Climate concerns grow amongst Mariana Islands locals as U.S. military expands in region

Tinian Harbor Repair Project, March 2021 (Photo: Joint Region Marianas/Facebook)

The Mariana Islands have been under foreign occupation for centuries, and while they’re now a self-governing commonwealth, locals are becoming increasingly concerned about the U.S. military’s presence in the region and its impact on the local environment. 

In the past 200 years, control of the Northern Mariana Islands has shifted from Spain to Germany to Japan to the United States. Now, residents have U.S. citizenship and are entitled to free movement around the states — a potential lifeline if climate change continues to wreak havoc on the islands.

Former Northern Mariana Islands House Representative, Sheila Babauta is vocal about the climate crisis, having chaired the Natural Resources Committee. She said extreme weather was occurring at an increased frequency and sea levels were rising.

Babauta told the ABC’s Climate Mana one does not have to look far to see the devastation caused by climate change in Saipan, Guam and the rest of the Mariana Islands.

“It looks like disappearing shorelines. We can literally see concrete structures disappear because of the rising sea levels,” she said.

“And then there are a number of issues, you know, surrounding us, like plastic pollution, illegal fishing, an increase in militarisation.

“And all of this is intertwined with climate change and the impacts that we’re feeling.”

These impacts have made headlines in recent years. One report by Nexus Media News found the U.S. military was the single largest institutional source of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.

The report added The Cost of War Project estimated it emitted 51 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2020, more than the emissions of most countries. The bulk of those emissions come from fuel use and maintaining more than half a million buildings.

On Tinian, two-thirds of the island is leased to the military, and they are constructing a new multi-million-dollar divert airfield, which officials have dubbed the most important project in the region.

Babauta said the conversation surrounding the link between the U.S. military and climate change became “very complex” because of the islands’ relationship with the U.S.

“We have family members and friends who are in the military right now who have sacrificed their lives in the military for many years,” she said.

“Families have grieved the loss of their loved ones. And so, it becomes a sensitive topic, but we feel that it’s necessary.

“We have to look at the major emitters and we have to hold these major emitters accountable.

“That is where militarisation comes in because, you know, the statements that extracting oil and emitting carbon is all in the name of national security.

“We then have to talk about what national security means for us … because national security for us in the Mariana Islands is threatened by climate change. It is not China. It is not North Korea. Climate change is our number-one threat.”

Earlier this year, the new commander for Joint Region Marianas, Rear Admiral Gregory Huffman, visited Saipan for the 4 July parade.

When asked for his response to residents and locals who were critical of the military’s presence and wary of its environmental impact in the region, he said the military was “changing our posture and improving things”.

“We are working closely with all of the communities. We are working closely with our environmental partners to ensure that anything that goes on is, is taking all those things into account,” he said.

“So, I think it’s really important that we have a robust military presence throughout the region, across all of the islands, and that’s really the most important part of things.”

The military build-up is especially noticeable in Tinian, which has just over 2,000 residents. It’s also where the majority of the military has leased land for projects, training and testing. 

Deborah Fleming, a Tinian local and advocate in the Alternative Zero Commission, a group dedicated to exposing military plans that will harm land, sea and people of the Marianas, shared her view on the military’s environmental impact on the island.

“America’s military are notorious polluters of places they occupy, polluters in the environment and in the community because they’re just so huge in numbers,” she said.

“The magnitude of equipment that they bring in and how that impacts, you know, our roadways and how that impacts our… We have only one aquifer on this island.”

Fleming said at times there were more military personnel there than the regular population.

“So, do they have an impact on climate change? They absolutely impact our little fragile island.”

That sentiment is shared by Lucy Blanco Maratita, an attorney, government worker, community advocate, and Mariana native who has lived on Tinian on and off since 1986.

“As is evident to anybody seeing what’s going on with the divert airfield and its construction, there’s, of course, going to be habitat destruction,” she said.

“But it has to somehow be able to live harmoniously as much as possible with the local community of Tinian or the local environment.

“I heard that a few months ago when they had a stakeholders meeting inside Saipan at the Crowne Plaza, that it was a first to have the secretaries of each of the departments of the Commonwealth actually be present. To meet with our leaders, our elected leaders, with the military in Saipan.”

But Fleming said the meeting was “very upsetting” because although locals were “the actual directly impacted stakeholders”, the meeting was closed to the public.

“That’s always been the military’s strategy, to make it economically hard for us to attend because we’d have to pay a round-trip airfare or in a car,” she said.

Fleming and Maratita said raising awareness was critical to ensure the next generation continued to care about the issues and advocate further.

Sometimes, as former representative Babauta told Obama, it can feel as though the islands are at the table with Goliath. But Fleming and Maratita not only want an equal seat at the table — they want an equitable way to get there too.

“Sometimes I think Tinian seems like … just a small dot on the map out there. It’s only 2,044 people. It’s not enough to make a dent in someone’s plans, I guess,” said Lucy. “So, it’s up to us to be the advocate to find that ladder that gets us there [to the table], because we know they’re not going to probably bring it down to where we can access it easily,” she said.