Friday, June 04, 2010

When it Comes to Being Capsized, Any Island Will Do

A few weeks ago, a video went viral on Youtube with Guam as the object of its existence. A Democratic Congressman from Georgia, Hank Johnson, during a hearing made a statement to the effect that, if the planned military buildup of Guam were to go through, was there a threat that the island might capsize and flip over?

Although the Congressman later claimed that he meant it as a joke and wasn't serious about Guam capsizing with the addition of 80,000 more people to the island in such a short time, for the next few weeks, videos of him making this remark collected several million views, and he became a favorite target of the mainstream and conservative media.

One of the reasons that I didn't pay any attention to this, or write about it on this blog is because, despite the fact that the signifier Guam was being thrown around left and right for weeks, and suddenly appearing in the tweets or mouths of those who otherwise might have gone their entire lives without uttering it, it was all pretty pointless. When I talk to most people on Guam about our island's colonial status and the disrespect and subordination that this status affords us, they usually respond with notions that in time, when enough people know about Guam and what it deserves or has been through, then everything will be better, this colonial feeling will finally disappear. But as cases such as this show, it has nothing to do with what people do or don't know, but is all about the relationship that exists whether or not someone knows anything. Millions of people in the United States were subjected to hearing about Guam and the fact that it is being shouldered with an unfair burden, but did that change anything? Of course not.

Although Guam was mentioned repeatedly, it's mentioning was always hopelessly empty. Even as so much of the talk was meant to be specifically about Guam, as you scan through the actual content of most of these mentions, any island would do. The specificity of Guam, its particularity as being the thing that was mentioned, the certain history of militarization that it has, the current burden of militarization that it endures, all of these things were lost, as what Guam represented in those mentions was reduced to the fact that it is just an island, and islands don't just capsize over.

One instance of this can be found in a video from a blogger who I watch regularly, Ray William Johnson or as he is sometimes known "=3." He is a Youtube video blogger who twice a week has a segment where he reviews viral videos. In the segment below titled "AH LAWD!." he covers the Johnson capsizing statement and notes that Johnson was either "high" or "playing an April Fool's Joke." If you watch this piece, it's interesting how the focus of the joke has absolutely nothing to do with Guam. The references are primarily about islands in general, or stereotypical frames about what islands are like (have canoes).

This sort of emptying is common, I wrote about this in a chapter for my dissertation. It is particularly interesting in this case, because of the way this scandal had a way of erasing the reason why Johnson's comment was made in the first place, to call attention to whether or not the US military buildup to Guam will be catastrophic for the island or not. In all the viral video blogosphere storm that this incident went through, it was almost disturbing to see how that simple fact was tossed aside. For instance, during that very hearing, an Admiral from the Pacific Command referred to Guam, as DOD people sometimes do, as something they, or the United States owns. He made the comment in the context of Guam being the ideal site for troops to be moved from Okinawa, since it is the furthest West territory that the US owns.

At the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, a representative from Guam Melvin Won Pat-Borja gave a speech which tried to use the Hank Johnson scandal in such a way, to help bring more attention to that very issue of Guam being possibly damaged by the buildup. His speech was titled "Don't Let Guam Sink into Oblivion," and I'm pasting its transcript below:


“Do Not Allow Guam to Sink into Oblivion”
Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Conference 2010 NYC
by: Melvin Won Pat-Borja,
Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice/We Are Guahan

During a congressional hearing on the Guam military buildup in early April, US Representative Hank Johnson said that he feared the Military Relocation on Guam would cause our tiny island to capsize and sink. The comment, though not meant to be taken literally, caused an uproar among Chamorus everywhere. People were so outraged at his perceived ignorance that they continually bashed him in the media and all over the internet. The sad truth however is that Guam WILL sink. It will sink under the weight of tons of toxic waste dumped by the military each year, sink under the pressure of contaminated drinking water, sink under the weight of overpopulated schools, massive amounts of traffic, inadequate health care, and extreme over population. If this military expansion goes as planned, the people of Guam will surely sink to the bottom of the Marianas Trench and become nothing more than a footnote in America's colonial history.

