This is my first post in what will be a series of my thoughts on the military build up on Guam and what I’m learning from reading the SEIS and doing my own research, as well as discussions with fellow Chamorros and people who call Guam home.
Litekyan / Ritidian
Made up of over 1,200 acres of coral reef and land, Ritidian is a wildlife preserve unit. It is natural habitat to all kinds of life, from the tiny tree snail to the Marianas fruit bat. It is even nesting grounds for sea turtles. Who doesn’t love sea turtles? Before it was a refuge it was ancestral land, and really, it still is. Throughout the refuge our inheritance as Chamorros are scattered and hidden in the limestone jungle and caves. Latte sets, water wells, and lusong remind us that this place is sacred. As an artist, I can’t help but marvel at the existence of Guahan’s first creators’ cave drawings and pottery. I can only hope that my art will survive and inspire for a fraction of the time that my ancestors’ pieces have.
I don’t go to Ritidian very often. The first time I went there, I was skipping school. ((Sorry mom!)) The sand was so soft. I took a step too close to the shore and it felt like I sunk at least two feet. I was worried that I was going to get buried in the soft sand when I was supposed to be buried in school work. And then I noticed the signs that said there were turtle nests on the beach so I was worried that I would accidentally disturb a nest and my feet would be covered in turtle yolk or I’d be fined or a million other bad things would happen. I’ve always had an active imagination causing some serious paranoia.
Anyways, I went back to Ritidian years later. We took the family dogs once. We had to leave after discovering that you apparently can’t bring dogs to a wildlife preserve. I guess that makes sense, but I always feel guilty going to the beach with out Viva.
The next time I went was a lot different. I was with my friends and fellow artists from Kannai. We were painting a mural on the side of one of the Refuge’s buildings. They let us use this giant binder filled with pictures of indigenous animals for reference. As I flipped through page protectors filled with text and illustrations, I became more and more confused. How could these animals be indigenous? I’ve never seen a third of them and I’ve lived here my entire life. There were so many pages of birds, of all colors. Where the hell did all these birds go? I realized our kokos and kingfishers were dying off, but I didn’t have the slightest clue that there were so many that had already been COMPLETELY wiped out of existence. I felt stupid, like that teenager skipping classes just to trudge around in the sand. How did I not know what I was missing, what our island was missing?
Ritidian, for myself and many others, has become a reminder of what we have, where we came from, what we lost, and what we must do to hold on to the things we value. Places like Ritidian, Pågat, and Cetti have helped me discover these things. They made me realize that growth and change can be good, but progress needs to be handled with care. It needs to be thought out, not rushed, like some would have done with our Congresswoman’s bill for the NDAA.
Speaking of which, why is Ritidian the new Build Up hot topic? Well, there has been some speculation that with out a firing range there will be no build up on Guam. Why is the build up so important? Some politicians and businessmen are insistent that the build up is our key to economic greatness. To be fair, the Department of Defense has said no such thing. If you take the time to read the SEIS it clearly says that the cost of living will rise. They say that housing costs will go up and that there will certainly be infrastructure challenges. The document has graphs showing that the local government will receive more revenue, but not by very much, especially since it will have spend more to make up for the strain on our already stretched infrastructure. But most people won’t bother reading the SEIS.
Anyone who does read the SEIS and brings up concerns in any public forum is labeled crazy, ungrateful, unpatriotic, uneducated, lazy, greedy, and/or a Chamorro Rights Activist. It doesn’t matter that many of the People questioning the SEIS are educated, professionals, and many are not even indigenous. There are professors, social workers, archeologists, biologists, lawyers, and veterans questioning the build up.
I don’t hate residents who want the build up because they are struggling to feed their families. I don’t blame those who want the build up because they are desperately seeking employment. I question the build up because the DOD’s own documents say that those people may end up struggling more. I do not hate those who want the build up, but I will not sit by quietly and be judged just for wanting to have a say in the future of our island. You want to risk all that we have for some trickle down change? Well, those of us who want sustainability and genuine security for our community are going to do whatever we can to provide some balance to this. I’m struggling too.
