The Fight to Save the Mariana Islands; an Interview with Pete Perez of The Alternative Zero Coalition.

When we think of land grabs of Indigenous territory and the forceful accumulation of resources we tend to think this is a thing of the past that can be found in the pages of a history book. However, the process of Accumulation by Dispossession as described by Marxist geographer David Harvey is unfortunately alive and well. Accumulation by Dispossession describes the systematic process of centralizing wealth and resources into the hands of small few while dispossessing the land and resources of another group of people or public institution.  The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands is currently undergoing such a process.  The peoples of the Islands are in the fight for their lives against the aggressive land grab by the United States Navy. The U.S. Navy is currently pursuing plans to grab 24 percent of all land in the Northern Mariana Islands and create the the world’s largest live-fire range. I spoke to activist, resident of Saipan, self described socialist and sailing canoe builder Pete Perez about the David and Goliath struggle facing the peoples of the Mariana Islands.

It is my hope that this article will serve to educate and inspire readers, as I have been, about the history, culture and struggle of the peoples of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI). Up until recently, with great regret, I knew next to nothing about the CNMI or the current struggle they are engaged in with the United States Navy. It is important to understand that the process of Imperialism and Accumulation by Dispossession is not a thing of the past, but is alive and well today as Pete Perez illustrates throughout our conversation below. The article is divided up into 4 sections starting with an overview of the history and peoples of the Mariana Islands. Next section titled The Worlds Largest Live Fire Range Pete articulates the U.S. Navy’s horrific plans to transform the Mariana Islands into a bombing range.  Third, Pete goes into detail about the impact the Navy’s plans would have upon the ecosystems and peoples of the Mariana Islands. Fourth, Pete describes how the Alternative Zero Coalition, a grass roots movement, is doing to fight back the world’s most powerful military, to save their islands and way of life. Lastly, Pete states what we all can do to help support and show solidarity with the struggle of the Alternative Zero Coalition and the people of the CNMI.

History and Peoples of the Mariana Islands

The history and culture of the peoples of the Mariana Islands is unique and fascinating which may not be known to many outside of the Islands.  The Chamorro and Refaluwasch both have a deep spiritual connection to their islands. However, if the United States Navy’s plans of turning the Mariana Islands into a live fire range come to fruition, it would absolutely destroy the natural beauty and peace of the Mariana Islands which in turn would pose an existential threat to the rich history, culture and traditions of the Chamorro and Refaluwasch people.  I asked Pete to provide a brief introduction to the History, Culture and Peoples of the Mariana Islands.

“The 15 islands of the Marianas archipelago have a long and tragic history. The islands sustained the indigenous Chamorros for over 4,000 years in peace and good health until their “discovery” by Magellan in 1521. The Chamorros are part of the greater migration of people from Mongolia south, through Taiwan, and on to “Austronesia”, an anthropologist’s term for Malaysia and Indonesia area in the Southwest Pacific. They then spread across Oceania in waves, the Chamorros being the first, about 4,500 years ago.

They settled the islands and lived in relative isolation, sailing their canoes up and down the island chain and also south to trade with the Carolinians. Their culture developed around the environment and is very much an island culture where extended family and respect for elders are very important and the food is like that of the other islanders who, like the Chamorros, brought their food plants when they settled their islands. Before the arrival of the Spanish, there were perhaps 40-60 thousand Chamorros living in the islands.

The gods of the Chamorro were in the land, the sea and the wind, but mostly they were ancestor worshipers. They kept the bones of the departed in their homes and made spears out of the femur bones of their fathers. Chamorros past and present believe that the spirits of the ancestors are around us, they listen to us and guide us. The Chamorro sailing canoes were the fastest vessels in the world – clocked at over 20 miles per hour by European witnesses in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Chamorro language is still spoken today, albeit with lots of loan words for things that did not exist before the Europeans. Contemporary Chamorros are a mix of European, Native American, Asian and other Pacific Islanders. This came about after the Spanish reduced the population to such low levels that they started bringing in native peoples from Mexico, Central America, the Caroline Islands, and the Philippines to supplement the forced workforce.