Our story began centuries ago when we first sailed from the coast of south east asia and made this beautiful chain of islands our home, but for the sake of time, THIS story will begin when the DEIS (draft environmental impact statement) for Guam and the military buildup was released in November of last year. The document laid the blueprint for the transfer of 8,000 marines and their 9,000 dependents from Okinawa to Guam. It was an 11,000 page document that held our future in the margins of the paper it was printed on and the public was only given 90 days to comment on it. The plans suggested that Guam was the best alternative to right the wrongs that America's armed forces had imposed on the people of Okinawa. The Department of Defense had chosen Guam because South Korea, the Philipines, California, and Hawaii all said "no." But the sad reality is that Guam was never offered that same courtesy. We are an unincorporated territory of the United States, leaving us victim to whatever decision America makes, whether it is beneficial for us or not. Guam is America's dirty little secret, the step child that no one ever talks about. We are affectionately referred to as the place "where America's day begins," but no one likes to admit that America starts each day with injustice. We have traditionally been loyal servants, patriots, and second class citizens, enlisting more soldiers per capita than anywhere else in the world. It makes me wonder if America could even have a military without people like us. We are as American as apple pie and baseball when there is war on the horizon or when strategic positioning in the Pacific is needed, but we are not American when it is time to vote in congress or the senate or when it is time to elect a new president.

When you read about the military buildup on Guam, many media sources portray the move as positive on all sides, hailing economic benefits as its saving grace. The people of Guam have been sold the idea of 33,000 new jobs that will stimulate our suffering economy, providing work for families in desperate need of some kind of income.

Our government has been sold the idea that millions of federal dollars will go to fund desperately needed infrastructural upgrades. And the rest of the nation has been sold ideas of potential business ventures that promise them desperately needed money and success.

Indeed, the global economy has created desperate times for all of us and it seems that selling Guam to the highest bidder is the answer.

Thousands of jobs and millions of dollars have a way of sounding too good to be true and upon reading the massive 11,000 page document it has become clear that it is indeed a wolf in sheep's clothing. Nothing is what it seems and all of their promises are empty. Like their promise of 33,000 new jobs predicting an economic upturn for Guam in reality, a mere 17 percent of those jobs will go to the local community while the vast majority of jobs will go to the foreign work force from around the region. As we speak, people from all over the world and the US are making preparations to move to Guam in search of business opportunities. They promise financial prosperity to the people, but even the measly 17 percent of total jobs they will offer are mostly temporary construction work, which will cause unemployment to sky-rocket once the construction is completed. The DEIS even states that they predict a "recession-like atmosphere" after the construction phase is over. They say that there are incredible gains for our local government, which will absorb millions of dollars from the federal government, but nowhere in the DEIS does the federal government make any kind of commitment to support infrastructure outside the fence. In fact, of the billions of dollars coming from the federal government and the Japanese Diet, a vast majority is earmarked for infrastructural upgrades on base only. The DEIS suggests that the government of Guam will reap its financial benefits from an increase in tax dollars as a result of the population boom, but it doesn't take into account the amount of money we will also have to spend in order to service all these people. They predict that Guam's population will increase by almost 80,000 people. On an island that is only 31 miles long and 7 miles wide with a current population of 170,000 people it's not hard to imagine Guam sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor. When you translate these numbers into social services, it becomes clear that the Government of Guam will find itself in dire straits trying to maintain an acceptable level of community care. The DEIS predicts that our hospital, which sees a shortage of beds on a daily basis, will see an increase of over 41,000 patients. Yet the DEIS only has plans to upgrade Naval Hospital, a facility that not only denies health services to our general public, but consistently fails to care for our local veterans as well. They predict that the Department of Public Health and Social Services along with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse will see an increase of nearly 23,000 more patients. Our Public School system will see 8,000 new students and the DEIS recommends that we build 5 new public schools. We will also require 532 new teachers in our public school system, which already has to fill 300 vacancies each year. There are a number of infrastructural upgrades that Guam will require in order to cope with the demands that 80,000 more people bring to our community, but there is no commitment by the Military or the Federal Government to support us financially. We are being forced to bear the burden of this buildup on our own. Once again, America has found a way to make a mess and the people of Guam will be forced to clean up after them.

Of course with any massive change in population we must also take into account the impact that such changes will have on our environment. Two major proposals in the DEIS are the dredging of 71 acres of coral reef in Apra Harbor to make room for a nuclear aircraft carrier and the acquisition of ancestral land for a live firing range.