I apologize for the rambling. Back to Ritidian. Since the community gathered together to protect Pågat, the former preferred alternative firing range SDZ , the DOD has turned their gaze to Ritidian. To be clear, the firing range won’t be on Ritidian. It will be near Ritidian, making Ritidian the Surface Danger Zone, basically a “just in case” buffer. In order to do this, the current refuge area would have some limited access and the buildings would have to be relocated.
There are some obvious controversial issues that come along with this plan. Some people are worried about public access to environmental and cultural sites. Proponents of the build up say that the DOD are the best environmental stewards we could ask for and that they will keep their word about giving the community as much access as possible. Those who question the build up like to remind people about the many superfund, extremely toxic, sites on island, most of which were created by the military on the land they occupy as bases. There is also the fact that there are many sites on the military bases, that are sacred to the Chamorros and educational for anthropological and archaeological purposes. We have extremely limited access to these sites, unless of course you have a military i.d. Sumay was once a major social center for Guam. After the war it was taken. Now, if you have family buried in the Sumay cemetary, you are granted access by the DOD once a year in a very nice photo op to visit and clean the graves of your ancestors.
What about the habitat for those endangered species and threatened species? Well there was some talk about relocating them. Yeah, I know. At the first SEIS open house I talked to some officials about the Fanihi. I read the following in the SEIS.
The SDZ will impact 196 acres of Fanihi, Marianas Crow, and Kingfisher recovery habitat.
Mitigation: forest enhancement of 201 acres, or more, of limestone forest and more Brown Tree Snake research and suppression.
(This is my paraphrasing.)
The Invasive brown tree snake has been a major cause of the loss of bird population on our island. They are believed to have been stowaways on military ships. Brown tree snake research and suppression efforts have gone virtually no where.
What does the SEIS say about the live-fire noise impacts to 1,101 acres of fruit bat recovery habitat? They will implement BMPs. The officials at the open house explained that they have and will continue to do surveys of the area to monitor the population of Fanihi. If a fruit bat comes in to the construction area all construction will stop until the bats have left. I asked them what would happen if the bats hang out for a month. They said that would be a major delay. They can’t just shoo them away. So they would have to wait it out. Seriously?! If your construction timeline is reliant on the hopes that a fanihi family doesn’t decide to drop in on the ideal habitat for their sustainability, why would this be your preferred site? And why did they start talking to me about construction?! I read a direct quote about live fire impacts. The officials threw me off! I did end up asking them, “If you were a bat, would you want to move in next to a firing range?” To which they just sort of shrugged and went back to the whole forest enhancement mitigation thing. Which by the way would be on DOD land. So if you ever dream about your children observing fruit bat in their natural habitat, don’t hold your breath. Unless your family has base access of course.
The extra controversial and less obvious issue with Ritidian, being used as an SDZ, is the concerns of ancestral land owners. I will soon do another blog post on the value of land in our culture and the history of land taking, something which hits pretty close to home. I’m not going to lie though. I only know what I have heard about the history of the Ritidian land owners. It sounds as if the land was taken and returned and then in order to prevent it from being used for DOD, and probably to limit access issues and contamination, it was taken by the US Fish and Wildlife, to be created in to the refuge it is today. I’m just putting puzzle pieces together with out the picture on the box. If anyone has the complete history, please share it in the comment section and I will revise this.
So now it seems like the original landowners are concerned about how their ancestral land will be used next. The sentiment appears to be, “Hey, if you’re going to just give it up to DOD then that means you don’t really need it. It would be nice if you gave it back to us, because Guam is small and our families are big. We could use the land, damn it!” My family knows the feeling, being Harmon Cliffline ancestral land owners.
As you can see, the issues surrounding the build up, the firing range, and Ritidian are a lot more complex then it seems. Want to learn more? Visit Ritidian, the refuge, or read about it on Guampedia. You can also read our Congresswoman’s proposed bill H.R. 4402, which basically allows DOD to skip over the NEPA process, stripping us of a voice in the future of our home, and allows them to legally do what they want with our resources. After reading the bill you may feel inclined to sign the petition against it. Oh and if you dare, you can read the SEIS. Just be careful, many people who have read it become crazy, lazy, uneducated activists, or at least that’s what some people like to say. Don’t worry, you’ll be in pretty good company.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to share them in the comment section. Just keep it civil, please.