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Christina Illarmo: USSF Presentation at the ‘American Lake’ or Ka Moana Nui?: Demilitarization Movements in the Asia-Pacific Workshop

Presentation at the
USSF – United States Social Forum
24 June 2010

‘American Lake’ or Ka Moana Nui?: Demilitarization Movements in the Asia-Pacific

The Pacific island of Guahan, where I was born and raised, has been touted to mainstream audiences as “the tip of the spear,” “the unsinkable aircraft carrier,” or as a kind of  “gas station” for U.S troops.  But this island is more than a military outpost, it’s place of waterfalls, fresh water caves, thick jungles, and warm sandy beaches. It’s also home to a loving and resilient native people who after surviving centuries of Western colonization have yet to receive their inherent right to self-determination.

We’ve been citizens since the 50’s, yet we still can’t vote for President, we aren’t represented in the senate, and our one Congressional Delegate can’t vote on the floor; but our voices are valid and our concerns are real.

This massive military buildup, which will realign troops from Okinawa to Guahan, puts our culture, environment, and our ­quality of life at risk while simultaneously violating our human rights. While Okinawa, Hawai’i, California, Philippines, and Korea have said no- we have not; and it is not because we say “yes”; it is because we were never ASKED. Our political status as a US Territory provides the United States a place wherein they may implement their plans with “no restrictions,” meaning: they can do whatever is in their best interest. When our local leaders voiced concerns during realignment negotiations, they were told that this was a “nation-to-nation” conversation.  This response reminds our people that we have never been equals within this country.  We are Americans; but then we are not.

Why does the US go so far out of its way to subjugate a peaceful little island 30 miles long and 7 miles wide with a population of 171,000?

In a simple word: LOCATION.

Any military official will tell you as a US Territory, Guahan is the only location of its kind in the Pacific, from which long-range bombers can strike nearly any target in Northeast, East and Southeast Asia. They see us as the “Diego Garcia of the Pacific”.

But in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter how important the Pentagon thinks we are, this costly, immoral and unsustainable practice of forcing bases on unwilling soil has a huge price tag ($4 billion) and it is breaking the backs of the American working class while destroying the lives of native peoples abroad.

Currently, the military is Guahan’s largest landowner, occupying roughly 1/3 of the land. Air force and naval bases restricted to the civilian public have not only displaced thousands of people, they have created a unique form of racial and socioeconomic segregation in which the service people behind the fence have their own hospitals, schools, homes, parks, churches, shopping centers, camping grounds, and beaches- all on land which was mostly stolen or forcibly bought for insultingly low prices from the indigenous Chamoru people. Besides the trauma of displacement, and being forced to use the English language in place of our own, our quality of life has seen other impacts. Before much of our rich and fertile ancestral farmlands were confiscated we had sustainable agriculture. Our farmers produced over 90% of our food. Today we must rely on expensive importing with our own local production reduced to 5%.

Last November the required draft environmental impact was released, outlining plans for the buildup. Those familiar with environmental impact statements and NEPA regulations will quickly tell you that the typical length of these types of documents run somewhere around 350 pages.  However, the DEIS detailing US plans to realign Okinawan troops to Guam was over 11,000 pages and contained three separate projects (all three of which contained plans large enough to justify their own formal commenting period).  This forced residents of Guam to digest, understand, and critique this massive document within a 90 day period. Residents were welcome to submit written comments but each were only given 3 minutes to testify at a series of only 3 hearings. You can see a few of these testimonies on the Voice of Guam Youtube Channel.

At first, attention and most discussion on the buildup was about how it was going to help our economy and create more jobs. But as the inadequacy of plans became apparent during the formal comment period, a shift in the island’s attitude occurred as agencies, such as the Guam Water Authority, began to speak out in concern, worried that the expected population boom of 80,000 people would overwhelm our already outdated and stressed sewage system and threaten our freshwater source.

Other organizations such as the Boonie Stompers, a club of hiking enthusiasts, began doing outreach, revealing that the military intended to acquire more land to create live firing ranges in pristine jungles. One such site for a proposed firing range is on the Northeastern shore between Anderson Air Force Base and another base we call “Andy-South”. This site includes the ancient Chamoru village of Pagat, considered to not only hold archeological and historical significance- to us it is a truly spiritual place- one of the few left intact that we still have access to. A firing range in Pagat would be no less an outrage than when the Taliban blew up the treasured, ancient Buddhas carved into the cliffs of Afghanistan.

The Guam’s Fisherman Coop helped make the public aware that the military wants to dredge 73 acres of thriving coral reef at Apra Harbor to make another parking spot for a nuclear aircraft carrier. Against the wishes of our people, local leaders, and the urging of the EPA and Center for Biological Diversity, they want to slam the reef with giant weights where the spinner dolphin plays, scalloped hammer head sharks pup, sea turtles swim, and giant blue elephant ear sponge grow. Then they want to scoop the remains out with giant cranes and dispose the equivalent of 50,000 dump truck loads several miles off the coast of the island.

Now, thanks to the work and dedication of local agencies and organizations, and help from off-island folks, our local people have chosen to reject the sense that all of these sacrifices are worth the false promise of economic security from an increased military presence.

It has been truly inspiring to see this grassroots movement explode. And this is where you come in.

First, commit to further educating yourself on the what is happening in the Pacific. Peruse the newsletter, “Stop the military buildup” produced by Famoksaiyan, a group of Chamoru activist based out of California. On it you will find more background on the issue and links to awesome resources such as “No Rest for the Awake” and the “Drowning Mermaid Blog”. Both blogs are written by University of Guam instructors, bright minds who are very active in youth work and are driving forces behind this movement. There is also an amazing podcast you can subscribe to for free on Itunes called “Beyond the Fence”. This is a weekly radio show on the islands NPR station which discuses different aspects of the buildup on every episode.

Next I implore you to stand in solidarity with us and take action. Spread the word about what you’ve learned. Tell your leaders that you don’t support your tax money being used on any more excessive military expenditures. Join the movement to close the base on Okinawa and other sites abroad. Because whether we are talking about Guam, Okinawa or Hawai’i… it’s no different, our suffering and our commitment to oppose the militarization of our homelands is the same.

– Christina Illarmo

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Filed under Asia - Pacific, Military/Military Build-up