Pagan Island: A Pacific Gem and a Planned Pentagon Bombing Target
July 20, 2015
Robin Andrews / EarthTouchNews & Zoe Loftus-Farren / Earth Island Journal
A small speck tacked onto a chain of fifteen islands in the Pacific Ocean, Pagan Island boasts two active volcanoes, an assortment of unique wildlife and almost no human residents. It's also facing one of two very different futures: on one hand, it could continue to exist as a unique ecological haven; on the other, it could be bombed into oblivion by the US military.
Image courtesy of savepaganisland.org
War Games vs Wildlife:
The US Military Wants to Bomb this Island Gem in the Pacific
Robin Andrews / EarthTouchNews
(June 8, 2015) -- A small speck tacked onto a chain of fifteen islands in the Pacific Ocean, Pagan Island boasts two active volcanoes, an assortment of unique wildlife and almost no human residents. It's also facing one of two very different futures: on one hand, it could continue to exist as a unique ecological haven; on the other, it could be bombed into oblivion by the US military.
The tiny island is part of the Northern Mariana Islands, a chain that is a commonwealth territory of the United States. Now, in response to rising tensions between China and America in the Pacific, the US Marine Corps is planning to lease this biodiverse 18-square-mile island for live-fire training exercises, bombing runs and war games practice.
The island's long beaches are apparently the ideal location for the simulation of large-scale amphibious (sea-to-land) manoeuvres, meaning that at some point in the not-too-distant future, over 2,000 marines and their craft, including drones, helicopters, fighter jets and B-52 bombers, could descend on the island.
Pagan Island has been devoid of human inhabitants since the 1980s, when the volcanic Mount Pagan burst into destructive life and its lava flows slowly forced the evacuation of the island's residents over the course of four years.
With the island deserted, a Japanese investor group moved to use it as a dumping ground for debris produced by the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, but thanks to protests in 2012, those plans were provisionally shelved. Now, with the US military planning to use Pagan as a training ground, calls are once again mounting for the island to be left to its endemic wildlife.
One vocal opponent of the military's plans is Michael Hadfield, a biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who's spent considerable time on the island documenting its unique ecosystems.
At around a million years old, the Mariana islands have given rise to a range of indigenous wildlife, including the endangered Marianas fruit bat, rare tree snails -- up to four named species -- endemic birds, enormous spiders, lizards and coral reefs.
"Pagan Island is small and there are no parts of it that don't have at least some good native forest on them," says Hadfield. This diverse forest is most abundant in the ancient crater of Pagan's southern volcano. Since the military plans to occupy the entire island for live-fire training, Hadfield fears that much of these dense forests won't survive the exercises.
"If you look carefully at their plan, you will note that firing areas include a band right across the middle of the island. Judging from what live fire has meant to other islands, we can expect the damaging hits to be far outside target areas," he warns.
Hadfield also has serious doubts about the military's pledge to practice only on the more volcanic sites of the island in order to leave its biodiverse areas intact. "I am under no illusions that [this] will be effective at all. In many cases, they keep [military training islands] forever, gradually destroying everything of value."
Hadfield makes reference to Diego Garcia, an atoll with a massive US military base whose lagoon is now so polluted that its coral reefs have been destroyed. "Alternatively, the Navy takes an island, or part of one, and leaves it mostly uninhabitable due to unexploded [weapons] and destruction of the topography," he adds.
The planned live-fire exercises on Pagan will likely affect the habitats of its unique lizard species and native birds such as the collared kingfisher and the Micronesian starling. "The proposed military activities will most certainly jeopardize Pagan and cause . . . an increased risk of fire during dry summers, erosion and consequent destruction of Pagan's coral reefs, and would risk extinction of Pagan's unique plants and animals," warns Hadfield.
Military officials recently bowed to pressure and ostensibly agreed to incorporate the public's concerns into an environmental impact statement. "We will collect . . . public comments and will incorporate them into the final [assessment], which will be released in July next year," the executive director of US Marine Corps Forces Pacific told the Saipan Tribune recently.
Along with Hadfield, former residents who are hoping to one day return to the island (which has a history of nearly two millennia of human occupation) are united in opposition -- and they want the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands Governor, Eloy Inos, to do everything in his power to prevent Pagan from becoming the military's firing range.
