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Seeking Compensation for Radiation Survivors in the Marshall Islands: the contribution of anthropology

Seeking Compensation for Radiation Survivors in the Marshall Islands: the contribution of anthroplogy

When the Marshall Islands gained its independence from the United States in 1986, the U.S. Government provided a one-time settlement for all past, present and future damages incurred during the nuclear weapons testing program from 1946 to 1958. A portion of this settlement was set aside to establish the Nuclear Claims Tribunal. The Tribunal awards monetary compensation for radiogenic illnesses and land damage, or loss of land use resulting from the testing program. To date, more than $63 million has been awarded by the Tribunal to individuals with radiogenic illnesses despite the fact that the Tribunal only has $45.75 million to award for both health and land claims. In other words, the money provided by the U.S. Government for compensation is manifestly inadequate. The Tribunal has not awarded any land claims although two communities, Bikini and Enewetak, have filed land claims with the Tribunal. Those cases are currently before the Tribunal and are expected to be resolved soon. The focus of this paper is Rongelap, a community whose homelands include the Rongelap, Ailinginae, and Rongerik atolls. Rongelap is in the process of preparing its land claim.


In November 1998, the Public Advocate for the Nuclear Claims Tribunal asked the authors, as anthropologists, to assist with the preparation of a land claim for the Rongelapese, who were the closest downwind community exposed to radioactive fallout from the Bravo test, a 15-megaton thermonuclear weapon detonated on Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954. The Rongelapese suffer from acute health problems as a result of their exposure to the fallout and internal exposure from inhaling and ingesting radiation, as well as from living on their severely contaminated islands (on which, incidentally, they can no longer reside). The U.S. Government used the people of Rongelap, without their awareness or consent, to study the effects of radioactivity on human beings and to study how human beings absorb radiation from a contaminated environment. As part of our study, we framed the notions of "land" and "loss" from a Marshallese perspective. This involved developing a culturally-appropriate strategy for assessing the value of land in a non-market environment that could become part of the basis of Rongelap's compensation claim. We proposed collaborative participatory ethnographic research, working with an advisory committee and the people of Rongelap to design, execute, analyze and report research findings. One outcome of this work was a 150 page document that demonstrates customary resource relations, current living conditions in the areas outside of Rongelap where the community currently resides, and the consequences of nuclear testing and radiation-induced damage to human/environmental systems.


For decades, the people of Rongelap have complained about medical and scientific researchers who documented radiation-induced decay in Rongelap bodies and ecosystems, yet ignored or failed to treat the broader health care and other needs of the people. The Rongelapese also complain that research conducted by outsiders does not involve them, and typically fails to consider knowledge and first-hand experiences with radiation. The Rongelapese have served as study subjects for decades, but rarely receive the results of research, or derive any direct benefit from reports and investigations prepared by outsiders. With these considerations in mind, our research project was purposefully transparent.

Fieldwork in the Marshall Islands took place in spring and summer of 1999. We worked with representatives from the Nuclear Claims Tribunal and a Marshallese advisory committee to determine the best ways to elicit ethnographic information from the Rongelap community and:

1. establish the key variables that sustained their previously self-sufficient way of life,

2. identify key events and conditions that adversely impacted these resource relations,

3. document their perceptions of the broader social and cultural damages associated with these damages and losses.

Fieldwork involved interviews with members of the exiled Rongelap community in public hearings and community meetings.

Accompanying several members of the community on a trip back to Rongelap was especially important. This trip was organized by the Rongelap local government to celebrate the commencement of the Rongelap Resettlement Project (an effort to reduce radiation present in the soil and vegetation, build basic community infrastructure, and eventually allow resettlement). This celebration brought members of the Rongelap community, Marshallese local and national government representatives, and representatives from the United States government, via boat and plane, back to Rongelap atoll. For many elders this trip represented the first return to their homelands since their self-imposed evacuation in 1985. During the several days that people camped on Rongelap, island elders visited their lands and the grave sites of their ancestors. They walked through their past accompanied by the youth whose sense of home had, up to this point, been confined to an imagination shaped by stories from elders whose lives and way of life were grounded in fundamentally different experiences.


The people of Rongelap believe, and the documentary record confirms, that the United States monitored the increased radiation burdens of the Rongelapese people while living on their contaminated home islands; that the U.S. was aware of the extraordinary levels of fallout from Bravo and subsequent tests; was aware of contamination in the marine as well as terrestrial ecosystem; was aware of the bioaccumulative nature of contamination; noted radiation-induced changes in vegetative and marine life that islanders relied upon for food; and documented the human health consequences of this systematic and cumulative exposure. The people of Rongelap were unwitting subjects in a massive, long-term experiment on the effects of low-level and systemic radiation on human health.

