Island leaders face tough decisions on where to draw line in the sand – The Guam Daily Post

Editor’s note: This is a speech Lee Webber gave to the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce while publisher of the Honolulu Advertiser several years ago. With a few updates, he feels it is as appropriate today as it was then, maybe more so. Webber decided to share this with the Guam community.

What I am sharing are my opinions, observations and conclusions. Not as a social scientist, but as an observer who has been given the opportunity to share time and space with the peoples of the Western Pacific. 

During a span of 50 years, I have had the good fortune to spend time on and under Micronesia’s waters, walk her lands, fish and photograph her reefs and live with and photograph her people. I have been welcomed into villages, men’s houses, canoe houses, homes and families. I married a Pacific Islander, raised a family and learned that the land and sea are gifts from God to our soul – to be protected and cherished – so they may supply our needs. 

I have had the wonderful but simplistic opportunity to know elderly people who had not traveled to the opposite side of their small island home in 20 years, let alone leave it. Yet they knew their surroundings and what was necessary to preserve and care for them.

My experiences in Micronesia began in the late 1960s when it was still governed by the United States under the United Nations trusteeship agreement.

During those days, the federally appointed high commissioner was located on Capital Hill on Saipan. Those early years were a time of slow growth and idyllic living, the nature of which most people only have an opportunity to read about in books on tales of life on small Pacific islands.

During those and the years that followed, Micronesian island leaders desired more, or in very few cases less, of what they saw of the outside world.

That coupled with pressures from larger nations during the Cold War created the circumstances that led to various plebiscites and the eventual breakaway from United States trustee control.

It created the establishment of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (Saipan, Rota, Tinian and the northern islands), Republic of Belau, Federated States of Micronesia (Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae) and Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Social change

With these changes came the ability for Micronesians to travel more freely and live within the United States.

The years preceding this change and the many that have followed brought with them tremendous social change. With this change came turmoil within the cultures, the slow but steady deterioration of family and cultural values along with the strength of traditional familial control in society and a gap in understanding between young and old.

Some of the most powerful of these changes were driven by the desire for personal wealth as land values grew disproportionally coupled with the onslaught of cable TV and the growth of video stores. The latter of which brought with it visuals of how Hollywood perceived the world along with its unrealistic views of what existed outside of Micronesia.

I watched as crime, alcohol and drug abuse increased, placing ever increasing pressures on traditional familial values, increasing the numbers of teen suicides, family violence and the slow but continual decay of traditional cultural values.

Again, I am not a social scientist, but you don’t have to be a chef to know if the food tastes strange.

This lethal combination of events (from a traditional/culture perspective) have led to ongoing change within the islands creating a domino effect that has affected not only the people but the land and the surrounding reefs. Driven by the desire to have what people perceive as better, and what they have seen exists outside of their island worlds, that change continues.

In my opinion, people have not always given enough careful and deliberate consideration to the fact that in seeking what they see, they correspondingly chose to give up what they have historically sought to protect, the heart of their culture, the close-knit familial connections and the pristine islands on which they have lived. It is an example of the proverbial, “the grass is always greener in your neighbors lawn.”

Region’s challenge

The pressing challenge for Micronesia and Guam is to decide what to embrace and what to forgo.

What sectors from the outside can enhance traditional values and improve overall quality of life without the disruption of the values that have maintained and preserved these islands, their pristine beauty and peoples throughout hundreds or thousands of years.

In short, how is more or different better? How do we balance the desire for economic growth with improved health care, better education, security and improved infrastructure with our overall quality of life?

Better yet, how do we define quality of life? Has anyone in a leadership role really taken the time to define “quality of life” for our people and islands?

Is this accomplished by preserving traditional values, peace tranquility, clean water and reefs teaming with sea life or is it getting more of what we see from beyond our reefs? Or is there a real balance that can be struck between them?

The real challenge facing today’s leaders – and what they oft-times recoil away from – is making the tough decisions on where to draw a line in the sand. When to stand shoulder to shoulder and say, this is what we want and will allow.

Leaders must learn not to get entrapped by money and power but to seek balance and sustainability, growth that protects the environment and culture. For Guam and Micronesia, it is not too late to do so while for some areas of the Pacific it would require retrenchment.

We must always remember WHY people come to our islands. By and large, it is because of what they have given up, destroyed or never had in the first place.

They come to the Pacific to experience our clear water, pristine beaches, beautiful landscapes and walk among our warm and friendly people.

If our tomorrows are to be as good as our yesterdays we, as a people, must learn to be far more consciously selective with our desires. We must ensure that we consciously and deliberately balance what we are giving up and getting in exchange for having made those selections. 

Otherwise, one day, we too will be in search of a place to go to that is better than our own.


Lee P. Webber is a former president and publisher of media organizations on Guam and Hawaii, former director of operations for USA Today International/Asia and is a longtime business and civic leader on Guam.

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