Photo/Illutration“Here is a sacred place for Chamorro people,” says Juanita Mendiola, president of the Tinian Women’s Association, standing in front of Chamorro latte stones left behind in the U.S. military lease area located in northern part of the Tinian Island, on March 21. (Koji Sonoda)

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Indigenous people on a tiny Pacific island that suffered through foreign rule and the ravages of war are now in a battle against the world’s most powerful military.

The Chamorro people on Tinian Island are opposing the U.S. military’s plan to use a big chunk of the island for live-fire drills, saying the training could destroy their sacred land and rich natural environment.

The move to set up a live-fire range on the island is part of a wider project to relocate thousands of U.S. Marines stationed in Okinawa Prefecture to Guam under a Japanese-U.S. agreement.

Local opposition on Tinian is also just one of several issues, including labor shortages on Guam, that have persistently delayed the relocation plan.

Tinian Island, part of the U.S. associated territories of the Northern Mariana Islands, is a five-minute ride by propeller plane from Saipan. Guam is about 200 kilometers southwest of Tinian.

About 3,000 people, including Chamorro, live on the island, a resort destination known for pristine beaches and beautiful scuba diving spots.

Japan colonized Tinian before World War II, and the island thrived on sugar cane. More than 10,000 Japanese lived there at one point.

During the war, the strategically located island became one of the bloodiest battlefields in the Pacific theater.

U.S. forces occupied the island in August 1944 and built an airfield, from which B-29 bombers took off to carry out air raids on Japan’s mainland and later dropped the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today, the island has once again become embroiled in the two countries’ security and defense policies.

The Japanese and U.S. governments reached an agreement in 2012 regarding the 19,000 or so U.S. Marine Corps personnel stationed in Okinawa Prefecture.

The plan is to keep about 10,000 Marines in the prefecture and transfer about 9,000 overseas: 4,100 to Guam, 2,700 to Hawaii, 800 to the U.S. mainland, and 1,300 to Australia as part of a rotational deployment there.

The Guam transfer plan includes a project to build a large live-fire training range on Tinian, where aviation activities would use rockets, while tanks and combat vehicles would practice firing at stationary and moving targets.

The training range will be built on the U.S. military lease area that covers about two-thirds of the island.

The U.S. government in 1983 signed a 50-year leased territory contract with the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), enabling U.S. forces to use the lease area for training. The United States can extend the deal for another 50 years.

But long-time residents, particularly native people of the island, feel the talks on the contract ignored their voices and feelings.

“Here is a sacred place for Chamorro people where the spirits of our ancestors live,” Juanita Mendiola, the 54-year-old president of the Tinian Women’s Association, said in late March.

She was standing on the U.S. military lease area located in the northern part of the island, pointing at megaliths known as latte stones. Chamorro people built the latte stones mainly between the ninth and 15th centuries in the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam.

Chamorro people in the Northern Mariana Islands have a history of being ruled by others, such as Spain, Germany and Japan.

They now have American citizenship but no voice in U.S. presidential elections.

They are concerned that once the live-fire training begins, noise damage and soil pollution will spread, and latte stones will be destroyed, as well.

Mendiola’s association and other pro-environment groups filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy in July 2016, demanding a halt to construction of the training range.

A court dismissed the lawsuit in August 2018, but the legal battle has continued in an appeals court.

“We are patriots,” Mendiola said. “We understand about national security. But we also need to secure our home.”

Robert Neller, a U.S. Marine Corps commandant, said at a U.S. Senate hearing in April 2018, “There’s still some environmental impact issues with those training ranges, specifically on Tinian.”

The growing protest from islanders has become a key factor in delaying the Okinawa-to-Guam relocation project.

For some residents in Tinian, protesting the relocation project comes from their self-determination on their own land.

“A lot of people feel we need the military here because it provides economic benefits,” said Senator Sabina Flores Perez of the Guam legislature.

But Perez, who is Chamorro, feels a sense of danger.

In Guam, a live-fire training range is planned at the Andersen Air Force Base located in the northern part of the island.

“If the live-firing training leads to destruction and contamination of the land, we will never be able to take back the present nature,” she said. “I think we’re at a point where we’re saying, ‘We can’t continue this path.’

“If we look back at our history as Chamorro people, we’ve lived here for over 3,000 years without the U.S. military. I think now’s the time to reclaim that sense of self-sufficiency, and we have it within us.”

The sentiments expressed by people like Mendiola and Perez have also been heard in Okinawa Prefecture.

Some citizens in Guam and Okinawa Prefecture have recently joined hands to work against the construction of U.S. bases.

“It’s really time to come together and support each other in our resistance,” said Monaeka Flores, co-founder of Save Ritidian, a citizens group that opposes the live-fire training range project in Guam.

In January 2018, Flores visited Okinawa Prefecture at the invitation of a local citizens group.

Flores toured such places as the offshore reclamation site in the Henoko district of Nago, where plans are being carried out to build a U.S. base that will take over the functions of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Ginowan in the prefecture.

Flores also made personal contacts with local residents involved in the opposition movement.

Flores sees many similarities between the history of Okinawan people, who were deprived of their land and even lives during the war, and the history of Chamorro, who have been constantly ruled under foreign occupation.

