Tributes for Marshall Islands leader ‘who got things done’

11:32 am on 9 August 2017

A long-serving member of the Marshall Islands parliament who was a key figure in successful grassroots development and who led the country's engagement in global climate action died Tuesday in Taipei.

Mattlan Zackhras at an opening session of the Marshall Islands parliament in August 2010. He had served in the parliament continuously since 2004 until his death Tuesday.

Mattlan Zackhras at an opening session of the Marshall Islands parliament in August 2010. He had served in the parliament continuously since 2004 until his death Tuesday. Photo: Suzanne Chutaro

Mattlan Zackhras, 47, who had represented Namdrik Atoll in the Marshall Islands parliament since January 2004, died of heart failure at Shuang Ho Hospital in Taiwan after being medically evacuated from Majuro on an air ambulance the day before.

Zackhras was enjoying a family reunion last week Tuesday in Majuro when he became ill and was admitted to the hospital soon after.

Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine issued a statement expressing her "great sadness" over the death of Zackhras.

"I speak on behalf of my government, my Cabinet and the people of the Marshall Islands in saying that our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Minister Matt at this very difficult and sad time.

"Minister Matt worked tirelessly, at home and abroad, on behalf of the Marshallese people and the islands that he loved deeply. He will be greatly missed."

Heine said Foreign Minister John Silk would take over Zackhras' international duties until further notice.

Although his position the past 19 months as Minister in Assistance to President Heine put him in the global spotlight on climate change, Zackhras played a lead role at the grassroots level for his home atoll.

His work with his constituency of Namdrik Atoll received repeated international recognition for groundbreaking initiatives supporting sustainable development.

In 2012, the United Nations Development Program recognised Namdrik twice in its global Equator Initiative. The remote atoll won one of 25 awards issued globally by the UNDP that year.

This resulted in an initial $US5,000 prize, and a further $US15,000 award for special recognition to the local community at the Sustainable Development Conference in Brazil in 2012.

Zackhras worked for about seven years as the deputy chief of mission in the Marshall Islands Embassy in Washington DC before seeking election from Namdrik in 2003. His victory in that election launched him to becoming a four-term member of Nitijela (parliament), easily winning re-election in 2007, 2011 and 2015.

President Kessai Note named him to Cabinet in his first term in office, giving him the Public Works portfolio.

"As a colleague minister, I found Matt to be hard working, diligent, and a person with great initiative, one who was always open to different points of view especially when doing his work," Marshall Islands Ambassador to the US Gerald Zackios said.

Mattlan Zachras addressing a UN meeting

Mattlan Zachras addressing a UN meeting Photo: UN

"He is one who got things done but was never boastful. (He was) very young but mature in his thinking."

In a country where time is of little consequence and performance is often lacking in government, the fact that Zackhras "got things done" made him stand out.

Bank of Marshall Islands President and CEO Patrick Chen pointed out that the late Senator was at the forefront of providing serious support to private sector initiatives from his government position.

Chen praised him for the formation of the Namdrik copra cooperative that then obtained loan funds to ensure timely payments to local makers of the dried coconut meat used for making coconut oil, spurring production.

In fisheries, Zackhras "encouraged us to get into the purse seine business," Mr Chen said.

"He really helped local companies".

From 2008-2012, Zackhras was minister of Resources and Development, where he played an important role in the development of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA) Office, which was established in Majuro in 2010.

PNA represents the eight island nations that control waters where 50 percent of the world's supply of skipjack tuna is caught.

"It is indeed a sad loss for the Marshall Islands and the PNA," said Dr Transform Aqorau, the former CEO of PNA.

"The late Matt Zackhras was one of the visionaries who were responsible for the establishment of the PNA Office in Majuro. He was not only supportive but he had an intellectual capacity that enabled him to grasp the importance of the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS), the need to apply hard limits to the fishery, and the vision that we had for the PNA. I found him to be a shining light."

In 2010, when the PNA office was established, the eight PNA nations received about $US60 million from the tuna fishery. This year, this amount is expected to approach US$US500 million.

Mattlan Zackhras and his wife Angela show off a fine woven mat made by a youthful trainee from his home atoll of Namdrik in this file photo from 2013.

Mattlan Zackhras and his wife Angela show off a fine woven mat made by a youthful trainee from his home atoll of Namdrik in this file photo from 2013. Photo: Tamara Greenstone Alefaio

At the local level, Zackhras engaged with the Namdrik community to establish the Namdrik Copra Cooperative about seven years ago that took the unprecedented action of obtaining micro loans from Bank of Marshall Islands to support copra makers through a revolving fund to get money into copra makers hands so they didn't have to wait for often delayed visits by government field trip ships.

Namdrik also launched virgin coconut oil production, becoming the first outer atoll to process coconut oil in this manner. Despite challenges and others in country halting pearl-growing activities, Namdrik persevered with its community pearl growing operation.

"Namdrik is promoting a model of community self-sufficiency, local food security and adaptation," said the United Nations Development Program in recognizing Namdrik in 2012.

"A pearl hatchery provides jobs and provides a revenue stream to fund community development projects in education and health. Shoreline restoration has been undertaken through planting of indigenous mangrove species.

"The initiative is community-owned, fueled by local leadership and has provided a sustainability model that has been replicated in other atoll communities across islands in the Pacific."

As development activities expanded on Namdrik, numerous donors partnered with the atoll. AusAID put up a small grant in 2013 to support Namdrik's virgin coconut oil processing operation.

"Matt was one in a million," said Tamara Greenstone Alefaio, who worked with University of the South Pacific Campus in Majuro for many years.

"His passion for the future of the Marshall Islands was evident in everything he did. Whether it was the care he took in supporting USP's weaving program and science camps, or simply the fact that he always had time for everyone, he inspired us all for conservation and climate issues."

In 2015, the US-funded Pacific American Climate Fund backed a two-year project for the Namdrik Atoll Development Association to expand black lip pearl oyster farming to commercially viable levels.

The US fund injected over $US375,000 to support Namdrik's long-term pearl farming.

Zackhras was the catalyst for these and other programs in the Marshall Islands.

"The Marshall Islands has lost a young and very good leader who will sorely be missed," said Zackios.

"One thing I know for sure is this, Matt has definitely left a legacy for many young Marshallese to follow."

Zackras was the son of Marshall Islands Ambassador to Fiji Ruben Zackhras and his wife Rothie. He and his wife Angela had three children.