8 Jul 2019

Chamorros push for pause to US military plans on Guam

5:20 pm on 8 July 2019

Guam's Governor Lou Leon Guerrero is under pressure to pause activities related to the United States military build-up on the island.

The Pentagon has been planning for years to transfer about 5,000 marines to Guam which already hosts a significant US military base with around 7,000 troops that takes up almost a third of the territory.

Lou Leon Guerrero

Guam's Governor Lou Leon Guerrero celebrates her election in November 2018 with her deputy Joshua Tenorio Photo: Twitter/ @NCSLorg

Thirteen of Guam's 15 senators have tabled a resolution asking the governor to pause clearance, construction and other activities that the military is pushing ahead with for its build-up.

A Chamorro studies specialist from the University of Guam, Michael Bevacqua, said that in particular there's deep community concern over the military's plans at local historic and cultural sites, and for a live-fire training range complex.

The governor has cautioned that Guam had limited sovereignty to be able to stop the build-up. But according to Dr Bevacqua she has options, as she exerts control over regulatory agencies.

"So she can actually push, for example the Historic Preservation Office, Environmental Protection, to basically pause on signing on permits," he explained.

"So the governor can take this position if she wants to. But I think her first step will be that she's going to ask the military to pause."

To date, the US military has shown little appetite for a pause to its plans, although it says it consults with the Guam community about its plans.

Rear Admiral Shoshana Chatfield, the outgoing commander of the US Joint Region Marianas, last month said the Navy took its role to protect and preserve Guam's natural and cultural resources "very seriously".

Michael Luhan Bevacqua

Michael Luhan Bevacqua Photo: American Soil, Chamorro Soul

Although the military is pushing ahead with its plans for installations on culturally important sites, the future of the build-up remains uncertain.

The marines transfer proposal has changed shape numerous times over the years, and undergone shifts in commitment from different US administrations,

Dr Bevacqua said that a challenge for Guam was getting its head around shifts in policy in Washington where decisions about the build-up on Guam are mostly made, rather than on the island.

"And so our role is definitely to assert ourselves," he said.

"But one reason that I think the military is trying to push full steam ahead with this and not slow down is because there may be a shift in Washington, in the Pentagon, as there was previously."

Governor Leon Guerrero has initially responded that she would support only a partial pause on build-up related construction.

Construction on Guam

Development on Guam is forging ahead, but can the island's infrastructure and indigenous culture cope with the strain of the US military build-up? Photo: Guam Department of Labor

Ms Leon Guerrero, who supports the build-up in the interests of Guam's security and development, held recent meetings to hear community concerns about the military plans.

One such meeting became heated when the governor told the public that balancing Guam's commitment to the US and its military had to be balanced with its need to protect its own cultural heritage. When she posed the question of whether Guam needs the military or not, many of those who shouted in response were answering in the negative.

The debate over the build-up inevitably comes around to the question of Guam's political status, which is currently that of unincorporated and organised US territory. It's a somewhat obscure status as Guam is neither fully in or out of the US.

Dr Bevacqua pointed out that Ms Leon Guerrero has to play a delicate balancing act between the interests of her people and those of Washington.

But he said previous governors, particularly Felix Camacho, found out the hard way about showing unwavering support for the military build-up plan on the basis of promised benefits that do not eventuate for Guam.

Meanwhile, a Chamorro customary leader, Debbie Quinata, warned that the large influx of marines and their dependants would place a huge strain on the island's infrastructure and indigenous culture.

"A lot of this has been done in such a manner that there is no consideration as to what the end results will be," she said.

"Not only do we not have the ability to maintain that many people, you're going to destroy the Chamorro culture."

An Air Force B-2 Spirit taxis on the flightline at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Jan. 8, 2018.

An Air Force B-2 Spirit taxis on the flightline at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Jan. 8, 2018. Photo: Supplied/US Dept of Defense

Guam's governors typically tell the public that the US military presence on Guam protects them. But Ms Quinata said it was the US military presence on Guam which makes them unsafe.

"We are sitting here because we don't want to get ourselves blown up, except the very reason that we're even a thought is because this is where the US military is, which is who they have a problem with - the different problems that are having problems with the United States know that Guam is a possession."

Critics of the US military plans on Guam appear to have odds stacked against them. Guam's long time State Historic Preservation Officer Lynda Aguon was recently fired after criticising the military's approach to archaeological discoveries in the sites it wants to use.

But Dr Bevacqua said the Chamorro people had become more mature about confronting the benefits and the problems of increasing the US military presence, and will continue to push for their rights and, eventually, a change in political status.

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