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Environmental Disaster and Resilience: The Marshall Islands Experience Continues to Unfold

United States nuclear, biochemical, and missile testing in the Marshall Islands has been, from day one, an enterprise of scientific colonialism. Exploiting the relative isolation of these islands and these ocean people, the US managed the environment and health consequences of their militarism through “out of sight, out of mind” and “the solution to pollution is dilution” policies. These strategies worked in the short term for those living in distant corridors of power. However, when toxic, radiogenic, persistent, and bioaccumulative contaminants are generated in mass quantity and dumped for decades upon end, the ulcerating effects will make themselves known far and wide. Denial is no longer an option when generations of soldiers and residents suffer the same life-altering miseries.But they’re not the same…the soldiers went home. The residents, if they were able to return home, returned to changed and poisoned islands.

Between 1946 and 1958, the United States detonated sixty-seven nuclear bombs in the area they termed Pacific Proving Grounds, on, in, and above Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in the Marshall Islands, then a part of the United Nations Pacific Trust Territories. The world’s first hydrogen bombs were tested here in a series of detonations in an over Enewetak and Bikini Atolls.  The March 1, 1954 Bravo Test, was especially destructive. Visible from 250 miles with a mushroom cloud stretching 60 miles across, Bravo vaporized several small islands, left a mile-wide crater on the atoll, and generated heavy radioactive fallout across a 50,000 square mile area, including 22 populated atolls. It remains, to this day, the largest and ‘dirtiest’ nuclear weapon the US ever detonated: dwarfing the radioactive releases of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the area of lethal fallout encompassed 27,000 square miles.

Downwind on Rongelap and Ailinginae Atolls, people suffered near fatal exposures to fallout, as did military personnel monitoring Bravo fallout on Rongerik.  Some 36 hours after detonation the US military completed it’s evacuation of 28 servicemen, transporting them by aircraft to Kwajalein military base hospital for treatment and study.  Attention to nearby populated atolls did not occur until March 3, when the military arrived on Rongelap and Ailinginae to remove all inhabitants, some 51 hours after the detonation of Bravo.  No advance notice of the test had occurred, and in this evacuation all personal belongings were left, by military order, behind.  Utrik Atoll was evacuated some 78 hours after detonation, on March 5.  The USS Renshaw was sent on March 6-7 to Likeip Atoll, Jemo Island, Ailuk Atoll, and Mejit Island and an amphibian aircraft with the same mission was sent to Wotje, Erikub, Maloelap, Wotho, and Majuro atolls. Dangerous levels of fallout was confirmed and samples of soil, water, vegetation and animals were collected in each place. This was a military expedition to collect scientific data, not a humanitarian mission, a point aptly illustrated by events on Likiep. Navy personnel arrived there on March 6 to take radiation measurements and samples of soil vegetation, and water, photos, and capture, kill and take animals (dogs) for further study. Radiation sickness was evident, but, citing logistical problems of moving such a large population, the US left residents in situ, providing no medical attention, no information on radioactive fallout, and no advice on ways to reduce further exposure.  

Admittedly, not a lot was known back then about the hazards of fallout, though what had been learned about the human health hazards and the importance of minimizing exposure was shared amongst troops serving in the Pacific Proving Grounds. Radiation detection and protection equipment, shelters, and other tools were available. When the invisible hazard was present, people were able to detect, report, and receive advice that helped minimize the dangers. Servicemen on Rongerik had Geiger counters, radios, and when they reported off-the-charts radioactivity, they took immediate shelter. Those who sheltered in huts reduced their exposure by 50% from those sheltering in tents. For ri-Majol (Marshallese who had no knowledge, no one giving advice, and no means to take protective action, there was no perceived threat to take shelter from.

Once evacuated, soldiers received treatment and for several months were the subject of study. Island communities received no information on how and why they were injured, nor medical care to relieve pain and suffering. Instead, to understand the health effects of acute exposure to high-levels of radiation they were given human subject numbers, photographed, and began their unwitting service in classified Project 4.1, a human radiation research program that operated under varied names from 1954 to 1992.  For four decades US medical science teams traveled to the Marshall Islands to monitor and document degenerative health and conduct varied experiments, all without informed consent. All told, 1156 men, women, and children were enrolled in studies exploring the acute and late effects of radiation.  This classified research generated statistically-significant findings: Radiation exposure generates changes in red blood cell production and subsequent anemia; metabolic and related disorders; musculoskeletal degeneration; cataracts; cancers and leukemia; and, significant impact on reproductive success as evidenced by miscarriages, congenital defects, and infertility.  Research also demonstrated that chronic and acute radiogenic exposure compromises immune system response, creating population-wide vulnerability to infectious and non-communicable disease.   