   Since Magellan’s ‘discovery’, the islands have suffered under a series of colonial powers beginning with Spain, which through warfare and introduced diseases reduced the population by 90% and destroyed the traditional social structure although much of the local culture remains as does the Chamorro language. After losing the Spanish-American war, Spain ceded Guam to the United States and sold all the islands to the north to Germany. When German lost WWI, the League of Nations designated Japan as a Protectorate of the Northern Marianas. When Japan lost WWII, the United Nations created the U.S. Navy administered Trust Territory of Pacific Islands, which included the Northern Marianas. The Trust Territory was to be temporary, until the Micronesian islands it encompassed had an opportunity to freely choose their political status.

This happened for the Northern Marianas in the mid to late 1970s when the islands joined the United States as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Guam remains an American colony to this day, recognized as such by the United Nations, while the U.S. prefers to use the term “territory”. The people of both Guam and the CNMI are U.S. citizens, but are not allowed to vote for the U.S. President. They are allowed to vote for a single U.S. Congressman in the House of Representatives one for Guam, one for the CNMI, however those Representatives have no vote in Congress.”

The Worlds Largest Live Fire Range

The History of the United States is one which is filled with violent acquisitions of land and resources from Indigenous peoples. Also U.S. history is filled with countless examples of blatant neglect of marginalized and disenfranchised communities. Unfortunately, this process of brutal Imperialism and neglect continues to this day. Since the Mariana Islands have become apart of the United States, the Navy has pursued a policy of land grabbing and disregard for the needs of the Chamorro. The Chamorro are regarded as second-class citizens and are denied democratic rights, which are afforded to mainland American citizens. The U.S. Navy has recklessly pursued an undemocratic process to turn the CNMI into the worlds largest live fire range. I asked Pete to elaborate on the U.S. Navy’s legacy in the CNMI and the Navy’s current plans for transforming the Mariana Islands from a pristine paradise into a veritable warzone.

“The U.S. Navy has had been aggressively grabbing land in the Marianas since the end of World War II when it confiscated the Guam lands taken by the Japanese during their occupation of the islands. During the Navy’s post-war administration of the island they also implemented a real estate tax that the Chamorros did not have the means to pay and then seized more land in tax payments. Today the Navy holds 1/3 of Guam’s landmass, including much of the best land, the island’s only lake and it’s its excellent protected harbor. A Naval base and an Air Force base were established on a portion of these lands while much of the land is not used but continues to be held by the military.

During the Navy’s Trust Territory administration years they occupied parts of Saipan and practice bombed the tiny island of Naftan Rock, while the CIA operated a covert training facility on Saipan for foreign troops fighting the Chinese. Out of the negotiation for commonwealth status, the Navy and the Department of Defense obtained long term leases on 2/3 of Tinian, the CNMI’s second largest island, land surrounding Saipan’s deep harbor in Tanapag, and the entire northern island of Farallon de Mendinilla . The Navy promise for Tinian was a military base that would bring the local people good jobs and access to the base school and hospital. No base was ever built. In all, the Navy holds 14% of the CNMI’s land (their plans for live-fire ranges would bring this to 24%).

After the Department of Defense announced a plan in 2005 to realign U.S. and Japanese forces, which included the relocation of Marines from Okinawa to Guam, the Navy began its move to build the world’s largest live-fire training range in and around Guam and the CNMI. The potential for devastating social and environmental consequences were huge and unlikely to go unopposed by the people and the government of Guam and the CNMI, and the Navy is required by Federal law under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to inform communities of the potential impacts of their projects, invite government and public comment and to develop and consider alternatives in order to minimize negative aspects. So in order to move forward with minimal opposition, the Navy decided to break their project into five pieces and present them as “stand-alone projects”, thereby avoiding full disclosure of the nature of their project and hide hiding the cumulative impacts from the public and local governments. 

