By Dr Robin Andrews
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is a chain of fifteen islands adrift in the Pacific Ocean owned and administered by the United States. Due to rising tensions between China and America in the Pacific, one of these small landmasses is suddenly facing two very different futures. On one hand, it could become the site of unique ecological haven; on the other, it could be bombed to oblivion by the U.S. military.
This is quite the dichotomy. Just to be clear, there is not a gigantic, mutant lizard living on Pagan Island that the air force that is to become their target; rather oddly, the islands themselves prove no threat to the world’s only superpower at all. Americans armed forces – along with their allies Japan, South Korea and Australia – are planning to use this ten-mile-long island for live-fire training exercises for their amphibious forces, bombing runs and war game practice. A plethora of craft will take part, from drones and helicopters to fighter jets and B-52s. The beaches across the island are, apparently, suitably expansive to allow for a proper simulation of large-scale amphibious manoeuvres.
In 1981, the stratovolcano at Mount Pagan burst into destructive life, with its glassy lava flows slowly forcing the evacuation of the population of the island over the course of the next four years. With no residents left on the island, a Japanese investor group planned to use it as a dumping ground for debris produced from the devastating 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, but protests in 2012 caused this to be provisionally shelved. Now, with the U.S. military planning to use Pagan as a training group, many wish for the island to belong at the very least to the wildlife endemic to it.
Michael Hadfield, a biologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, spent considerable time on the island – a veritable “biological treasure chest” – documenting the ecosystem there, and like many, is a strong opponent of the military’s plans. The islands are around a million years old, which has permitted evolution to produce a vast range of indigenous life, including the endangered Marianas fruit bat, rare tree snails – “up to four named species” – endemic birds, enormous spiders, a grouping of lizards, and coral reefs. “Endemic island speciation can occur [rapidly on these isolated islands]; simple random mutation and genetic drift” have brought on many of these speciation changes.
“Pagan Island is small,” Dr. Hadfield continues, “and there are no parts of it that don’t have at least some good native forest on them”. It is most abundant in the ancient crater of the southern volcano. With the Marine’s intention to “take the entire island for live-fire training”, it is unlikely much of the dense forests will survive the exercises. “If you look carefully at their plan”, Dr Hadfield notes, “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.”
Although the military have pledged to only practice on the more volcanic areas of the island in order to leave the more biodiverse areas intact, Dr Hadfield is under “no illusions that it will be effective at all.” He correctly references the U.S. military’s “abysmal” record on the subject of environmental preservation efforts when conducting these island-based training exercises. “In many cases, they keep them forever, gradually destroying everything of value. Witness Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean where the indigenous population was forcefully removed, and the lagoon is now so polluted that its coral reefs are gone.” He cites many examples, including Waihole Valley on the island of Oahu, where over 600 acres of habitable land have been fenced off after “training exercises” have produced a “continued danger of unexploded ordinance.”
The commonwealth governor has to soon decide whether or not to approve the military’s plan, although it is possible the U.S. government can invoke eminent domain enshrined in a 1975 compact between the mainland and its administrative islands and proceed with the exercises regardless. Along with Dr Hadfield, the residents hoping to return to the island – which has a history of nearly two millennia of human occupation – are united in opposition. Residents of the CNMI, along with other pressure groups, are calling on Governor Eloy Inos to deny the destructive proposal.
“There are so few places in the world today that are untouched,” says Angelo Villagomez, a former resident of nearby Saipan. Now working for an environmental nonprofit organization 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 this militaristically induced sterilization can be found at savepaganisland.org.
Moss Cass, a former member of the Australian House of Representatives, once noted “we have not inherited this earth from our parents to do with it what we will. We have borrowed it from our children and we must be careful to use it in their interests as well as our own.” The world is a complex place, and the security of nations is indeed important, but there is more than just people to keep from harm: this planet does not solely belong to us, and Pagan Island, if destroyed, will serve as another environmental tombstone, a reminder of what we failed to protect.
Pics supplied and for more information visit savepaganisland.org