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From Galápagos to Guam: US Military Bases are a Threat to Local Communities

My family’s home has been forced to leave our ecological future in the hands of the United States military, one of the largest polluters globally

 Guam: one of the countless islands of the Pacific used by the United States military as a base. (Photo: VIRGILIO VALENCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Guam: one of the countless islands of the Pacific used by the United States military as a base. (Photo: VIRGILIO VALENCIA/AFP/Getty Images)

This month I got two of the most distressing pieces of news I could imagine. The first was a headline: US to use Galápagos island as a military airfield. The second came from my grandmother: two of our family friends are in the end stages of Agent Orange poisoning.

I’m from Guam; one of the countless islands of the Pacific used by the United States military as a base. At just 8 miles wide and 30 miles long, about a third of our island is covered by military installations with more build-up expected. My family and my community know all too well what being used as an airfield means. 52,000 veterans have organized into the group Agent Orange Survivors of Guam to lobby for benefits related to their exposure to the infamous herbicide while serving in the Pacific.

While we are home to a vibrant indigenous community, beautiful and sadly rare flora and fauna, and a rich history, we are also home to stockpiled chemical weapons, countless ammunitions, regular bombings and live-fire trainings, and more consequences of a military positioned for a world of constant danger.

Former Ecuadorian president, Rafael Correa, took to Twitter after the announcement of the airfield saying, “Galápagos NO es un ‘portaaviones’ para uso gringo.”  Galapagos is "not an aircraft carrier" for the Americans. The sentiment is a familiar one. Many know my island as the United States’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” While we are home to a vibrant indigenous community, beautiful and sadly rare flora and fauna, and a rich history, we are also home to stockpiled chemical weapons, countless ammunitions, regular bombings and live-fire trainings, and more consequences of a military positioned for a world of constant danger.

Along with the physical consequences of being used as a military base, CHamorus (the indigenous people of Guam) and others around the US’s more than 600 bases globally know the threats to sovereignty these installations bring with them. For CHamorus this has meant 500 years without self-determination as well as a system of rights that is left to the discretion of a Congress 8,000 miles away from Guam. The inhabitants of the island Diego Garcia experienced forcible removal from their homes as build up began. Panama created a constitution that would specifically allow United States military intervention resulting in 24 invasions between 1856 and 1989.

Ecuador’s constitution explicitly states, “establishment of foreign military bases or foreign facilities for military purposes shall not be allowed,” as the nation is “a territory of peace.” Defense Minister Oswaldo Jarrin insists that no installation will have “permanence”.

This reasoning has been seen in justification of United States presence at the Soto Canal Air Base in Honduras. While officials insist that the U.S. forces are simply “guests” on the site of the Honduran Air Force Academy, the installation is now more than 30 years old. As reported by the Associated Press in the late 80’s, some U.S. officials describe the build-up as “temporary but indefinite.”

Many of these bases are within indigenous communities, particularly communities whose natural environment is deeply integrated to a nation or a people's culture.

My family’s home has been forced to leave our ecological future in the hands of the United States military, one of the largest polluters globally. In the Department of Defense’s latest plans, about 1,000 acres (about 8%) of Guam’s remaining native limestone forest will be razed. The sites of planned build-up are culturally significant to CHamoru people and artifacts continue to be unearthed as construction continues.

CHamoru activists and members of the State Historic Preservation Office have expressed needs to halt construction. Linda Aguon, the office’s divisional supervisor, said, "We keep discovering things, we keep discovering things. Can't we just stop?" She was joined in questioning the planned build up by Senators Therese Terlaje and Kelly Marsh.

An environmental director with Marine Corps Activity Guam, Al Borja, responded insisting, “Will we preserve in place for latte shards from a pot that was dropped? That's not going to happen because I know the ranges have to be where they are, and that's not going to force us to reconsider this." Sentiments like this from representatives of the United States military, for me, are a reminder of the massive land seizures by the Department of Defense following the liberation of my grandmother and about 13,000 other CHamorus from a World War II era concentration camp.

In August of 1944, Guam was to become the forward base for United States attacks targeting Japan and to accomplish this goal the military seized 82% of the land of the island for military purposes (this is the high water mark of American land holdings on the island). Anyone without explicit authorization to access American military bases would be shot on sight if they were found on what had been taken as military land. Eighteen construction and engineering battalions immediately began construction of military outfits including what is now known as Anderson Airforce Base and began using it as the flight strip from which daily bombings of Japanese territory would occur by way of B-29’s.

Since then just a few families have received little, in any, compensation for their lost land or severe health problems consistent with exposure to continuous simulated war.

This is a problem that has global importance. A report by Brown’s Watson Institute published last week found that the average annual carbon footprint of the United States’ military-industrial complex is about on par with that of the Netherlands: 153 million metric tons per year. And this is a conservative number given the secrecy of the Pentagon and the reporting loopholes for military organizations written into the Kyoto Protocol.

The Pentagon has significantly acknowledged the threats that continued carbon consumption poses. One of the report’s authors, Neta Crawford, explains “We have defense forces so they protect us. If in the long run, these defense forces make us less secure then we need to rethink what we’re doing.” Still, build-up continues in Guam and, apparently, on Galapagos.

For the communities affected by these military installations, the continued political, cultural, and medical issues represent a far greater threat than that which the bases supposedly protect us from. They are an affront to self-determination and spell the end for a place’s environment.

Leilani Rania Ganser

Leilani Rania Ganser studies colonial violence, interactions between indigenous communities and the military, and gendered violence . She has previously published in a range of outlets including In These Times, The Korean Policy Institute, and the Meridians: feminism, race, and transnationalism journal. She is a Kānaka Maoli and CHamoru woman who works within Portland's diasporic Pacific Islander community.

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