How the United States’ Played a Key Role in Micronesian and Marshallese Poverty

The United States has played a long-time role in perpetuating poverty in West Polynesia. Between 1946 and 1958, the United States used the atolls of Bikini and Enewetak in the Marshall Islands as ground zero for 67 nuclear weapon tests. Even after cleanup, displaced residents returned to find their home contaminated by radiation. As a result, the United States initiated the Compact of Free Association (COFA) as reparation for damage done to the native health, land, and resources.

The COFA nations, sometimes called the Freely Associated States, consist of Federal States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau. As mentioned, this was a byproduct of the nuclear testing done in the mid-1900s, but the agreement goes as such: in exchange for strategic control of the Asia-Pacific region and land required to test missiles, the COFA nations’ residents could easily emigrate to the United States and would receive $200 million in funding each year. This funding is the primary source of revenue in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, which fosters a strictly one-sided codependence.

The US would soon serve as sanctuary because the long-term effects of the fallout took hold — the island nations continue to suffer from an increased rate of cancer and infants born with birth defects. There are, however, little dialysis centers in the region to address such concerns, whereas most islands have none such centers.

In addition to this, the diabetes epidemic now has the native people in a chokehold. These mostly sandy, infertile islands primarily sustained themselves on subsistence fishing and farming. The contaminated food sources cause residents to rely on imported foods from the United States with little nutritional value. Researchers have also conducted studies drawing a correlation between nuclear radiation exposure and diabetes. Again, the COFA nations lack the access to healthcare to properly treat diabetes.

Source: Peter Mellow ()

Climate change is also taking a heavy toll. In the Marshall Islands, 29 of the low-lying atolls and coral islands only stand 6 meters above sea at high tide. Rising sea levels from melting ice caps swallow the islands, and strengthened storm systems batter them. The United States is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, following China, a lead cause in the climate crisis.

The people living in the Freely Associated States face a 40% unemployment rate, inefficient healthcare, and the inevitable consequence of climate change. In Majuro and Kwajalein, the most densely populated cities in the Marshall Islands, 30% of the residents are below the poverty line. In the outer islands and cities, more than 60% do. In response, over a third of the nation has emigrated to the US seeking refuge, healthcare, and social services.

Editor’s Note: I wrote this article as part of my application for the writer/journalist position at the Borgen Project. Before I bore you with the details, I got the position! I’m stoked. Thank-you for all your support.

A 22-year-old teller of stories.