The military plans to dock their nuclear aircraft carrier in our local harbor instead of using their own Kilo Wharf, the harbor that they already occupy. The US Environmental Protection Agency claims that this dredging project is unprecedented and that the impact on the biologically diverse ecosystem cannot be mitigated. DoD experts claim that most of the reef in the area they want to dredge is already dead and that there isn't much wildlife that will be adversely impacted, but our local marine biologists have found species of coral that have not yet been identified and could be endemic to this region. Furthermore, the way in which they propose to dredge the reef may have lasting impact on surrounding reefs and ecosystems as a result of sediment which could suffocate and destroy the species of coral down current. The plans for Apra Harbor in the DEIS demonstrate the military's lack of concern and insensitivity to the issues facing Guam; in fact, it was just recently discovered by a local marine biologist that certain sections in the DEIS (particularly the sections on Apra Harbor) were plagiarized!

The land that the military wishes to acquire for their firing range is rich in cultural history and significance, containing ancient artifacts and ancestral remains that cannot be mitigated or replaced by any sum of money.

Some parcels of land are owned by local residents who refuse to sell or lease, but the military insists on applying pressure to these private land owners as the threat of eminent domain hangs in the balance like it did after world war II, when residents were given a "take it or lose it" option when it came to private property. Most of the land that the military currently occupies was "purchased" for little to nothing in most cases and not selling was not an option.

Upon review of the DEIS, the US Environmental Protection Agency rated it "insufficient" and "environmentally unsatisfactory," giving it the lowest possible rating for a DEIS. Among other things, the US EPA's findings suggest that Guam's water infrastructure cannot handle the population boom and that our fresh water resources will be at high risk for contamination. Our waste water system is in desperate need of upgrades and the population increase threatens to cause overflow and run off which could permanently pollute our fresh water lens. The increase in demand for fresh water will require that we dig up 22 new water wells especially to serve the military population up north, but several experts believe that digging so many new wells in close proximity to each other puts us at high risk of salt water contamination. Once a fresh water well is contaminated by salt water, the effects are irreversible. Officials at the Guam Waterworks Authority claim that we have more than enough water to handle the burden of 80,000 additional people, but the DEIS has plans for a desalinization plant, which is normally only used if fresh water resources are limited or jeopardized. In addition, the US EPA predicts that without infrastructural upgrades to our water system, the population outside the bases will experience a 13.1 million gallon water shortage per day in 2014. And this is where the battle gets interesting.

Though it seems that the odds are already stacked against us and that we can rely on no one but ourselves, we have found that special interest groups like the Guam Chamber of Commerce and the Guam Visitors Bureau have been avid proponents of the military buildup. They target our marginalized population enticing them with dreams of economic prosperity. Over 25 percent of Guam's population lives below the poverty line and poverty is possibly the most powerful weapon in conquering a people.

These special interest groups and even some government officials including our Governor and our representative in congress prey on our people, dangling money over their heads while unemployment looms in the background like the Gestapo. These house slaves promise that life will be so much better with the buildup and threaten that foreign countries will invade if the buildup does not happen. We are being subjugated by US imperialism and dependency and our own people have become our own worst enemy. Right now, our representative in congress claims that the people of Guam welcome this buildup with open arms and that we will gladly "take one for the team." But we have never really been a part of America's Team. We are like the black athletes of the 30's and 40's whose accolades on the field were heralded, but couldn't even get a cab off the field.

We, the people, have found ourselves backed into a corner, deserted on the battlefield, left to fight the world's largest superpower. It is truly a case of David vs. Goliath. Though the military buildup on Guam seems like a losing battle, this terroristic threat to our homeland has caused an uprising among the youth and many have stepped up to fight and defend our island and its people. But we cannot win this alone, so we are calling on our brothers and sisters from across the globe; those of you who know the bitter taste of oppression, we urge you fight alongside us in solidarity. We want this buildup no more than Okinawa wants the Marines to stay put. The military has already stolen almost 30 percent of the total land mass in Guam. We cannot allow them to take even more from us. We have sacrificed time and again for a country that has led us astray with empty promises and half-truths; who have held us hostage with US citizenship, fear, and economic dependency. We need your help. We need environmental law experts to help us take this issue to court. We need media support to get our message out to the rest of the world. We need more representation and influence to help us fight in congress and the senate. We need the international community to help us stay afloat and not allow us to sink into a sea of indifference, ignorance, and apathy. I pray that these words do not fall on deaf ears and that the world will come to the aid of a people and an island who have been mistreated for over 500 years of uninterrupted colonization. Please do not allow Guam to sink into oblivion.


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