A coalition of conservation groups from both sides of the Pacific filed a lawsuit (Okinawa Dugong v. Rumsfeld C-03-4350) in US District Court here today against the US Department of Defense over plans to construct a new heliport facility on a coral reef on the east coast of Okinawa, Japan. Conservationists are concerned that the proposed 1.5-mile-long airbase to be built on reclaimed land over a coral reef would destroy the remaining habitat of the endangered Okinawa dugong, a cultural icon of the Okinawan people.
This lawsuit asks the US Department of Defense to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by conducting a complete public analysis to assess the impacts of the proposed project on the Okinawa dugong (a relative of the manatee, also known as seacow). The NHPA requires agencies of the US government to conduct a full public process before undertaking activities outside the United States that might impact the cultural and natural resources of other nations.
At issue is the proposed relocation of the existing US Futenma Air Station in Okinawa to the coastal area of Henoko. This area on the eastern coast of Okinawa is the site of sea grass beds upon which the Okinawa dugong depend for their food.
"The American military base planned on this coral reef threatens the survival of the Okinawa dugong and should be reconsidered," said Takenobu Tsuchida of the Dugong Network Okinawa. "We are glad our friends in the United States have joined our efforts to preserve an essential icon of Okinawan culture."
Peter Galvin, Pacific Director of the US-based Center for Biological Diversity stated, "This population is considered the most isolated and imperiled dugong population in the world. The Okinawa dugong is so threatened that it has been classified as being nearly extinct." Galvin added "Scientists believe that only 50 dugong survive in the waters off Okinawa. This project, if constructed, would very likely drive the Okinawa dugong into extinction."
"The United States must be sensitive to Japan's national treasures, as well as international obligations to protect the environment. The dugong has a rich history and holds a special place in Okinawan mythology and culture," said Takaaki Kagohashi, Japan Environmental Lawyers Foundation. "The people of Okinawa deserve respect for their cultural and natural heritage just as Americans would expect government agencies to protect their natural treasures."
The coalition bringing the lawsuit include, US Plaintiffs: Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network and four Japanese groups: Dugong Network Okinawa, Save the Dugong Foundation, Committee Against Heliport Construction - Save Life Society, and the Japan Environmental Law Federation. Earthjustice represents all the plaintiffs.
The Dugong, an Okinawan Cultural Icon
The waters off Okinawa are the northern-most home of the dugong. The Okinawa dugong is a genetically isolated marine mammal listed by the government of Japan since 1972 as a "Natural Monument" under Japan's "Cultural Properties Protection Law." Since 1955, the dugong was protected as a cultural monument by the autonomous Ryukyu Prefecture due largely to its status as a revered and sacred animal among native Okinawans. The Okinawa dugong is also listed under the US Endangered Species Act.
"For Okinawans, the dugong compares only to the American bald eagle in terms of cultural and historical significance," said Takuma Higashionna from the Okinawa-based, Save the Dugong Foundation. "The myth of the mermaid comes from sailors who saw the dugong. Historically, Okinawans believe the dugong to be a friendly harbinger of sea disasters such as tsunamis."
"Living here in Yambaru for seventeen years," said Ms. Anna Koshiishi, an individual plaintiff in the case, "I have learned many important things from nature. All life on the Earth has close connection and plays an important role. Every life is indispensable to keep the balance of this connection. To save Okinawa dugong, which is a globally threatened species, is to save my own life."
US Duty to Protect International Historic Resources
The National Historic Preservation Act is international in scope. It establishes a policy that "the Federal Government, in cooperation with other nations," will "provide leadership in the preservation of the prehistoric and historic resources of the United States and of the international community of nations." Congress added Section 402 to NHPA in 1980 to comply with US obligations under the World Heritage Convention and to mitigate the adverse effects of federal undertakings abroad.
"Given the obvious impacts on the dugong and its habitat from construction of the new base, the Department of Defense should consult with Japanese environmentalists and Japanese cultural officials in a fully public process before moving ahead with this project," said Martin Wagner of Earthjustice, who is representing the coalition in the United States.
"With a globalizing economy, environmental issues have become borderless," said Kagohashi of Japan Environmental Lawyers Foundation. "Not a few environmental problems need to be addressed by international collaboration. This cooperation between the Japan and US environmental organizations and environmental lawyers illustrates this new style of international collaboration. We believe wildlife and human beings live in one big house called the Earth. Dugong's name as a plaintiff in this case will show how we are all connected."
Opposition to Motion to Dismiss (pdf file)