Photos of life on Pagan Island ca. 1970 courtesy of Cinta Kaipat
I was eight years old when Mt. Pagan, one of two volcanoes that created Pagan Island in the Mariana Islands, erupted in 1981. Hundreds of us were evacuated to Saipan, another island in the chain under American control that also includes Guam. The U.S. authorities have kept some of us from coming back, due to the continuing threat posed by the volcano.
But now the island of our origins faces a much greater threat.
As a Pagan native, I have many precious childhood memories of this beautiful island. It remains a paradise. The water is clean and uncorrupted. It is pristine, a natural wonder.
But the U.S. military wants to turn this paradise 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. Besides expanding existing facilities on the island of Tinian, the Marines have set their sights on taking over the entirety of Pagan, 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 repeatedly storm these beaches in landing craft, with helicopters, fighter jets and drones screaming overhead, firing real bullets and dropping real bombs.
On May 11, the Northern Mariana Islands House of Representatives passed language to prohibit the Department of Public Lands from leasing any land for military live-fire or bombing activity. But the U.S. military still appears intent on its plan, which would turn Pagan into a wasteland. That is unacceptable to me, and to many others.
The people who want to live on Pagan now are the children of those who were there when the volcano erupted. They have deep memories and carry beautiful stories of living there from their parents.
I still live in Saipan, but go back to Pagan when I can, sometimes staying for a few months. Getting to this 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 Pagan’s distinctive profile rising from the ocean waves.
We have plans for Pagan. 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. The people of the Marianas deserve better than this.
The military’s plans would also be an ecological disaster. Pagan is a biologically and geologically diverse island that is home to many threatened and endangered species which this high-intensity military training would destroy. Extensive degradation of the surrounding waters and reefs would also be unavoidable.
Pagan and all the Northern Islands are irreplaceable and incredibly special places. But they are 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 for as long as we must.
We will prevail. We have to.
Jerome Kaipat Aldan is mayor of the Northern Islands.