The purchase of 283 acres of land near Hilo by a group of Micronesians is being described as a potential “fresh start” for the people of Bikini Atoll.
It is a way for the Bikinians to not only generate revenue by developing lots to sell at market value but also serves as a place for Bikinians themselves to one day relocate from Micronesia. The low-lying islands are especially vulnerable to rising sea levels due to global warming.
The sale illustrates not only the story of a misplaced people but the challenges that often come with newcomers fitting in to new lands. Some Hawaiian activists mistakenly thought that the 283 acres valued at nearly $1 million actually belongs to the state’s Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
It does not.
Bikinians have been “nuclear nomads” since July 1, 1946, when only the fourth nuclear bomb in history (the others were Los Alamos, Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was dropped on Bikini as part of the Able test of Operation Crossroads.
As has been widely reported, including in Civil Beat’s series “The Micronesians,” “Able was 50 percent more powerful than Little Boy, the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945.”
Before the blast, 167 residents of Bikini were moved from the atoll. Today, most of the survivors and their descendants live on Kili, an island in the Republic of the Marshall Islands that is widely described as a rough place to live.
For one, there is no lagoon, making fishing difficult. For another, king tides are literally washing away the shoreline.
As the Civil Beat series explained, “Bikinians, by and large, haven’t returned to their homeland since.”
The purchase of the land, in the Kaumana area of Hilo, was blogged by Big Island real estate agent Mealoha Kraus April 30.
“The celebration marked the end of a long journey and introduced the potential for a fresh start for the people of Bikini Atoll, whose idyllic islands were routinely used as nuclear test sites by the U.S. government throughout the 1940s and 1950s,” Kraus wrote.
Kraus, who did not respond to a media inquiry Tuesday, said the land was sold by Akalea Partners, LLC, to Bikini Ejit Local Government. Ejit is the name of a small island on Majuro Atoll, where some Bikinians live.
“Purchased for $4.8 million, the land is vacant, with a stream running through it,” Kraus wrote on her blog, which includes photos of the ceremony. “Ultimately, they are driven by a goal to make their trust grow over time, in order to benefit their people for generations. If climate change drives them from their home, the Kili Island residents would move to the land on Hawaii.”
The sale was reported on social media. The Marshall Islands Journal in Majuro picked up the story.
“Bikinians have been talking for years about the option of purchasing land in the U.S., and this is the first time for it to actually happen via the local government,” Giff Johnson, the paper’s editor, told me via email.
Johnson, who confirmed the purchase with Hawaii’s Bureau of Conveyances, explained that the Bikini Council in the 1980s looked at buying land on Maui, “but after initial discussions, people and political leaders on Maui were not friendly about the prospect so the idea of buying land there was dropped.”
In a more recent development, the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2017 gave the Kili/Bikini/Ejit mayor and local council “total control” of the U.S. Congress-provided Bikini Resettlement Trust Fund. That’s “somewhere around $55 million, with the proviso that they could never come back to Interior to seek assistance to get additional funding from the Congress,” said Johnson.
Since then, the Bikinians have bought two landing craft vessels, an apartment complex in Majuro and now the Hilo land.
“They are said to be looking at buying an airplane,” said Johnson.
Esther Kiaaina, a Hawaii resident and former assistant secretary for Insular Affairs at Interior, welcomes the purchase.
“The concept for the Bikini trust fund established by the federal government did not factor in relocation from the Marshall Islands when it was established decades ago,” said Kiaaina, who visited Bikini Atoll in 1996 as a congressional staffer working for U.S. Sen. Dan Akaka of Hawaii.
“So, given that funding is finite, I aloha our brothers and sisters from Bikini and applaud its leaders for buying land to secure a future for their community.”
It’s not clear if or when Bikinians may relocate.
But there has already been significant outmigration from the Marshalls (including Bikinians) to Hawaii and to places like Springdale, Arkansas, the latter home to at least 12,000 Marshallese and other Micronesians.
Under a 1986 treaty called the Compact of Free Association, residents of the Marshalls and the Federated States of Micronesia are allowed visa-free travel to the U.S. and its territories. The Republic of Palau was added in 1994.
As is the case with other immigrant groups to America, Micronesians have encountered a lot of discrimination. Social media posts such as this one illustrate the concerns — and misunderstandings — some Native Hawaiians have about one displaced group seeming to displace another in Kaumana.
In fact, even though the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands holds a lot of land in the greater Hilo area, the Hawaii County parcel bought by the Bikinians is not part of that land. Nor is it land that was leased by sugarcane farmers who later returned the land to DHHL once the leases expired, according to agency spokesman Cedric Duarte.
The Bikini land purchase comes at an interesting time for the COFA nations, and Hawaii.
On Tuesday the presidents of all three COFA nations met with President Donald Trump to “jointly reaffirm our interest in a free, open, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region,” as the White House said in a press release. “We recognize our unique, historic, and special relationships, and reaffirm our countries’ commitments to the Compacts of Free Association, resolving to continue our close cooperation in support of prosperity, security, and the rule of law.”
It’s the first meeting between a U.S. president and island leaders. Hanging over the meeting was the fact that part of the compact expires in 2023, at which time financial aid to the COFA nations from Washington will cease.
Treaty renegotiations are reported to be underway. Not coincidentally, the talks come as China is asserting its influence in the region.
On a related note, it was also reported this week that a giant concrete dome on Runit Island on Enewetak Atoll holding nuclear waste from the U.S. tests in the Marshalls is now cracked and leaking. That’s nothing new to many Marshallese, but the story is finally getting out to a greater audience.
Like nearby Bikini, Enewetak was also subjected to the deadly tests. They were so powerful that maps show enormous circular blue scoops where explosions evaporated whole islands from the reef.
This is part of our complicated, often tragic history in the Pacific. The FSM and Palau have their own long ties with America.
I agree with what Mealoha Kraus says in her blog post: “I hope this land purchase helps to restore a feeling of stability to Kili Islanders, knowing that they have a home in these islands should they ever need it.”
A screen shot of the front page of the May 3, 2019, Marshall Islands Journal shows how important the land purchase is:
Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom that provides free content with no paywall. That means readership growth alone can’t sustain our journalism.
The truth is that less than 1% of our monthly readers are financial supporters. To remain a viable business model for local news, we need a higher percentage of readers-turned-donors.
Will you consider becoming a new donor today?