A SNAPSHOP OF LIFE ON Agrihan
By Lynn A. Knight, June 1992
The people of Agrihan were surprised to see our helicopter land on the grassy plateau above the striking black sand beach. Proudly roughing it out on their remote island home, the 19 residents returned only recently after being ordered to leave by Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas officials who said the island's volcano was in danger of erupting.
The highest point in the Marinas chain, the cloud-tipped volcano is 3,166 feet above sea level. While it contains one small bubbling sulfur pit, the wide caldera is also filled with giant tree ferns, attesting to the fact that this volcano has not erupted in decades.
We handed out small gifts to the few, delighted children. We noticed that the residents didn't seem to mind the swarms of pesky flies, which inhabit Agrihan. After pitching our tents on the beach for an overnight stay, Ino Saures, the highest-ranking citizen of the island invited us to his home for fresh tuba and stories.
"Out of respect for the government who told us to leave, we left," explained Saures, who said he was the official representative for the Northern Islands Mayor, "but I've lived here 48 years. I know when the volcano is active because of how the smoke looks and the earth quakes. Every time they take me off this island I come back."
Saures says life on Agrihan is safe and pleasant, with few worries. "Money goes too fast on other islands, and besides, my family is all here."
Indeed, all of Agrihan's residents are part of Saures' extended family. Originally of Carolinian descent, Saures and his wife have eight children: four boys and four girls. All of the children attended school on Agrihan until the seventh grade. Saures explains that if the island has six or more children of school age, the Commonwealth government will send a teacher to stay on the island until they reach the seventh grade. After that, it's on to high school in Saipan. Six of the Saures children have graduated high school, married and returned to Agrihan with their spouses.
Mrs. Concepcion Saures has been given permission by the Catholic Church to act as the official of Agrihan's small church. For baptisms, deaths and other important religious events, she opens the Bible and reads to her family.
The island of Agrihan has no power and no dock for boats. The men of the village drag their boat onto the beach after a successful morning of fishing. At one time the residents attempted to build a dock, but found the water too deep and the currents too strong.
We are told the fishing is easy here, although Agrihan has no protective reef. Just throw a hook in and you'll catch fish. Or throw a net. In deep water, you can also catch shrimp in a trap.
Hot and dirty from a full day of island-hopping, we were anxious to jump into the surf for a swim, but were immediately warned by residents: there are sharks in these waters. Several years ago, one fisherman had his arm nearly bitten off.
Since then, the villagers avoid swimming in the ocean, preferring an inland pond near the village. However, when nearing the ocean's edge, one must throw a rock into the water as a ritual to ward off sharks.
Heading the warning, I found a small tide pool in the rocks off the beach and jumped in. A member of the Saures family was immediately assigned to make sure that sharks did not enter the pool and carry off one of their rare visitors to the island.
Fresh water for drinking and bathing is plentiful on Agrihan. The people consider their prized possession to be a deep water well that was built during the Japanese occupation of the island. With rich soil, the residents easily grow bananas, Chinese cabbage, green beans and other vegetables. Ripe mangos hang heavily from the trees. The men of the village use family dogs to help hunt wild pigs.
"The only problem is if typhoon comes," says Saures, who is trying to raise money through the Northern Islands Mayor's Office for a new typhoon shelter. "It wipes out everything."
During Typhoon Carmen in 1972, Saures says 12 Japanese fishing boats came to Agrihan seeking a safe harbor. During the storm, 9 of the boats and half of the crew were lost.
"I just stayed together with my family in my typhoon shelter. All of the windows and the doors broke. The typhoon cleaned everything out," said Saures.
After typhoons, help usually comes by a Commonwealth-sponsored ship bringing rice, boxed milk, coffee and other supplies. "We're very lucky because we have a radio. We just go up a coconut tree and hook up an antenna at the top and call Saipan," Saures explained. "One time a plane came overhead and dropped a letter, saying: 'Please, if you're alive, come out so we can see you!'"
In addition to the lack of building materials for a typhoon shelter, another issue troubling Saures is land ownership. Currently all of the land in the Northern Islands belongs to the CNMI government.
"I don't know when they're going to give the people land up here," says Saures. "The Marianas Public Land Corporation has been talking about a homestead program for a long time, but I know they have a lot of other things on their minds other than a handful of people up here on Agrihan."
The inability to lease land has been a deterrent for at least one potential developer who wanted to bring tourism to the island. According to Saures, few years ago, a Japanese businessman attempted to build a small hotel on Agrihan for tourists. After bringing a boatload of building materials to the island, he learned that anything he built would belong to government ownership with the land it sat on. He abandoned all plans and has not been heard from since.
Even though they can't own the land their tin and wood houses are built on, the residents of Agrihan enjoy quiet subsistence living and isolation from the dangers of big island hustle and bustle like they've experienced on Saipan and Guam.
"This island is very good, very safe," says Saures. "We don't have to worry about our children or about traffic. Here you don't have to lock your door. The only danger is if you're drunk on tuba and sleeping outside -- you might get stepped on by a pig!"