The first project was announced in 2010. Called the Mariana Islands Range Complex (MIRC), it designated half a million square nautical miles of ocean around the Marianas for live-fire exercises and weapons testing. Then in 2015 came the Mariana Islands Testing and Training (MITT) project that nearly doubled the MIRC area to 984,000 square nautical miles. The range allows live-fire above, on and below the sea, including high-impact underwater weapons and deadly sonar that kills fish, sea turtles, whales, dolphins and porpoises.

The MITT also increased the already ongoing bombing of FDM Island by nearly 300 percent – from 2,150 bombs per year to over 6,000, and authorized damage to the surrounding reef, which is the largest in Micronesia, including areas of endangered coral reef. The same year they announced their project to relocate 5,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. The project called the Guam and the CNMI Military Relocation, created a new Marine base, a new live-fire training range complex and a separate hand-grenade range, all on Guam. In its disclosures of the impacts the Navy stated that the move would require no additional training facilities to accommodate the Marines. This was a blatant lie. The Navy was already planning the next project that would create two new bombing ranges for the Marines. Called the CNMI Joint Military Training (CJMT) project, the ranges would be located in the CNMI.

The CJMT, announced in 2013, would change the use of the lease of the northern 2/3 of the tiny 10-mile long island of Tinian from a military base to a live-fire training range. The range would be the military’s second highest level live-fire range that includes tank maneuvers, amphibious landings, land mines, grenades launchers, rockets, mortars, and airborne missiles. The range would destroy the peace of the 3,000 people living in the southern 1/3 and put them at risk of death and injury from stray ordnance and contaminated air, soil and water. It would also devastate Tinian’s tourism based economy. The CJMT would also take the entire island of Pagan, a stunningly beautiful island of great cultural value to the people of the Marianas, and turn it into the military’s highest level live-fire training range. This includes everything planned for Tinian plus shelling from the sea and air-dropped bombs of up to 1000 pounds.

The fifth project, approved just this year, is the Divert Activities and Exercises project. This project establishes a small, permanent air base on the southern 1/3 of Tinian (outside of the lease area) to support multi-national live-fire training exercises in the CNMI and its waters. Together these projects will forever change the CNMI from a beautiful place where people live and visitors vacation to a place of authorized and ongoing destruction where the people are restricted in their movements and continuously exposed to danger, noise and toxic contaminants. As described by the late CNMI governor Eloy Inos, the CJMT is an existential threat to the people of the CNMI.”

The Impact

It is abundantly clear that if the Navy were to have its way the impact upon the CNMI would be devastating. The transformation of the Islands into a live-fire range would cause massive and irreversible damage to local ecosystems and to the way of life for the Chamorro and Refaluwasch peoples.  The economic impact upon the CNMI would be catastrophic. The CNMI currently has a thriving tourist industry, many people flock to the Islands for their picturesque beaches. However, the Navy’s plans would make tourism to the Islands near impossible. There is no doubt that the U.S. Navy poses an existential threat to the CNMI. I asked Pete to go into detail the impact the a live-fire range would have upon the CNMI.

“The using of our islands for so much live-fire, which the Navy describes as ‘continuous use’, is expected to occur for 40-45 or so weeks per year for 60 years, extendable to 120, is the death knell for our tourism industry. Tinian in particular will suffer since the most people will have no means of employment as tourism is about all they have. Their near proximity to the live fire as well as the expected contamination of their underground water resources and the constant noise, ground vibration and dust will certainly drive them off Tinian since it will not be a place that is safe and healthy to live anymore.

