Saturday, September 12, 2009

Guam as the modern day Bikini Atoll

Guam and the Bikini Atoll share an awful lot, with one exception. The U.S. used this Marshall Islands atoll for nuclear testing, vaporizing part of it and irradiating whatever was left and then leaving it uninhabitable. The U.S. committed a great wrong on Bikini and to its people but what happened to Bikini is very relevant to what the U.S. is doing to Guam today. It is far more relevant and timely than you may realize.

In October – this October, 2009 -- the “People of Bikini” asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case for reparations. The U.S. is fighting them. If the Supreme Court agrees to hear this case, the travesty of U.S. colonial actions on Bikini and in the Pacific will get a national stage. And anyone who wants to see whether the U.S. has really changed how it treats Pacific islanders only has to look to Guam to find out that it hasn't changed at all.

The first similarity is this: There is nothing that Guam can do about the U.S. military build-up other than trying to mitigate the impact, which is exactly the position the Bikini islander’s faced. Its 167 inhabitants “believed themselves powerless to resist the United States decision,” according to the 2006 lawsuit by the Bikini people that is now the underpinning of the recent Supreme Court filing. [The case history is on]

Guam has no choice in the build-up. The interests of the people of Guam are secondary to U.S. strategic needs. The people of Bikini lost their entire island. Guam’s people have lost about 27% of their island to the military and stand to lose more. Disfranchised from voting and out of mind in Washington, Guam has no more voice in the build-up than the Bikini islanders did.

The second similarity is this: The Draft Environment Impact Statement (DEIS) wasn’t written to protect Guam. It was written to protect the U.S. government from criticism once things go wrong on Guam. Bikini’s history illustrates how this will happen.

Bikini’s islanders were relocated to Rongerik, an uninhabited and unlivable atoll. It was made up of a ring of  17 small islands totaling .65 square miles, with a lagoon that covered about 55 square miles. Bikini, in contrast, had 23 islands covering 3.4 square miles and a nearly 300 square mile lagoon.

The planning for Bikini had failed. Rongerik was inadequate to meet the needs of the Bikini people. “The islanders soon discovered that the coconut trees and other local food crops produced very few fruits when compared to the yield of the trees on Bikini,” wrote Jack Niedenthal, a historian and author about the island, and Trust Liaison for the People of Bikini Atoll. The islanders were soon starving.

Instead of acknowledging this mistake, the government shifted its responsibility. In a 1947 press statement, U.S. officials wrote:
“… the natives selected Rongerik themselves. We built them houses, schools and watersheds on that island and they were perfectly happy initially. Later it developed that the island was not as productive as originally expected and we had to augment their food supply by bringing in food for them. Last summer they had a disastrous fire on the island which destroyed about one third of their palm trees.” [New York Times, Oct. 26, 1947.]
The U.S. will respond in similar fashion to any problems caused by Guam’s build-up, just as they did in 1947 when they wrote that, “the natives selected Rongerik themselves.” That was not the truth. The natives never wanted to leave.

The U.S. will say that the 11,000 page DEIS is evidence of its great concern and care for Guam. It’s just the opposite. It’s a pile of data and observation dumped on the island far too late, and Guam has been given precious little time – just 90 days – to respond to it. The buildup, as the DEIS illustrates, impacts every aspect of the island; the environment, land use and development, schools, health care, crime, roads -- the sum of Guam’s quality of life. With the DEIS in hand, Guam’s government must now prioritize the buildup’s impact and then prepare mitigation strategies. It’s a Manhattan Project-sized task and one that’s impossible to complete in the amount of time available. Guam can rest assured that the U.S. will use the DEIS as its defense when things go wrong: We prepared you, Guam.

But the DEIS doesn’t begin to anticipate what may happen as a result of the build-up. And what happened on Rongerik provides an example. The fire that destroyed one third of the island’s palm trees was an unintended and unanticipated consequence of the relocation. Guam will see similar occurrences. There are always unintended consequences, and Rongerik also illustrates what will happen afterward.

After it became clear that Rongerik could not support Bikini’s population, the U.S. searched for a different island to again move the Bikini islanders. Here’s some more from the press statement to the New York Times: (Note: King Judah, referenced below, was the Bikini leader.)
“… we have been trying since April to find a place for them to live and we took [King] Judah and a number of the leading natives to various islands for them to look over. We could not get them, however, to make a decision as to where they wanted to go. They continued to make the statement that they wanted to go back to Bikini.”
From the U.S. perspective, the problem was that the “leading natives” of Bikini could not make a decision. That’s the story that the U.S. wanted to world to know. The perspective of the people on Bikini was certainly different. They had been uprooted from their homes, and evidently believed that returning – at some point – was possible. (Where did they get that idea?) The islanders could see the repeated flashes of nuclear explosions destroying their homes, and their new home, Rongerik, had proved disastrous. They wanted to return to Bikini and couldn’t. Did the Bikini people have any reason left to trust the U.S.? Did anyone hear their side of the story?

Here’s the third and last similarity I want to draw. A 1947 column by a newspaper reporter, Harold Ickes, carried a report on the starvation underway on Rongerik that was read in Washington. “We Fought the Navy and Won,” a book about Guam under U.S. Navy rule by Doloris Cogan, includes an account of what happened.

Ickes had detailed information about the lack of food and agonizing conditions on Rongerik. When the report came out, a U.S. Navy official responded in a Washington newspaper, where Ickes column evidently appeared, and said the charges were untrue. But, perhaps unknown to the letter writer, the Navy had just released a report by Dr. Howard MacMillan, an agricultural specialist working for a company that delivered food, “and it corroborated all of Ickes’ statements,” wrote Cogan.

Ickes' column helped to bring attention to the terrible conditions facing the Bikini islanders, as well as expose the military’s immediate denial as a falsehood.

Guam, of course, isn't facing starvation, but instead will have to deal with the impacts of a massive population increase in the limited environment.

Today, Guam’s population is 178,400 (CIA Factbook July 2009) and in the buildup’s peak year of 2014 it will be at 257,600 – a 44% increase, a figure that does not appear to include underlying population gains (15% since 2000). Also not included in this estimate are the occasional surges of several thousand people when aircraft carrier crews arrive. Once the build-up is completed and the military presence is stabilized, it will add 33,431 people, an 18% increase alone from 2009, to the island.

I tend to think these population estimates are conservative and don’t really account for the response to reports of Guam’s “boomtown” atmosphere, or decisions by foreign workers not to leave.

To ensure that the concerns on Guam get fair hearing, I suspect that Guam will have to develop strategy to counter the government’s official positions but they will have do this from Washington. There is no doubt many national nonprofit groups, environmental organizations for instance, that could help Guam, if this help is sought.

Guam residents have a compelling story to tell and a means to fight Washington, but they may be no better off than the people of Bikini if the world doesn't know just what is really happening.

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