Mattlan Zackhras, a four-term member of Nitijela who was a key figure in successful grassroots community development on Namdrik Atoll and who the past two years has been outspoken globally on the need for climate action, died this week in Taipei.
Zackhras, 47, who has represented Namdrik Atoll in Nitijela since January 2004, died Tuesday of heart failure at Shuang Ho Hospital in Taiwan after being medically evacuated from Majuro on an air ambulance early Monday morning. Zackhras was enjoying a reunion party among Marshallese and Pohnpeian families last week Tuesday at the Stone House when he became ill and left. He was admitted to the hospital soon after, and was quickly put into intensive care following a heart attack and serious related complications.
An air ambulance from Singapore transported Zackhras and his wife, Angela, to Taiwan early Monday, arriving in Taipei late morning Majuro time. He died less than 24 hours later.
President Hilda Heine issued a statement Tuesday expressing her “great sadness” over the death of Zackhras. “I speak on behalf of my government, my Cabinet and the people of the Marshall Islands in saying that our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Minister Matt at this very difficult and sad time. Minister Matt worked tirelessly, at home and abroad, on behalf of the Marshallese people and the islands that he loved deeply. He will be greatly missed.”
Heine said Foreign Minister John Silk will take over Zackhras’ international duties until further notice.
Although his position the past 19 months as Minister in Assistance to President Heine put him in the global spotlight on climate change — most recently he led the RMI delegation to a Green Climate Fund meeting in Tonga last month and he campaigned at dozens of international climate meetings in recent years — Zackhras played a lead role in partnership with Mayor Clarence Luther in engaging at the grassroots level at home. His work with his constituency of Namdrik Atoll received repeated international recognition for groundbreaking initiatives supporting sustainable development.
In October 2012, the Journal commented about him: “Zackhras has been a key player in gaining grants, getting development activity going and gaining international recognition for the southern atoll. Earlier this year, Namdrik was recognized twice by the United Nations Development Program, winning one of 25 awards issued globally for the UNDP’s Equator Initiative. This resulted in an initial $5,000 prize, and a further $15,000 award for special recognition to the local community at the Sustainable Development Conference in Brazil last June. More recently, it became the second site recognized by the Ramsar wetlands convention, bringing more recognition. And Namdrik is one of few atolls that has stuck with black lip pearl oyster growing with a view to the long-term.”
Zackhras was a young veteran of working in the RMI Embassy in Washington, DC when he first sought election from Namdrik in 2003. He defeated former Majuro Senator Tony deBrum in that election that launched him to becoming a four-term member of Nitijela, easily winning re-election in 2007, 2011 and 2015.
“During my first term as a member of the Nitijela (2000-2004), one of the things I vividly recall is encouraging Matt to run for a seat in the Nitijela when we met in Washington, DC where he was working for the RMI Embassy as a deputy chief of mission,” said current RMI Ambassador to the US Gerald Zackios. “Whether Matt took me seriously or not, all I know is he ran in the 2003 election and won a seat in the Nitijela.”
President Kessai Note named him to Cabinet in his first term in office, giving him the Public Works portfolio.
“As a colleague minister, I found Matt to be hard working, diligent, and a person with great initiative, one who was always open to different points of view especially when doing his work,” aid Zackios. “One thing I really admire and learned a lot from Matt was his ability to work closely with people, and how well he was able to navigate different interests. (He was) very young but mature in his thinking.”
In a country where time is of little consequence and performance is often lacking in government, the fact that Zackhras “got things done” made him stand out.
During President Litokwa Tomeing’s and President Jurelang Zedkaia’s administrations from 2008-2012, Zackhras was minister of Resources and Development, where he played an important role in the development of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement Office, which was established in Majuro in 2010.
“It is indeed a sad loss for the Marshall Islands and the PNA,” said Dr. Transform Aqorau, the former CEO of PNA. “The late Matt Zackhras was one of the visionaries and forward looking fisheries ministers who were responsible for the establishment of the PNA Office in Majuro. He was not only supportive but he had an intellectual capacity that enabled him to grasp the importance of the Vessel Day Scheme (VDS), the need to apply hard limits to the fishery, and the vision that we had for the PNA. He was a strong supporter of the PNAO and would often stop by the office to share a cup of coffee and talk about how we could increase our share of the value of our tuna resources. I found him to be a shining light. He will be missed.”
At the local level, Zackhras engaged with the Namdrik community to establish the Namdrik Copra Cooperative about seven years ago that took the unprecedented action of obtaining micro loans from Bank of Marshall Islands to support copra makers. The loan supported a revolving fund that has been used to buy copra from members, which put money into copra makers hands more quickly than waiting for visits by government field trip ships and often-delayed payments from Tobolar Copra Processing Authority.
Namdrik also launched virgin coconut oil production, becoming the first outer atoll to process coconut oil in this manner. They have sold the virgin coconut oil by the barrel to Tobolar, earning a higher price for the copra cooperative. Despite challenges and others in RMI halting pearl-growing activities, Namdrik persevered with its community pearl growing operation.
“Namdrik is promoting a model of community self-sufficiency, local food security and adaptation,” said the United Nations Development Program in recognizing Namdrik in 2012. “Traditional crops such as breadfruit, taro and pandanus have been reintroduced to protect and restore soil, improve food security and open value-added secondary processing industries for local communities.
As development activities expanded on Namdrik, numerous donors partnered with the atoll. AusAid put up a small grant in 2013 to support Namdrik’s virgin coconut oil processing operation.
Zackhras was also an enthusiastic supporter of the jaki-ed fine weaving program run by USP in Majuro, supporting extension of a training in 2012-13 to Namdrik for young women to learn the weaving skill.
“Matt was one in a million,” said Tamara Greenstone Alefaio, who worked with USP Campus in Majuro for many years. “His passion for the future of the Marshall Islands was evident in everything he did. Whether it was the care he took in supporting USP’s weaving program and science camps, or simply the fact that he always had time for everyone, he inspired us all for conservation and climate issues.”
In 2015, the US-funded Pacific American Climate Fund backed a two-year project for the Namdrik Atoll Development Association to expand black lip pearl oyster farming to commercially viable levels.
Zackhras was the catalyst for these and other programs in the RMI.
“The RMI has lost a young and very good leader who will sorely be missed,” said Zackios. “One thing I know for sure is this, Matt has definitely left a legacy for many young Marshallese to follow.”
Mattlan is the son of RMI Ambassador to Fiji Ruben Zackhras and his wife Rothie. He and his wife Angela have three children.
Read more about this in the August 11, 2017 edition of the Marshall Islands Journal.