Saipan is only 3 miles from Tinian and some of our best hotels face the island across the channel. It is highly likely that the marketing efforts of the Marianas Visitors Authority will not be adequate to overcome the stigma of the CNMI being in the middle of a huge live-fire range. Additionally, during training exercises, both the land and air space will be restricted. This will affect sport fishing and travel between islands. This will pretty much end the resettlement of our far northern islands that is going on today. We are resettling Pagan, Alamagan and Agrigan islands. When they are cut off from Saipan by sea-lane closures, it will be very difficult to supply the villages there and allow the people to travel to Saipan for medical care. I expect that Saipan will become much like an American Indian reservation where there are few resources and opportunities and poverty prevails.

The Chamorro’s and the Refaluwasch people have deep spiritual connections with the land and the waters. When we visit Pagan, for example, we are aware that we are never alone, that the ancestors still dwell there. We ask for permission to step on the land when we arrive by sea. We ask to enter the forest, to take anything out of the forest and we ask for help and guidance. After thousands of years of occupation there are artifacts everywhere; stone tools, sling stones, the “latte stones” that were house foundations, pottery shards, shell money and jewelry, and human bones. These we cherish because they are the physical remains of ancestors and ancient times.

In the Indigenous view, wildlife is also sacred; in fact the ancient Chamorros believed that dolphins are people that have passed away. The Refaluwasch talk to the spirits through chants before, during and after ocean voyages. It is hard to explain how deep this cultural view and spiritual connection is, but it is real and pervasive. It is heartbreaking to know that the bombs are coming and we feel powerless to protect these islands that have sustained and protected us for over 4,000 years.

The problem of U.S. Navy’s contamination of the Marianas and the tragic health consequences to the public is so big that I cannot possibly address it properly in this interview. We are not alone – the Navy has contaminated and ruined many places in the Pacific – even whole islands. In my village of Tanapag they left leaky PCB canisters all over the village and for years nobody knew they were dangerous. People actually lined them up and sat on them to watch the kids play baseball. People became sick from long-term exposure. It was in the soil, in the water and our cancer rate was through the roof. It took citizen activists to call attention to the problem and get the local government to go after the Navy. Eventually less than 20 years ago, they removed the canisters and lots of soil. They also had an aviation fuel tank farm here in Tanapag that was abandoned and leaked for years that were only cleaned up in 2016. There are stories like this everywhere the Navy has been.” 

The Alternative Zero Coalition

One of the primary ways the people of the CNMI are fighting back is with The Alternative Zero Coalition. The Alternative Zero Coalition is a grassroots community member led organization, which rose in response to halt the U.S. Navy’s bombing range project. The Alternative Zero Coalition is dedicated to protecting the land, heritage and people of the Mariana Islands. I asked Pete how the people of the CNMI were fighting back against a much larger and powerful opponent? What methods and strategies is The Alternative Zero Coalition implementing in the fight for their Island home?

“The Alternative Zero Coalition was created in 2013 to coordinate the efforts of separate existing activist and advocacy groups that were fighting the Navy’s plan to turn our home into a bombing range. Our first effort was to educate the public as well as the government as to the true nature of the Navy’s intention. We used print and broadcast media to expose the Navy’s strategy of burying the information that they did not want the public to have in a massive 1500 page multi-volume Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that was basically a web of technical jargon written in English for a public where for most adults English is a second language and where many have little or no English literacy.  We simplified the issues so they were understandable and provided opportunities for the public to make comments easily.

We also educated the people on how EIS commenting works – that it is not a matter of simply opposing a proposal, which the Navy can simply ignore, but rather of pointing out the illegal and negative aspects of the project which the Navy is obligated to respond to. We emphasized that if a negative issue was not raised in the EIS or during the commenting, then the Navy was off the hook and would never have to consider or respond to it.

We also did outreach at public events, in booths and even at the public hearings conducted by the Navy. We set up tents at the entrances to the public hearings so that the public could get non-Navy information on the issues. We blasted the sounds of bombing ranges over a PA system so the people could hear it as they walked to the hearings. Our outreach was extremely effective as the hearings, where the Navy expected to have virtually no turnout, were crowded and sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder. We also saw huge numbers of written comments – 30,000 of them, again where the Navy expected to see a poor response. The pushback on the CJMT proposal by local government and public alike was so strong that the Navy had to do a completely new EIS. Essentially, they had to start all over.