Struggles to reclaim self-determination

When the Marshall Islands achieved independent nation status (signing a Compact of Free Association in 1983 that entered into force in 1986), the ability to effectively govern was compromised by its’ complete dependency on the US for economic, health, education and other support, a dependency further contorted by systemic underdevelopment.  During the US-managed Trust Territory era, education and other social development programs were designed to produce aides and assistants, rather than doctors and scientists.  In the face of widespread environmental contamination and associated health consequences, self-determination is hard to achieve when all the experts are imports.

With independence, RMI governance was hampered by lack of technical capacity and lack of information. The US withheld much of the information associated with its military activities, especially their classified documentation on nuclear and biochemical weapons tests, fallout patterns, environmental contamination, and related consequential damages for human and ecosystem health, thus significantly limiting the notion of damage and the related obligation to repair harm to what was already in the public realm.  It was not until 1999, for example, when the US delivered to the Republic of the Marshall Islands a declassified document, that the RMI Government and the Nuclear Claims Tribunal established by the US-RMI Compact Agreement were made aware of the fact that fallout from the 1954 Bravo blast had blanketed the entire nation, significantly endangering the health of all 22 populated atolls and islands. A nation-wide medical monitoring and treatment program was warranted, yet, to this day, the US only acknowledges and minimally funds a 177 medical program to monitor and treat the radiation-related disease of people who had lived on four atolls (Rongelap, Utrik, Bikini, Enewetak).

Bilateral agreements between the US and the RMI have resulted in some attention to nuclear wastelands in Rongelap, Utrik, Enewetak and Bikini Atolls. Remediation of radiation hotspots on some of the Atoll southern islands and construction of new homes on Rongelap Island has occurred, though families have yet to trust US assurances that it is safe to move back.  Given the immense degree of contamination in the larger terrestrial and marine environment many places are officially off-limits. Without the ability to access all the resources on all the islands in the Atoll, a return to a culturally-vibrant, self-sufficient and healthy way of life seems impossible, a sentiment influenced in part by the experience of the 600 or so people who have returned to Enewetak.  

In 1977, the US began cleanup efforts in Enewetak Atoll with a plan to remove radioactive and non-radioactive debris left over from the testing, all highly radioactive hot spots from the soil, and removing or amending some less-tainted soils.  Actual removal occurred on a case-by-case basis depending on US assumptions of ultimate land-use.  After three years of work, some 73,000 cubic meters of surface soil was moved and dumped together with metal, concrete and other debris into the “Cactus” blast crater on Runit Island. This high-level nuclear waste was then “stabilized” by creating a dome-shaped concrete cap some 18” thick. Concrete was made by blasting and bulldozing coral reefs (also contaminated by fallout) and mixing pulverized coral with salt water (which results in the rapid deterioration of cement). No effort was taken to assess and address the intensely contaminated conditions in the lagoon and marine ecosystem. Only three of the atoll’s 40 islands received some measure of remediation and with spiraling costs, cleanup plans to allow resettlement in the northern part of the atoll stalled indefinitely.

In 1980 three of the some 40 islets and islands of Enewetak  — Enewetak, Meden, and Japtan Islands in the southern part of the atoll — were declared “clean” and the community was resettled. The declaration of safe habitation assumed that people would live only on  “safe” islands; know of and avoid any hotspots on those islands; avoid contaminated dust; avoid harvesting or drinking water in the heavily contaminated northern islands; avoid harvesting bird eggs, turtles, shellfish and other foods resources on the shoreline or adjacent reefs of highly contaminated islands; be able to grow, harvest and catch traditional foods; restrict dietary consumption of local foods to below 30%; and, generate their own sources of income from the naturally occurring materials in their environment. The declaration of safe habitation also assumed that the nation’s notoriously fragile inter-island transportation system has the functional capacity to regularly deliver imported foods, fuel, and other essential supplies. And, it failed to anticipate the reality of a rapidly changing climate.

