real asset.

Mr Seman says landowners he has talked to indicate they now want restrictions on the use and ownership of native land amended.

VINCE SEMAN: It's a hard thing to say, but I am speaking to more and more people who are actually now realising, 'cause this is something that nobody really thinks about, but now that economic factors are forcing people to think about it, people are now changing their minds.

The Saipan Chamber of Commerce Executive Director said in a statement that relaxing restrictions around native land use and eligibility to own native land would see the Commonwealth's business opportunities and economic climate vastly improve. Richard Pierce says more people would be able to secure titles to properties on which to build homes, as well as help people secure loans, property values would go up, and people could make their own decisions about their own private properties.