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U.S. Military Base Raises Ire Among Indigenous Peoples, Environmentalists

The construction of a U.S. military base off the northeast coast of Henoko Bay in the Okinawa prefecture is limiting the self-determination of the Okinawan people and endangering the dugong, their cultural icon.

In 1996, the United States reached an agreement with Japan in the Special Actions Committee on Okinawa (SACO), to move the Futenma Marine Corp Air Base, currently stationed in the central district of Ginowan in Okinawa prefecture, to the northeastern coast of Nago, Okinawa in Henoko village.

The move was supposed to alleviate the burden of U.S. military presence in Okinawa, but ultimately, it sparked a battle that has been waging for years.

In a 1997 referendum, roughly 80 percent of Okinawans rejected the proposed location, but the United States and Japan moved on with plans to build two major helipads to replace Futenma.

Construction of the Heneko base entails drilling along the coral reef, home to more than 1,000 species of marine life, roughly nine different endangered species, and the endangered dugong, a relative of the sea manatee.

"Culturally, they're going to destroy an important symbol to Okinawa," said Wesley Ueunten, a third generation Okinawan and graduate student at Berkley in ethnic studies, in a phone interview.

Because Henoko Bay's dugongs are the northern most population, they hold a special status, said Peter Galvin, conservation director of the Center for Biological Diversity in a phone interview. Presently, it is believed that there are only between 12 to 100 dugong of the northern population left.

Historically, the meat of the dugong was considered special, Galvin said. It was believed to have magical healing powers and given to mothers who gave birth for nourishment. Today, the dugong is in the folklore and songs. According to Galvin, it's everywhere, including on t-shirts. "Not only is it a traditional sort of thing but it's been incorporated into [Okinawnan’s] modern culture," he said.

For many of the older people, Ueneten said, the sea has been a giver of life. During his recent visit to Okinawa in December, he estimated 60 to 70 people were camped out in protest against the construction of the base on Henoko.

In the autumn of 2003, a group of American and Japanese conservationists and Okinawan citizens filed a lawsuit on behalf of the dugong against U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld alleging that the Department of Defense (DOD) had failed to comply with the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act in the construction of Heneko.

At a hearing in March, a judge denied the DOD a dismissal of the case, Dugong v. Rumsfeld, and ruled that a complete environmental assessment be completed on the effects of military base construction in Henoko.

This ruling is a victory for indigenous peoples, said Marcello Mollo of Earthjustice, one of many groups representing the dugong. The court ruled that living things have to be culturally respected by U.S. government agencies, he said. Even though the lawsuit is still pending, he hopes the air base will be on the agenda at a summit later this summer to discuss mutual security concerns between the United States and Japan.

The islands of Okinawa were formerly the independent Ryukyu Kingdom, colonized by Japan in 1879 and later occupied by the United States after World War II. In 1972, the U.S. occupation ended and the territory was again claimed by Japan.

But the United States has remained a heavy presence: Okinawa is host to 75 percent of U.S. military bases in Japan on a stretch of land that makes up less that one percent of the country, with 95 percent of the estimated 1.2 million people of Okinawan descent. If construction with Heneko goes forward it will be the 39th base in Okinawa.

Among numerous issues from the many military bases that cover roughly 20 percent of Okinawa is air pollution. "People can't hear each other speaking. School kids have to wait for the planes to pass to resume," said Ueunten.

He continued, "I see it as discrimination against Okinawans." There's a lack of self-determination … The decision of what happens to Okinawans is made by the Japanese government, he said. "It's very hard to watch and observe outside of Okinawa."

"[Okinawans] sort of see themselves as the dugong," said Miho Kim, a Japanese activist working with Environmental Justice to stop construction in Henoko. "The dugong is like the last holding ground [for Okinawan's] because they know otherwise they're next."

Kim, and other activists who are calling on the DOD to permanently drop the construction in Henoko, have formed a petition to present at the summit later this summer. "This really is a monumental moment for Okinawans to be represented in this way," she said.

"[The Henoko air base] is kind of like the straw that broke the camels back," said Galvin. "It’s one impact after the other on the Okinawans."

As of right now "protests in Okinawa are ongoing," said Mollo.