“To the people of Okinawa, we stand in solidarity with you. We do not feel like our community should endure any more of the injustice of the U.S. military occupation,” Flores said.

In northern Guam, heavy machinery can be heard at the U.S. Naval Base Guam North Finegayan. Within the base is a large plot of land fenced with barbed wire.

The site is expected to become the main encampment for Marines relocated from Okinawa.

Guam Governor Lou Leon Guerrero welcomes the expansion from an economic point of view.

“Any increase in population is going to be good for the economy because you have more people that are going to buy your groceries, going to your retail stores, going to your restaurants, going to your hotels,” Leon Guerrero said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun.

“I do support the military buildup, but with conditions that they have to respect our environment, they have to respect our culture, they have to respect our people,” she added.

Under the military plan, about 6,300 Marines and family members will move from Okinawa to Guam.

Housing, schools, roads and water and sewerage will be built. And the total project cost is estimated at $8.6 billion (more than 900 billion yen).

In contrast to Tinian, Guam has high hopes for economic benefits from the relocation. In an opinion poll conducted in April 2017, about 70 percent of the islanders approved the project.

Nevertheless, many projects related to the relocation plan have stalled, mainly because of a lack of construction workers.

Guam’s population is about 160,000, and average wages are as high as about 70 percent of those in the U.S. mainland.

Labor shortages have always been an issue in Guam because the island itself can’t provide sufficient worker numbers and it is difficult to bring in workers from the U.S. mainland.

The island had relied on H-2B visa workers from the Philippines, who speak English and have much in common culturally. But the federal government in 2015 started denying H-2B petitions for Guam because of the high rate of overstaying by Filipino workers in the United States.

According to Governor Leon Guerrero, the number of Filipino workers in Guam dropped from a peak of about 3,000 to almost zero. Consequentially, labor costs in the construction industry skyrocketed and construction costs soared from $110 per square foot to $160.

Legislative proceedings in Congress later allowed the issuance of working visas only for military projects in Guam as an exception, but the island has still been unable to alleviate its labor shortage.

Leon Guerrero visited Washington in February and said at a public hearing in Congress: “You increase the population (on Guam) and the supply for those workers is not there. Please help us try to make our economy more stable and expanded by providing the work force that we need to build our island.”

Labor shortages are a concern for U.S. forces as well.

“An adequate skilled work force to support construction of the new base is vital to the Marine Corps’ mission in the Pacific,” JoAnna R.C. Delfin, public affairs specialist of the Joint Region Marianas, said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun. “We have been working closely with local stakeholders and federal counterparts to resolve the H-2B worker visa concerns raised by construction industry professionals.”

Of the $8.6 billion cost to relocate the Marines from Okinawa to Guam, the Japanese government has agreed to cover as much as $3.1 billion, saying the move will ease Okinawa Prefecture’s burden of hosting U.S. military bases.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference in October 2018 that the Guam and Henoko projects “are linked after all,” suggesting that the delay of the Henoko project caused the delay of the Guam relocation, thus prolonging the suffering in Okinawa.

Suga said the U.S. Congress froze the Guam relocation budget when the Japanese government under the Democratic Party of Japan said it would change direction regarding the relocation of the Futenma air base.

However, Suga’s explanation does not match the reality in Tinian and Guam.

In fact, the delays in the Guam relocation project in recent years have more to do with the situation on the U.S. side than on the Japanese side.

Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at Rand Corp. who conducted field research in Guam, said the labor shortage in Guam and the local opposition in Tinian are the main factors that have slowed the military relocation project over the Pacific.

The Guam relocation plan has also faced unexpected challenges.

In the initial plan laid out in 2006, the Guam relocation of about 17,000 Marines and family members from Okinawa Prefecture was expected to be completed by 2014.

But after a more detailed plan was released in 2010, Guam learned that it would be accepting nearly 80,000 people, about half of its entire population.

Governor Carlos Camacho at the time said Guam was unable to absorb the rapid population increase. He asked the Navy to push back the completion date of the relocation to 2018.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office in its June 2011 report pointed out the project’s lack of foresight and warned the total project cost would balloon to $23.9 billion.

Shortly after that, Congress decided to freeze the budgets on related projects and urged the government to review the relocation plan.

Michael San Nicolas, the delegate from Guam to the U.S. House of Representatives, said in an interview with The Asahi Shimbun that many contractors, even from the U.S. mainland, expanded their businesses to Guam when the relocation plan was initially announced.

But as the project has failed to stay on schedule, some companies have pulled out their investments and business plans from the island.

The U.S. and Japanese governments initially agreed to start moving Okinawa-based Marines to Guam in the early 2020s.

However, the future of the project remains uncertain.

In February this year, the U.S. Marine Corps told the Guam legislature that the major force flow will begin in the second quarter of fiscal 2025 and take 18 months to complete. Specifics of the plans were not disclosed by the U.S. military.

But several sources familiar with the matter in Guam and in both the U.S. and Japanese governments suggest it might take another decade from now to start the relocation.

(This article was written by Koji Sonoda and Ryo Kiyomiya.)