A week ago, a group of 15-20 activists and students gathered on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus to share the remarkably similar and interconnected stories of nations and peoples from around the Pacific that are struggling against the environmental destruction and limitations on sovereignty caused by the U.S. military and U.S. interests.

There were seasoned demilitarization and aloha aina activists from Hawaii in attendance who spoke about the desecration of iwi kupuna to build Marine Corps base at Kaneohe, as well as activists concerned with the proliferation of military bases and their effects on the environment and local and indigenous life in Guahan (Guam), South Korea (notably on Jeju Island) and the Philippines. Also discussed were the legacies of French and U.S. nuclear testing in Tahiti and Micronesia.

Sometimes it’s a foreign military that does the dirty work for U.S. interests. We spoke about the violence and repression going on in West Papua as the Indonesian government makes sure that the Grasberg mine — one of the largest gold mines in the world — continues to run for the benefit of its owner, Arizona-based Freeport-McMoRan.

US Marines Amphibious Assault Vehicle rolls onto the sands at Pyramid Rock, Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Kaneohe Hawaii. 30 july 2016
U.S. Marines Amphibious Assault Vehicles rolls onto the sands at Pyramid Rock, Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Kaneohe Hawaii, during RIMPAC exercises last summer. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

What spurred this meeting was the visit of several activists from Okinawa who are struggling against the building of a new U.S. air base at Henoko Bay, the latest in a long history of adverse effects on Okinawa from the presence of military bases. These Okinawan activists were here to take part in the World Conservation Congress but also headlined in a panel talk on Okinawa attended by over 70 at Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies on Thursday night.

One general theme is that truly protecting our environment means paying attention to the effects of militarization and war on the land, indigenous peoples and local autonomy in Pacific Islands.

After all, it is well known that modern war is ecologically devastating and releases hundreds of thousands of tons of pollutants and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Closer to home, we know from the examples of Kahoolawe, Pohakuloa, Makua Valley, Puuloa (Pearl Harbor, which once boasted the most fishponds on Oahu) and many other sites that it is indigenous land and peoples and local people who pay the unspoken costs of housing the U.S. military.

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists put it most simply in a post about the military’s turn toward considering its environmental impacts, writing that “military operations by their nature are not environment-friendly.”

What goes on in one part of this vast Pacific Ocean surely affects all other parts of it.

Yet, a quick search of all 1,349 items in the IUCN World Conservation Congress’ online program for the keyword “military activities” yields nine results.

Furthermore, the celebrated Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument puts no limitations on the U.S. military. The proclamation that President Barack Obama signed to expand the monument states, “The prohibitions required by this proclamation shall not apply to activities and exercises of the U.S. Armed Forces, including those carried out by the United States Coast Guard.” It goes on to state that nothing in the proclamation will limit the U.S. military’s ability to use property under their control or limit the availability of property for their use.

In other instances around the world, such caveats allow for paradoxical situations around the Pacific and in other oceans where conservation areas actually house or provide a buffer for military bases.

Conservation and Connections

I participated in last week’s talk story and sign-making event as a student wanting to learn more from folks on the front lines of demilitarization and environmental struggles. One thing that became apparent is that in the Pacific, as in the world, we are all connected, and our efforts at protecting the environment need to first acknowledge and then foster our interconnectedness.

As Peter Apo has noted, the Western model of protecting the land, called conservation, depends on drawing an imaginary line around an area in order to “preserve” it. Too often such approaches sever the connections between indigenous peoples and their land while leaving unquestioned the logic that puts military objectives high above environmental concerns and regulations.

Under conservation models, the rest of us are also cut off from ever forming a real, respectful and responsible connection with land; what we get instead are touristic models where we conspicuously consume “outdoorsy” experiences and products that may still be environmentally harmful.

Conservation models, by setting aside only some land or ocean to protect, also make us feel like it’s OK to destroy other islands, lands and ecosystems when it’s convenient or “necessary.” But it’s not OK. #OurIslandsAreSacred and what goes on in one part of this vast ocean surely affects all other parts of it.

There will surely be positive effects on marine life from setting aside such a large tract of ocean and taking pressure off of over-fished species. And I’m glad that concern for the environment has gone mainstream.

But I am even more hopeful about the international coalition of activists, scholars, and advocates that is drawing connections between struggles and pointing in the direction of where more work has to be done.

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