The U.S. is turning a significant portion of Micronesia into live fire and bombing ranges to train Marines. It has plans to completely take over one island for this purpose and has control of two-thirds of another island.
If people in the U.S. mainland understood the military’s plan for Micronesia they might be alarmed. But this is really happening to U.S. citizens living in America’s territories.
This is a result of the U.S. Navy’s plans to relocate 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam, where the U.S. has three major bases. But Guam — even at 212 square miles — is not suitable for this type of live fire training because of its relatively large population of 160,000 plus people.
The 18-square mile Pagan Island was evacuated in the early 1980s because of volcanic eruptions, although a handful of people have reportedly returned. Others want to resettle, but from the government’s point of view, Pagan has no legal residents.
On Pagan, the government will drop bombs as large as 1,000 pounds and turn the island into a ruined “wasteland,” say the people of this region. Chemicals from military activities will leech into the soil and water supply, say opponents.
The situation is a little different for Tinian Island. The U.S. controls 71% of the 39-square mile Tinian, which has a population of about 3,200. The U.S. plans to fire rockets, explode grenades, fire artillery and conduct amphibious landings. There may be health consequences possibly from hazardous dust, noise and disruption. The quality of life for the people of Tinian will likely decline considerably. Residents worry that many will leave the island.
The U.S. has been doing what it pleases since Bikini
If this sounds familiar, it should.
The U.S. has been using the Pacific islands for military development since it forcibly removed the Bikini Atoll natives in 1946, so it could explode nuclear weapons. Not much has changed since.
A collection of indigenous and environmental groups challenged the U.S. Defense Dept. plans, but they recently lost their case in federal court.
This case was decided in the U.S. District Court in the Northern Mariana Island mostly on a single question: Did the U.S. follow its procedures for taking over Pagan Island and stepping up military training on Tinian?
The court ignored the most important issue
The court, in its 41-page summary judgment ruling released Aug. 31, completely ignored the issue that should have been core to the case: Will the military’s plans destroy a way of life, and endanger the health and environment of the people in this region?
The questions ought to be huge. Instead, the court found that the government followed its processes. As a result, Pagan Island will be as good as erased off the map, and Tinian Island residents may face environmental and health risks.
The opponents can appeal, but the odds are long.
The groups challenging this want the government to really assess the environmental damage, health risks and spiritual harm this activity will bring. That is what this case should have been about. But the court was unwilling to do so. Instead, it was decided on mostly technicalities: Has the U.S. followed its procedures for creating military bombing ranges?
Environmental and spiritual destruction
Marjorie Daria, a resident of Tinian and a member of the Tinian Women Association, filed this supporting declaration in the court case, and wrote this:
“I have spiritual interests in the preservation of Tinian. As a child I was taught the legends of my people and the spirits that still walk on our grounds, and that certain spirits occupy certain trees.
“Before I enter the jungle, I say a prayer and ask permission to enter. My beliefs compel me to act in ways that protect and respect Tinian. There are a few hidden locations around the airfield that I like to visit on a quarterly basis.
“One of them used to be a military storage facility that was bombed several years ago. Leading to the storage facility is a beautiful walkway encased with trees and branches, where birds sing, and the roots of these trees are entangled along this dirt wall, and the place is spiritual to me, because it reminds me of the damages caused by war and how peace can easily be disrupted.”
“If the Navy is allowed to carry out its plans to station thousands of Marines on Guam, those Marines would have to train on Tinian, subjecting the island to explosives, hand grenades, mortars, rockets, and artillery, and the accompanying noise, pollution, health risks, and environmental damage. It would cause the loss of native species, loss of biological and cultural diversity, loss of agricultural land, damage to the coral reef and other marine resources, loss of access to traditional fishing areas, lost productivity of traditional fisheries, damage to and loss of access to cultural and historical resources, harm to the tourism industry that is vital to the local economy and well-being of Tinian residents, and restrictions on travel between Tinian and Saipan, Rota, and other CNMI islands, as well as travel to Guam and the Philippines. It would make subsistence farming and fishing more challenging and less productive. It would disturb the tranquility of life here.
Daria warned that the military’s plan “may well drive many of the people of Tinian away from the island, ripping the fabric of our community bonds”
The risks for people without political power
The Tinian islanders will face a number of health risks. This include kicking up dust, and because of the types of minerals on the island, it may cause silicosis, a scarring of the lungs. There will be the danger of errant bombs.
Tinian residents will face restrictions on when they can leave the island, a serious issue for people needing urgent medical care. The environment will degrade, and the risk to coral, sea life and animal life on the island is considerable.
Tinian and Pagan are part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), a U.S. Territory. They have no political representation in Congress.
If the U.S. plan goes through, the military will fully control 24% of the landmass of the commonwealth.
This will likely be the first of many lawsuits. It would not be surprising to see lawsuits seeking reparations for Pagan residents. One can imagine Tinian residents bringing a flurry of lawsuits over environmental damage, health harms and flight restrictions. The U.S. will pay out money, but it will stay with its defense goals.
Keli A. Tenorio, a former Pagan resident, who wants to return to the Pagan island to live, wrote in a court brief:
“If our people were forced to live with the military on Pagan, the ground would shake, there would be loud noises, and our homes would be in danger of damage. The soil, air and water would be polluted by toxic chemicals contained in the ammunition, bombs, mortars, etc. that the military will dump on Pagan. The chemicals would seep into the water lenses and poison everything. Our wildlife, which we depend upon as our main source of food, will be detrimentally disrupted.
“Just over the ridge to the east side of Pagan, there are forty agricultural homesteads marked out and ready to distribute to our people. It would both ludicrous and foolish to think our people, plants and animals can thrive in such a close, noisy, and dangerous place as a result of continued bombardment from military training activities. Such activities will leave us with no way to feed our families or sustain our cultural and traditional practices,” wrote Tenorio.
Connecting the dots to Bikini
In the decades after their removal, Bikini Atoll residents challenged the government in federal court. Although many years separate those residents from present day, the problem is similar.
A failed federal lawsuit by the Bikini residents, who were seeking reparations, said this:
“On January 10, 1946, President Harry Truman approved the use of Bikini Atoll for three nuclear tests, code-named ‘Operation Crossroads.’ One month later, on Sunday, Feb 10, 1946, the American military governor of the Marshall Islands, U.S. Navy Commodore Ben Wyatt, flew by seaplane to Bikini to speak to the people and their leader, Juda, at the conclusion of Bikinians’ church services.
“Official Navy records reported that Wyatt told the Bikinians ‘of the bomb that men in America had made and of the destruction it had wrought upon the enemy” and that the Americans “are trying to learn how to use it for the good of mankind and to end all world wars.” He then asked: “Would Juda and his people be willing to sacrifice their island(s) for the welfare of all men?” The Bikinians were told that they would be allowed to return of their atoll in a matter of months when the United States no longer needed it for Operational Crossroads.”
“The Bikinians did not wish to leave their atoll. But, in view of the United States’ defeat of Japan and Commodore’s Wyatt’s description of nuclear weapons, they believed themselves powerless to resist the United States decision.”
The Bikinians gave up their land — which remains uninhabitable to this day — because of America’s geopolitical interests. They were powerless, and the fate had been decided. The same thing is happening again in Micronesia.