"There are so few places in the world today that are untouched," says Angelo Villagomez, a former resident of nearby Saipan Island. Now working for an environmental non-profit organisation in Washington, he believes that if the military has to drop something on Pagan, it should be money for conservation and scientific funding -- not bombs.
The campaign to save Pagan Island from military activities can be found at savepaganisland.org.
Robin Andrews is an experimental volcanologist and a photojournalist. Visit him at shrinking universe.com
US Plans to Expand War Games in
Ecologically Rich Mariana Islands
Zoe Loftus-Farren / Earth Island Journal
(NOVEMBER 22, 2013) -- The United States military assumed control the Mariana Islands during World War II and has been waging war on the environment there ever since. Recent proposals to expand the range for Navy training exercises in this archipelago in the northwestern Pacific Ocean represent the latest frontier in this battle, and could be devastating to local communities as well as wildlife.
By many accounts, military trainings have already had a tremendous impact on the region that's composed of two US jurisdictions -- the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and the territory of Guam. Military bombing exercises have destroyed much of at least one island -- Farallon de Medinilla -- and naval exercises have impacted large tracts of open ocean.
In 2010, the Navy training range in the region was expanded to encompass roughly 500,000 square nautical miles of ocean. "Right now, it is the largest range in [Department of Defense's] inventory," says Leevin Camacho, a member of We are Guåhan, a cultural and environmental justice advocacy group in Guam.
The Navy still wants more, and is now asking to nearly double the training range, extending it to 984,469 square nautical miles. It has named this expansion -- which is part of the "Pacific Pivot," a strategy aimed at shifting the US military's focus to the Asia-Pacific region -- the "Mariana Island Training and Testing" (MITT) area.
"[The expanded area] would be larger than Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana and New Mexico combined," Camacho says.
"The Navy's whole approach to the Marianas is shoot first and ask questions later," says Michal Jasny, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We know very little about the populations of whales, dolphins, and other marine life around the Marianas. Yet the navy is proceeding with a massive militarization of the islands and surrounding waters. It is grossly irresponsible to proceed in this way."
What we do know doesn't bode well. "We know marine mammals depend on hearing to find mates, to find food, to avoid predators, to situate themselves in the ocean -- in short, for virtually everything they need to do to survive and reproduce in the wild," explains Jasny. "[We also know] that navy sonar has a range of impacts, from disrupting foraging, to causing hearing loss, to fatally injuring whales and driving them onto shore."
The Navy estimates that expanded training activities would cause 59 whales and dolphins to suffer permanent hearing damage every year. Thousands more would suffer temporary hearing damage. Other impacts include those on sea turtles, fish, marine habitat, and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument. Environmental activists say the exercises would violate the National Environmental Policy Act and other US environmental laws.
In addition to this ocean-based training expansion, a separate Navy proposal targets the vibrant Pagan Island for destructive military training exercises. This island was formerly inhabited, but was evacuated in 1981 during a volcanic eruption. It is now home to roughly a dozen people and many former residents still hope to return and reestablish their lives there.
The island has numerous endemic and endangered species. The Navy has not yet released a draft environmental impact statement for its proposed activities on Pagan Island. However, advocates have launched a campaign against the exercises.
"[Pagan] is culturally important, anthropologically important, and biologically important," says Dr. Michael Hadfield, a zoology professor at the University of Hawaii. "[And] when the military takes an island for live-fire training, they destroy it."
A local human rights lawyer, Julian Aguon, underscores this point: "I situate what is going on now as . . . the latest incarnation of a much longer geopolitical process, and that's been the militarization, the nuclearization, and colonization of this whole side of the ocean, this whole western Pacific."
"This is our home," adds Camacho. "We really look at it not just as fighting for dolphins and whales, but we are trying to protect resources that have belonged to our people for thousands of years, before the US military."
The Navy is currently accepting comments on the Mariana Islands Training and Testing Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which assesses the impact of the expanded ocean training range. Voice your concern about the proposal here. All comments must be submitted by December 11, 2013.
Zoe Loftus-Farren is is a contributing editor of Earth Island Journal.
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