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US military should end its war on the Okinawa dugong

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Waves rocked our boat as we glided across Henoko Bay in Okinawa, Japan. Below us, fish and sea turtles danced through an underwater wonderland of colorful corals and swaying seagrass.

But as we peered down into these beautiful blue waters, we spotted something else: Massive concrete blocks have been dumped in the bay, crushing delicate coral formations. Not far away, we saw a huge seawall being built.

{mosads}The U.S. military is behind this construction of a new Marine air base in the waters around Henoko Point. Ultimately, the project will fill in and pave over an area of the bay the size of about 80 football fields.


Base construction will devastate this whole beautiful ecosystem and it will likely be a death sentence for the critically endangered Okinawa dugong, a manatee relative that counts the sea grass in these sheltered waters as one of its last good feeding grounds.

But the Trump administration may soon be forced to reevaluate this destructive and unnecessary project. A federal judge in San Francisco will soon decide the outcome of a lawsuit against the base by Okinawan plaintiffs and U.S. environmental groups.

Our lawsuit challenges the military’s failure to consider how the base will harm the dugong and its sensitive seagrass habitat. It’s the first challenge to an overseas project under the National Historic Preservation Act, which protects cultural resources and landmarks. The law applies because Okinawa dugongs are cultural icons for the Okinawan people and afforded national monument status under Japanese law.

Still, it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to get our government to halt construction. It’s clearly in America’s own self-interest to rethink this project.

As I saw on my recent visit to Okinawa, the new airbase won’t just push the dugong over the edge of extinction.

It will also cause irreparable harm to our relationship with the people of Okinawa.

I witnessed overwhelming local opposition to this base. Indeed, Okinawans’ profound dismay is evident in everything from political campaigns to daily protests at the construction site.

That’s no surprise. The dugong is more than a cultural landmark for the indigenous culture of Okinawa, which was originally an independent kingdom called Ryukyu.

This gentle marine mammal — reputed to bring friendly warnings about tsunamis — is also deeply beloved by ordinary Okinawans as a symbol of everything that sets this island apart from mainland Japan.

Our Okinawan co-plaintiffs know that experts believe this base could be the last straw for the dugong. In 1997, there were an estimated 50 Okinawa dugongs left. There are now likely far fewer, and the new runways would shatter one of their final refuges.

But the dugong isn’t the only factor. When it comes to America’s military presence in Asia, the people of Okinawa already shoulder a massive and disproportionate burden. The U.S. military occupies 20 percent of this small island.

Controversy over American bases has dominated Okinawan politics for years, and it’s intensified by incidents like the death last month of an elderly civilian killed in a drunk-driving accident involving a U.S. Marine.

The Trump administration may believe growing concern over North Korea’s missile program can excuse anything, including paving over coral reefs to build this base.

But there are security alternatives that won’t desecrate the dugong and Henoko Bay. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and other U.S. senators, for example, have proposed simply relocating Marine aircraft to Kadena Air Base, an existing Air Force facility.

To many Okinawans, the U.S. military’s decision to ignore such alternatives and crush this crucial sanctuary for the dugong feels like an assault on their culture.

The Department of Defense has to stop charging forward on this deeply destructive project. There’s still time to save the dugong — and our relationship with the people of Okinawa.

Miyoko Sakashita and an attorney and the director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program.

Tags Japan John McCain Okinawa

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