Protecting Paradise on Pågan Island

The people of the Mariana Islands will fight to protect our homes and our way of life from military intervention as hard as we must and for as long as we must.

Photo of Pågan Island ca. 1970.
"The people of the Mariana Islands will fight to protect our homes and our way of life as hard as we must and for as long as we must," said Jerome Kaipat Aldan, mayor of the Northern Islands. (Pågan Island, ca. 1970. Courtesy of Cinta Kaipat)

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Editor’s Note: The author of this piece, Mayor Jerome Aldan, passed away unexpectedly on Feb. 18, 2017. In his footsteps, Northern Marianas residents have continued to defend their homeland. On Sept. 12, 2018, the Tinian Women Association, Guardians of Gani’, PåganWatch and the Center for Biological Diversity appealed a decision by a U.S. District Court allowing relocation of the Marines. The groups are represented by Earthjustice.

I was eight years old when Mt. Pågan, one of two volcanoes that created Pågan Island, erupted. I have many precious childhood memories of that beautiful island. I remember going for swims in the ocean. Small houses made of wood and tin blended in with the natural beauty.

To this day, Pågan remains a paradise, a place to go and be close to nature. The water is clean and uncorrupted. It is a pristine place, a natural wonder.

The U.S. military wants to destroy that paradise, turning it into a live-fire training ground for sailors, pilots and Marines. In 2013, the Navy and Marines proposed expanding training activities in the Mariana Islands. In addition to expanding existing facilities on the island of Tinian, the Marines have set their sights on taking over the entirety of Pågan, displacing those who still call it home.

The beaches I swam off as a child would be turned into battlegrounds 16 weeks out of the year. Hundreds of Marines would storm these beaches in landing craft, with helicopters, fighter jets and drones screaming overhead, firing real bullets and dropping real bombs.

The military’s plans would destroy Pågan. The island would become a wasteland. That is unacceptable to me, and to many others.

I have vowed to fight this to the end to ensure this horrific vision does not become reality.

Pågan is not uninhabited. The people who live there now are the children of the people who were there when the volcano erupted. They have deep memories and carry the beautiful stories from their parents of living there. Pågan is what feels like home to many of us.

I live in Saipan, but I go back to Pågan when I can, sometimes staying for a few months. Getting to that remote island isn’t easy. It is a 200-mile boat ride from Saipan, but it is a beautiful trip passing by many of the Northern Mariana Islands—Anatahan, Sarigan, Guguan, Alamagan and others—until you can finally see Pågan’s distinctive profile rising from the ocean waves.

We have plans for Pågan. We want to resettle it. We want to revitalize its economy, and make it a destination for ecotourists and others.

But none of this will happen if the military gets its way, and bombs and bullets fly as Marines practice storming its beaches time after time. The people of the Marianas deserve better than this.

The military’s plans would also be an ecological disaster. Pågan is a biologically and geologically diverse island that is home to many threatened and endangered species.

This high-intensity military training would destroy these irreplaceable plant and animal species. Extensive degradation of the surrounding waters and reefs would also be unavoidable.

Pågan and all the Northern Islands are irreplaceable and incredibly special places. But they are so vulnerable and isolated. The military thinks their highest and best use is to be bombed and blown to oblivion to ready American soldiers for Pacific conflicts that may never come.

The military is wrong, and the people of these islands will fight to protect our homes and our way of life as hard as we must and for as long as we must.

We will prevail. We have to.

This post originally appeared on the website of the Progressive Media Project.

In Memoriam: Mayor Aldan’s dedication to defending the island and bringing its people back to their home was recognized at a state memorial service on Feb. 28, 2017. Gov. Ralph Torres’ eulogy to Mayor Aldan recalled: “Words cannot do justice to the pride he held and how that pride filled his words as he showcased the miraculous beauty of the island … When he spoke of [Pågan], he was speaking of the families that lived there in the past, many who wish to call the land home today, and the generations ahead of him who would call that place of tremendous beauty home in the future.”

Jerome Kaipat Aldan was mayor of the Northern Islands.

Established in 1988, Earthjustice's Mid-Pacific Office, located in Honolulu, Hawaiʻi, works on a broad range of environmental and community health issues, including to ensure water is a public trust and to achieve a cleaner energy future.