Today in Enewetak, with a significant portion of the atoll’s natural resources too hot to handle, residents struggle to survive. Their diet largely consists of USDA food supplements and locally-caught fish. While residents of other outer islands are able to earn modest income from coconut oil, copra, traditional foods, and handicraft production, products from Enewetak are not consider safe and will not be accepted by the national copra processing plant. Thus, many people secure needed cash through loans made against a minimal annual distribution from the Enjebi Trust Fund. To make ends meet, some people travel to the highly contaminated northern islands to mine copper wire and pipe from abandoned military sites and waste dumps. This radioactive copper is exchanged to Chinese shopkeepers for goods at the Enewetak local store and, reportedly, then makes its way to smelters in China. And, as the most isolated of outer islands, the Atoll attracts the occasional actors and activities that proliferate far from the legal eye, as suggested by recent news referencing cocaine bundles destined for China washing ashore and the illegal shark fin industry. Given distance and conditions, disastrous events hit Enewetak and the other Northern Atolls especially hard. Residents often lose access to communication. Winds and storm surges scour the islands and families lose stored supplies of food and water. Extended drought and salt contamination of soil, plants and fresh water wells create immense suffering, as families lose the means sustain themselves now and in the seasons to come. The hunger for protein-rich foods can be pronounced, especially when lagoon fish depart for cooler water during times of drought.  Fresh water-scarcity makes hygienic conditions impossible; pink eye and skin infections are common, vaginal and urinary tract complaints are also reported. In short, the promise of reclaiming a culturally-vibrant way of life in this heavily polluted context has been difficult to achieve. Daily life is a struggle.

Are Enewetak and other US-remediated atolls truly “safe”? Who defines the meaning of safe? By what basis? How much radiation is in the marine and terrestrial food chain, water, and soil? Are there other contaminants of concern? And, they wonder why they do not have the tools and means to determine definitively for themselves: what is contaminated, and what is safe?  For example: the US Department of Energy is responsible for monitoring conditions, and says it is ‘safe’ to sell Enewetak copra, but they don’t provide details nor data to re-Majol to support this assurance. Is this just a measurement of ambient radiation from the coconut husks? Has there been consideration of the exposure risks of harvesting and processing copra, a dusty process in a very, very dry climate? Whole body counters and urine samples record the after-the-fact exposure to certain types of radiation, but where are the proactive tools that let people make their own informed choices about where they walk, sit, swim, plant their food and harvest their food and medicine, burn for fuel, eat or drink? Are there foods or substances that can reduce and remove ingested levels of radiation?  Where is the science that reflects the community’s concerns, is conducted with the community’s permission and involvement, and produces outcomes that allow the means to survive and thrive?   Where is the citizen involvement in science? Where is the free and prior informed consent that this Indigenous nation deserves?   


Lessons on capacity building and regaining self-determination

Questions such as these are drivers of change. Through the assessment, judgments and related awards made by the Marshall Islands Nuclear Claims Tribunal a number of strategies to reduce risk by fully remediating the environment, grow healthy and safe food, and enhance individual, family and community health were identified and the cost to restore calculated. However, the lack of full funding from the US to implement Tribunal awards has made significant progress in the push to remediate and restore a healthy way of life in the Marshall Islands hugely difficult. As noted in the 2012 Mission Report and Recommendations from UN Special Rapporteur for Environmental Contamination and Toxic Waste and reconfirmed in the 2014 Universal Periodic Review of the Marshall Islands conducted by the UN Human Rights Council, the environment, health and human rights issues associated with nuclear testing and other facets of military colonialism are compounded by the increased needs resulting from the increase in climate change-related disasters.  These UN reviews call for the US to fully fund the awards made by the Nuclear Tribunal it established as a reparation mechanism, call upon the international community of nations to recognize their obligations resulting from the many harms the Marshallese historically endured under the United Nations Trusteeship, when governance was entrusted to the United States.

