Who would have thought our small territory of just 55,000 people could be ground zero for a contentious issue involving the health and nutrition of school children in each public school in every corner of America. I am extremely proud that our major export product, tuna, ends up on the lunch plates of young children throughout the country. Although they may be familiar with Florida oranges or Georgia peaches, they probably have no clue that this staple on their lunch menu comes from a part of America that is half way around the globe. If an inquisitive student asks his or her history teacher about American Samoa, the teacher might say, “look it up on Wikipedia and be prepared to tell us all about American Samoa”. However, if another student asks a civics teacher the same question, bringing back a report on American Samoa would be quite a challenge because understanding who we really are is a very complex task, indeed.
It is not so much that American Samoa suffers from indifference in Congress, rather we suffer from the “tyranny of distance”. We are tethered to Mainland-based federal policies that work well in the lower forty-eight. After they travel the more than 7,000 miles to get to our shores, these policies become attenuated, dissipated and oftentimes inflict more harm than good. Moreover, they preclude us from interacting more naturally within our regional ecosystem and often inhibit our economic development.
It is these same cabatoge restrictions that hamper our tourism development opportunities by making it uneconomical for Australian and New Zealand based passenger carriers to transit American Samoa and bring us tourists from our most natural tourism markets. As their next transit point would be Hawaii, while they can discharge passengers in American Samoa, they cannot take any new ones on board for onward travel. So they bypass us completely.
Well intentioned in the lower 48, scheduled hikes in the minimum wage for American Samoa are inappropriate for our small economy and prohibit us from being competitive in the South Pacific region in areas such as the call center industry, where we have lost jobs in that sector to our island neighbors. As we embark on pitching U.S. based firms to consider moving back office and call center jobs to American Samoa, in an effort to diversify our economy away from its almost total dependence on the fishing industry, being locked in to mandatory increased minimum wage rates puts us at a competitive disadvantage with our global peers.
And, although we stand firmly behind our local canneries in the present dustup over USDA Buy American Act (BAA) provisions in the school lunch program, ironically, BAA policies can also be a burden on our economy. Because so much of our economic activity is tied to federal funding, BAA policies sometimes prevent us from sourcing products, materials and services within our regional ecosystem at lower prices than those available from American continental sources many thousands of miles away.
When we “signed on” to the American team at the beginning of 20th century, (we walked on, we were not drafted), through Deeds of Cession to the United States, we did so on an “all in” basis – since then sustaining the highest per capita casualty rates in our wars and military conflicts of any state or territory. We served as a strategic coaling station for our growing Navy at the turn of the last century, and we have the potential to become an even more viable strategic U.S. asset and presence in the region.
That is, if Congress will do its part – by mitigating the tyranny of distance and untethering us from those continental based policies that are impractical, impede our economic development, and devalue our strategic location as the United States of America pivots and rebalances its presence in the Pacific.
Moliga is the 57th governor of American Samoa, taking office in 2013. Governor Lolo Matalasi Moliga