Okinawa Air Base Deal Still Controversial

New plan does not guarantee survival of endangered marine mammal


Peter Galvin, Center for Biological Diversity (USA) +1-520-907-1533

Marcello Mollo, Earthjustice (USA) +1-510-550-6700

Sekine Takamichi (Japan) +81-078-842-1955

Takuma Higashionna (Japan) +81-098-055-8587

A coalition of hundreds of US and international conservation groups, representing over 12 million people, remain opposed to a new US air base in Okinawa. The coalition will deliver a letter on Thursday to President George Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi outlining the groups’ concerns.

Last night, the United States and Japan announced a new plan that would involve building near, rather than directly on top of, the coral reef as originally planned. Under the new plan, the airbase would occupy part of a peninsula now hosting a US Marine base, as well as a portion of reclaimed marine habitat on either side of the peninsula.

Conservation groups say that any airbase at Henoko, Okinawa could potentially devastate a coral reef and sea grass field, which scientists say could have grave consequences for the imperiled Okinawa dugong (saltwater manatee). According to a study by leading dugong scientists and published by the United Nations Environment Programme, coastal construction, land reclamation and terrestrial runoff threaten the seagrass beds on which the dugong relies for survival. The UN also reports that dugong habitat could be damaged by other military activities associated with the construction and use of an airbase at Henoko. This damage includes pollution resulting from noise caused by ammunition drills and military practice, hazardous chemicals, soil erosion and the disposal of depleted uranium weapons.

“For Okinawans, the dugong has profound 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. Okinawan tradition sees the dugong as a friendly messenger warning of sea disasters such as tsunamis.”

This weekend, a security meeting is scheduled to discuss the new proposal and other issues. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will meet Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Defense Agency Director-General Yoshinori Ono in Washington, DC. Both sides hope to resolve this dispute before a planned trip by President Bush to Okinawa in mid-November. Okinawa, which accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s landmass, already hosts 75 percent of the US military presence in Japan.

Increasing International Opposition

The plan for an air base at Henoko has faced continual demonstrations by Okinawans for more than two years and is opposed by environmental groups from around the world. The latest plan would require landfilling portions of two saltwater bays on which the endangered dugong rely for their survival. Many remain concerned that destruction of this key marine habitat could doom the last remaining Okinawan dugong to extinction and destroy essential habitat for other threatened sea life, such as sea turtles.

“The Okinawa dugong, which is an endangered species, should be protected domestically and internationally,” said Sekine Takamichi an attorney with the Japan Environmental Lawyers Federation. “We call for the suspension of any relocation plans that involve Okinawa dugong habitat and Henoko Bay. We also request the governments to set up a dugong sanctuary and outline a dugong conservation plan based on the IUCN’s (World Conservation Union) recommendation.”

“Construction of the new airbase, even under the new plan, would cause severe ecological damage to one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth,” said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity. “For this reason, conservation groups around the world are asking President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi to cancel the base construction plan in its entirety and protect the Okinawa dugong, a creature recognized as a national monument in Japan.”

The region at issue is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the Pacific. Okinawa is second only to the Great Barrier Reef in terms of marine biodiversity, and the sea grass beds in northern Okinawa are the feeding ground of the last remaining dugong in Japanese waters. The sea grass and reef also provide important habitat for numerous rare wildlife species, including three species of sea turtle.

Local residents voted overwhelmingly against the airbase project in a 1997 referendum, but Japanese and US authorities have repeatedly ignored their voices.

A coalition of US and Japanese conservation groups went to court in September 2003 to stop the original project. The case is currently being heard in US Federal District Court in San Francisco. The lawsuit asks the US Department of Defense to comply with the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) by publicly assessing the impacts of the proposed project on the Okinawa dugong in consultation with Okinawan communities. The NHPA requires US agencies to assess the impacts of their activities on cultural icons of foreign nations. Because of their significance to Okinawan culture, dugongs are included on a Japanese government list of protected cultural properties.

“The Department of Defense has a legal duty to protect the cultural resources and national monuments of other nations,” said Marcello Mollo of Earthjustice, who is representing the coalition in the United States. “Now that the most destructive airstrip plan over Henoko’s reef is off the table, we see momentum toward an eventual cancellation of this entire air base. The courageous protesters in Okinawa have brought the world’s attention to this issue. But the fight goes on.”

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