However, this success did not end the fight. The EIS process only provides information. It is necessary to use that information to follow up with legal and political action. To this end we were very fortunate to have two heroic organizations join us such as the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) and the environmental law group Earth Justice. Represented by Earth justice and with CBD as a joint plaintiff along with three Alternative Zero Coalition members, Pagan Watch, the Tinian Women Association and the Guardians of Gani, we sued the Navy over their failure to follow the NEPA guidelines during the EIS process for the Guam and CNMI Military Relocation proposal.

Our complaint focused on their attempt to evade NEPA guidelines by; breaking their project into five “unrelated” projects; failing to consider any alternatives outside the Marianas; and lying to the public when they said the Marines would not need any additional training facilities – any of which could have led to a different outcome. Unfortunately, it is not so easy to prevail in federal court when the defendants are the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, represented by the Department of Justice and in a federal court presided over by a federally appointed judge. The judge immediately dismissed two of the three complaints and ruled against us on the remaining one. The case is now with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

We are not relying solely on the lawsuit. We are also working to ensure that both the government and the public remain informed and vigilant, and we are trying to get our story out at the national and international level. It is a David and Goliath story – we are up against an opponent that is extremely well funded and staffed and historically unfettered by ethical concerns when it comes to Pacific peoples.

Americans need to know about this and recognize that the Navy is out of control. It makes neither economic nor strategic sense to move the Marines to Guam. Neither does it make sense to destroy two more islands and devastate an American community just to train 4800 Marines when more appropriate, already paid for and fully developed training facilities exist for training the military’s 1.2 million servicemen and servicewomen.”

The Struggle Continues

“ In the Marianas we are angry that the United States maintains both a colony and a commonwealth where the people have no right to vote – no representation in the government, and where the military can do whatever they please. There is also a movement for reunification of the Marianas. But mostly there is activism against the onslaught on our environment by the Navy with their expansion and particularly with their plans for massive bombing ranges that are viewed as unnecessary and a threat to health and safety.

The Chamorro and Refaluwasch people of the Marianas are patriotic Americans. Guam and the CNMI have lost a higher percentage of young lives in military service than any other region in the United States. Our patriotism is over the top. We placed our trust in the United States, at least in the CNMI where we chose to be American, and that trust is betrayed every day by the Navy while America stands by and does nothing. Mostly this is because most Americans don’t know we even exist. But we do exist. We are the newest Americans and we are families who share the same hopes and dreams as the rest of America. But we are under constant threat by a Navy that has overstepped its purpose and is out of control. They are crushing our community and our lives. They do this because nobody is saying anything.

We need our fellow Americans to stand up for us. We need them to tell their representatives in Congress that all Americans must be respected, regardless of whether they live in New York or Texas or on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific. We need them to stand up for us because we don’t have a voice in Congress. Because Congress funds the Navy they are the only ones who can have the power to stop them.”

In summary, what Pete taught me was we on the mainland United States and throughout the world should recognize and take up the struggle of the CNMI as our own. We must stand in solidarity with the Alternative Zero Coalition, the Chamorro and Refaluwasch people. We can learn much from the outstanding organizing success the Alternative Zero Coalition has had in educating and mobilizing the peoples of the CNMI. Also, as Socialists it is imperative that we recognize and condemn the systematic processes of Imperialism and accumulation by dispossession and offer up our assistance to the people whom are targeted.  However, we must understand that the to truly overcome the processes dispossession and Imperialism, we must strike at the root of the problem and confront Capitalism itself. This certainly is a daunting task but by making connections and building bridges of solidarity with organizations like The Alternative Zero Coalition it is completely possible. Also, it is imperative that we listen to the voices of those who are directly and daily being targeted by Imperialism in all of its forms. It is those voices that will guide the process and struggle for a world that is more equitable, democratic and liberated for all.


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