The US has continued to deny any remaining obligation to fund Nuclear Claims Awards issues by the Tribunal they helped to set up. With immense problems confronting a relatively small nation -- some 54,000 people were estimated to be living in the nation in 2014, with another 25,000 in diaspora -- the barriers to reclaiming a healthy sustainable way of life are formidable. Nevertheless, evidence of ri-Majol commitment to this ultimate goal is abundant, and action is demonstrating a move from reactive to proactive governance. For example, a national disaster plan has been developed and tested in 2016 with a US funded, International Organization for Migration implemented humanitarian mission to 16 atolls and 32 communities suffering from severe El Niño-induced drought. An independent assessment of disaster conditions by the Marshall Islands Women’s Research Initiative (MIWRI) and International Organization for Migration (IOM) helped garner support to include gender concerns in the mission plan, and the opportunity for ri-Majol civil society to assist on this mission. Researchers from MIWRI and Women United Together Marshall Islands (WUTMI) assembled and delivered some 2000 female hygiene and menstrual health kits, and in their journey witnessed first-hand the huge distance between bureaucratic expectations of crisis, anticipated needs, and actual on the ground conditions. The initial humanitarian response strategy failed to fully capture the cumulative impact on outer islands communities of a cascade of disaster, including and especially, the ongoing disaster of hosting nuclear militarism. Documented conditions and lessons learned on this mission may help strengthen RMI government and donor/partners response to future crises.  

Recent technical assistance from the US and UN is also encouraging improvements in medical training, diagnostic, monitoring, reporting and public outreach and education systems. Other nation-wide surveys have assessed conditions and develop plans to protect marine resources and terrestrial water quality. The University of the South Pacific Marshall Islands campus is expanding with a new facilty opening on Majuro in 2017, an initiative that will allow greater ri-Majol participation in graduate school programs. The US Department of Energy has been running a pilot project training two Marshallese college students with a goal of developing internal capacity to monitor environmental radiation and bioaccumulation in foods and the human body. And the number of civil society organizations continues to expand demonstrating robust commitment to tackling cultural revitalization projects, and addressing nuclear, environmental, social justice, education, citizen science, and array of other issues and concerns. Expertise and leadership in civil society and government is enhanced by college-educated, civic-minded ri-Majol.  

One of the more exciting examples of a proactive effort to reclaim a healthy way of life is the moi (Pacific threadfin) fish hatchery, fish farming, and feed mill initiative, run by a corporation created by Rongelap local government. Expansion of the project to commercial scale is occurring with a grant from the US AID Pacific American Climate Fund. Originally conceived as a sustainable development project for Hawaii, the initial pilot project demonstrated success yet expansion for market production failed because of high labor costs and environmental regulations. In the Marshall Islands, where immense lagoons provide a sheltered environment for farmed fish and labor costs are comparatively low, this project has taken off. New hires undergo a six-month scientific training course with pay and benefits that exceed national norms. Five-years in the making, the company is in a rapid expansion mode as the hatchery has grown. The product is tasty and international demand reflects recognition that moi, raised on feed derived from tuna-trawler by-catch, is high-grade sushi-quality product. Currently operating with some 20 employees, a 5-fold expansion in the workforce will occur by the end of 2016 when some 50,000 pounds of moi will be harvested, processed, sold locally and shipped to distant consumers. This economic venture is demonstrating a new way for Rongelap and other youth to live with dignity and pride in the Marshall Islands, as truly ocean people.

Ri-Majol are also participating and effectively asserting their voice on the world stage. In 2014 the Marshall Islands filed applications in the International Court of Justice to hold the nine nuclear-armed states (United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel) accountable for violations of international law with respect to their nuclear disarmament obligations under the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law. At the 2015 COP21, RMI’s Foreign Minister (and now Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary for Climate Change) Tony de Brum organized a “high ambition coalition” of over 100 nations to insure adoption of a climate change treaty that limits global warming to 1.5C.

A single mosquito can project a very loud voice in the dark of the night. The Marshall Islands historical experience and committed actions locally and globally demonstrate their paramount concern: without radical and aggressive change, the world will be facing what the Marshallese have had to endure. There is no struggle more important than this, the continuing struggle to secure the most important human right, the right to exist.


— Barbara Rose Johnston is an environmental anthropologist and the senior research fellow at the Center for Political Ecology in Santa Cruz, CA. Brooke Takala Abraham is co-director of the Marshall Islands Women’s Research Initiative and a PhD candidate in Education for Sustainable Development at the University of the South Pacific in the Marshall Islands.

This brief summation of issues and concerns was funded through a collaborative partnership involving the Center for Political Ecology's Marshall Islands Action-Research Initiative and the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature’s Small-Scale Economies Project.

The copra (dried coconut meat) harvest, which has been declining over recent years.
Delivering humanitarian aid. 
Photos by Brooke Takala Abraham/ Marshall Islands Womens' Research Initiative.






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