Assuming a contamination-free environment, the highest and best uses of Rongelap, Ailinginae and Rongerik atolls includes those associated with customary residential and agrarian uses. Customary uses encompass a rich range of social, cultural, economic activities, values, and meanings that allowed a vibrant, marine-based, self-sufficient and sustainable way of life.

"Property damage" assessments and compensatory valuations must reflect contamination of terrestrial and marine ecosystems including subsurface aquifers (and water storage facilities built of contaminated coral), lagoon and reef heads, clam beds, reef fisheries, turtle and bird nesting grounds; as well as those resources important for sustaining the social and cultural aspects of life (for example, cultural resources including family cemeteries, sacred sites and sanctuaries).

After contamination forced the Rongelapese to leave their home islands, the community dispersed to Mejatto, Majuro, Ebeye, and other locations. Involuntary resettlement placed hundreds of people on small plots of rented land, creating extremely dense, unsanitary, and impoverished communities. The Rongelap community is alienated from the land and their traditional resources. This loss of access affects diet, health, and household economy and severely inhibits the Rongelapese ability to produce or reproduce cultural knowledge about the local environment -- knowledge which is essential to the survival and long-term well-being of the community.

Environmental contamination has robbed the Rongelapese of their customary access to natural resources used to sustain households, communities, customary exchanges for other goods, or income generation. As a result, the Rongelapese are unable to practice principles of responsible stewardship, and they are unable to transmit their knowledge of sustainable access and use of resources to younger generations. The longer the people are off their home islands, the more difficult it is for people to exercise their land rights and ensure that the land is passed on to future generations. Rongelapese who grow up away from their islands lack the knowledge about essential cultivation areas and dangers that are important to survival if they return to the land.

Leaving their home islands has had profound implications on the Rongelapese community. Fragmentation, for example, has made it difficult for the Rongelapese to remain unified as a community. Because people reside in different locations, and because the younger generation grows up in a lifestyle radically different than their parents and grandparents, community unity is a significant challenge for the local leadership.


The local elected leadership for Rongelap, as well as the majority of the community, are actively engaged with the United States and Marshall Islands governments to determine what type of future is best for the people given their current situation. Our report contributes to the community empowerment effort already underway and helps improve the community's ability to define their own injuries and to make their own decisions about how to proceed.

The point that was consistently articulated in interview after interview during the data collection is that land, in itself, cannot be adequately "valued" in a market sense of the term. Land for the Marshallese is their birthright, their past, the means to sustain families, and provide for the future. For the Rongelapese what has been lost is the means to sustain a selfsufficient way of life. Community members have many ideas about what might help the Rongelap people and the Marshall Islands nation reclaim a healthy, viable way of life, and help displaced Rongelapese regain their sense of integrity.

Our documentation of the human environmental impacts of nuclear testing on the Rongelap community should play a significant role in compensation negotiations on a number of levels. First, our document is critical to the Rongelapese land claim because it demonstrates the significant gaps in prior efforts to value land and compensate for its damage or loss. Prior efforts imposed notions of western property rights and assumed the existence of a market for land and real estate. Our report notes that in the Marshall Islands, the rights to use land are inherited and such rights are codified and protected by the national constitution, and land cannot be bought or sold. Land is an essential component of the social structure and Rongelap cultural identity, and its loss is intrinsically linked to sociocultural health and well-being. Our report argues that compensation for loss of land and the consequential effects on a way of life must reflect more than the assessed value of real estate -- compensation must reflect the actual biophysical and sociocultural damages and losses experienced by residents.

We expect that our report will also play a role in the compensation claims made by other Marshallese atoll communities, and by the nation itself in efforts to identify the effects of radiation and nuclear stigmatization on the nation's economy, and in efforts to predict and provide for the lasting health care and housing needs of affected citizens as a result of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Testing program. Given the inadequacies of existing compensation (tied to the Compact of Free association between the United States Government and the Republic of the Marshall Islands that expires in 2001), this report, with its holistic approach to documenting damage and loss, should prove useful to the Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands as it negotiates additional compensation and a new Compact with the United States.

While the U.S. Government has accepted responsibility for the consequences of its nuclear weapons testing program in its former Trust Territory, the U.S. Government systematically covered up information, excluded groups of Rongelapese and other Marshallese and their islands from inclusion in medical and environmental monitoring programs, and failed to report to the Marshallese people or the American public the full extent of damage caused by its testing program. Our project also demonstrates how anthropologists can continue to work with communities and governments to recognize and take steps to mitigate human environmental rights abuses. It is our hope that our report and its methodology will be of use to other communities as they seek research assistance and participate in research projects that document human environmental rights abuse in ways that allow meaningful redress.

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