US military bases in Okinawa threaten ecosystems

| 1st October 2018
Lethal pollution and damage from construction works continues to threaten the endangered species and indigenous people of Okinawa, Japan

To tell the truth we don't know how much contamination we are facing from the past, the present and even into the future.

The stunningly biodiverse Ryukyuan island chain has been garnering international headlines for its local protests, election manoeuvrings, and the planned relocation of the US Futenma military base to Oura Bay, Okinawa.

Local resentments are mounting against forty pre-existing military bases and the ecological destruction they have caused, but these local voices have not been represented in global conversations. 

Prior to annexation by Japan, Okinawa was an independent kingdom. It is home to indigenous people whose traditions have kept the area's interconnected ecosystems in balance. But construction is endangering Okinawa's aquatic and terrestrial environments. 

Endangering species

The Oura Bay alone is home to 262 endangered species. The military facility plans to dump 21 million metric tons of sand and soil mixed with the alien invasive Argentine ant and Red-back spider into its waters. 

In this distinctive natural environment, 26 newly discovered endemic species have been found since 2006.

These islands are home to the Sekisei Lagoonresides, Japan’s largest - and dying - coral reef. Corals currently on Japan's 'red list' - Okinawensis veron and Sargassum carpophyllum - could be crushed by the construction works. It is a sad irony this would occur in our International Year of the Reef, 2018.

To tell the truth we don't know how much contamination we are facing from the past, the present and even into the future.

The area's seagrass is the last northern feeing ground for the critically endangered dugong and it will be buried. This revered marine mammal is part of Okinawa’s creation story, held-up as a Japanese National Monument and protected by the US Historic Preservation Act. It will face extinction if further construction goes through.

Regular local protests and prefectural efforts such as the ‘Okinawa’s treasure, World’s treasure: Let’s Pass it on to the Future’ symposium have tried to demonstrate the disastrous ecological consequences of this project. 

The past governor, alongside the Centre for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice, recently lost the court battle against the US Department of Defence. The department claimed that the construction has “taken into account” the relevant issues, and that the Japanese government had fulfilled its obligations surveying the situation. 

Deforestation and contamination

Sea turtles will lose their egg-laying grounds and the temporary offshore yards will disturb marine animals. The large base - approx. 1,800m in length - will rest on an extremely fragile seabed that is vulnerable to earthquakes. 

As a possible solution, François Simard, a Deputy Director of the IUCN, called for declaring the bay a protected marine area in accordance with the Aichi Biodiversity Target 11. However, the protection of an area to prevent military expansion has not worked well on these islands in the past.

The Yanbaru forest, which is a rare and rich subtropical evergreen forest with 11 endemic species, was slated to be put on the UNESCO World Natural Heritage list for its’ biological uniqueness. Yet, it hosts the US Jungle Training Warfare area. An expansion of this site in 2016 introduced six helipads for the upgraded MV 22 Ospreys, and lead to the felling of 24,000 trees and to the disturbance of endangered species such as the Okinawa rail.

Since 1998, there have been over 415 incidents of toxic spills and dumping from the military facilities. Polluted matter has flowed into rivers and embedded itself into the ecosystem. It's horrific to imagine this occurring yet again, especially amidst seeming efforts to house nuclear weapons in the the Oura Bay.

Extreme contamination 

The investigative journalist Jon Mitchell and the Okinawan organization, Informed Public Project, have found sewage and diesel leaking into rivers that provide drinking water at levels that far exceed maximum EPA recommendations. 

This level of exposure poses severe threats to wildlife. Near one base, mongoose and habu snakes were found to have respectively high levels of PCBs and DDTs, an internationally banned chemical. DDT is a poisonous insecticide that magnifies through the food chain.  

Local populations live in fear of these high levels of contamination, particularly because fish make up a large part of their diet. 

Added to this, it was uncovered in 1996 that US aircrafts were test-firing over 1,500 depleted urranium shells near an important fishing ground in Torishima. 

In 2015, the Pentagon's release of US Marine Corps’ documents from the 1970s revealed “large fish kills” in the waters near Camp Kinser. Inspections demonstrated a high concentration hazardous compounds in the sea.

No accountability 

Shinako Oyakawa, co-founder of the ASCILs, an anti-base group advocating for Okinawa’s self-determination and sustainable indigenous environmental practices, said: “To tell the truth we don't know how much contamination we are facing from the past, the present and even into the future.”

This opacity around the exact amount of contamination is due to the level of secrecy around US military practices abroad, and the current US-Japan Status of Forces Agreement which prohibits the inspection of bases and removes accountability for its’ environmental mismanagement.

Now that the anti-base Governor Takashi Denny has won the prefectural elections, the central government is planning to bring the prefecture to court. 

However, in this international dialogue on the matter, it is fundamental that these issues aren't only approached from political angles. We need a strong framework for environmental protection, itself an important - though neglected - aspect of ensuring our future security. 

This Author 

Temo Dias is a journalist and researcher in East Asian political affairs, environmental issues and governmental corruption. 

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