US military buildup in Guam

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Guam (Image by Flickr user Janine (cc: by-nc-sa))

Story by Akiko Fujita for PRI's "The World"

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The population of Guam is expected to increase by 50 percent in the next four years. That's because the U.S. military plans to redeploy thousands of Marines and their families from the Japanese island of Okinawa. The move could bring an economic boom to the Pacific island but it threatens to strain Guam's infrastructure.

The US and Japan agreed to the troop transfer three years ago, to reduce US troop presence in Okinawa.

Joe Arnett with the Guam Chamber of Commerce says the move will transform the island. "This investment into Guam in unprecedented. Guam has never seen this level of investment into the island ever before."

Arnett expects the military buildup to create 30,000 new jobs on the island. Many will be temporary construction jobs filled by foreign workers. But Arnett says high paying; permanent jobs will stay in the community.

It sounds like a good opportunity for an island struggling with eight percent unemployment. But Senator Judi Guthertz says Guam isn't ready to shoulder the load.

"We're not going to be ready unless resources are made available to the civilian community," said Guthertz.

Guthertz oversees the legislative committee for the military buildup. She supports the Marine transfer, but says the American government isn't doing enough to support Guam.

While the US and Japan has pledged 10 billion dollars for the buildup itself, they haven't guaranteed large investments in the civilian communality. Guthertz says that's a concern in light of a recent environmental impact statement. It said the buildup will attract tens of thousands to the island, perhaps as much as a 50 percent jump in a few years.

Guthertz says the US government isn't playing fair, because Guam is only a US territory. "We don't vote for presidents, we don't have voting representatives in the Senate, we have a non-voting delegate to the US Congress. So our political rights are frankly quite limited."

Guam's problems boil down to infrastructure. The waste water treatment plant can't handle a large population. The roads aren't wide enough to handle many cars. There is just one port and the shipments there are expected to jump from 100,000 containers to 600,000 in just a few years.

At Guam Memorial Hospital, the island's only civilian hospital, chief planner William Condo [PH] says he's already near capacity. "We know that we are not big enough right now to not only handle the population for normal operations, but what if a major disaster happens?"

The military already owns a third of the island, and the Marines aren't the only unit expanding. The Army is building a missile defense system; the Air Force is adding more drones; the Navy is expanding its port to house more aircraft carriers.

Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero teaches at the University of Guam. She says the buildup threatens the native Chamorro culture that dates back four thousand years. She's rallying the community to oppose the military's plans.

"A lot of Chamorro families will be losing their land," said Leon Guerrero. "There will be 2,300 acres of land taken for this military build up if their plans go accordingly."

The military says it’s sensitive to the community's concerns. Public Affairs Officer, Captain Neal Ruggiero says the Defense Department has consulted the governor, legislators and community leaders throughout the process. He also says the government is securing funds to help improve the island's infrastructure.

Senator Guthertz says Guam didn't have a say in the decision to bring Marines to the island, but the community can speak out next month. The military will host public hearings on their proposed plans before signing off on Guam's future.

"Once this report is signed off on, it's an open license for the United States military to do whatever they want to do on Guam," said Guthertz. "So the only time we have to influence what will happen here, and happen to us, is now."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston.

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