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Nuclear Testing in the Pacific
"Pacific Women Speak"
by Darlene Keju-Johnson, Lijon Eknilang, and Chailang Palacios
From woman of power, Fall 1990.

Background on the context in which this essay was written.

Date Reading Was Discussed: July 6, 1993
Present: Colleen M., Robin Z., Mary Ellen B., and Cathleen M.

This month we read accounts by three Pacific Island women detailing the atrocities caused by U.S. military nuclear testing in Micronesia. From 1946 to 1958, at least 66 nuclear bombs were exploded in the Marshall Islands alone.

Bikini Islanders were forced to relocate after the military dropped a hydrogen bomb on their ancient homeland, rendering it uninhabitable for the next 30,000 years. The residents of Rongelap Atoll, located downwind from the tests, were never warned to evacuate and were hit with direct radioactive fallout.

Many believe the U.S. government intentionally exposed the Rongelap people to the atomic blasts in order to study the effects of radiation. Today Micronesia, a group of approximately 2,000 islands in the South Pacific covering over three million square miles, suffers one of the highest rates of radiation sickness in the world. Cancers and deformities such as the infamous "jellyfish babies" (born with no arms, legs, or head) are common, and yet, to date, no epidemiological survey has ever been conducted.

These once idyllic islands are now the site of missile bombardments and simulated Star Wars games, as well as the dumping ground for much of the United States' hazardous waste.

Our reaction to the harrowing stories ranged from shock to sadness to anger at the wanton brutality of the U.S. government for deliberately creating an ecological holocaust. We were clear that U.S. policy was—and continues to be—one of sustained genocide against these indigenous people.

One of us offered an interesting roster of comparisons between the Marshall Islands and Puerto Rico. Both are island societies bound up in a neo-colonial, so-called "commonwealth" relationship with the United States. Both were acquired by the U.S. as war booty. Both local economies have been systematically undermined by the U.S., reducing the populace to welfare status.

Marshall Island women deliver an inordinate number of babies with birth defects, while Puerto Rican woman have faced systematic sterilization. An intimidating U.S. military presence occupies sizable portions of both lands. And most germane to our discussion, both have had their environments severely—and in some areas fatally—contaminated by U.S. military, corporate, and/or governmental interests.

Another woman noted that the number of Superfund toxic waste sites in Puerto Rico is one of the highest within U.S. jurisdiction. She also shared an anecdote about Lolita Lebron, the celebrated independista, who with three comrades staged an armed attack on Congress March 1, 1954 to call attention to self-determination for Puerto Rico. March 1, 1954 was the same day the U.S. exploded its first hydrogen bomb on Bikini Island (a bomb 1,000 times larger than that detonated at Hiroshima). Lebron allegedly was intuitively aware of the Bikini bombing and spiritually shared an affinity with the Pacific Island people.

On a note closer to home, we were disheartened to hear the personal account of one woman at this session who is an environmental engineer. Contrary to common perception, the woman said toxic waste sites are often breathtakingly beautiful with acres of trees, scampering animals, and magnificent vistas. She and her co-workers look forward to being in the field, enjoying the outdoors, away from the office.

It's not until she returns home that her deep feelings surface. She often cries or has nightmares knowing the land she has visited is in fact dying. Yet, she acknowledged that back at her office immersed in paperwork, the toxic waste site once again becomes an abstraction.

Her firm provides hazardous waste investigations and remediation services to corporate polluters forced to comply with governmental regulations. Her company's evaluations help determine allocation of federal clean-up funds. Toxic waste sites located near populated areas are accorded preferential status. The dangers a polluted habitat presents to plant and animal life, however, are completely excluded from the anthropocentric assessments.

She likewise is appalled by the racist manner in which communities of color are disproportionately assigned low priority for Superfund clean-up money. The tragic absurdity is that all waste sites need remediation since the poisons in the lakes and rivers seep into the ground water and inevitably pollute other eco-systems. According to the woman, this basic fact is ignored because the entire environmental regulatory process is compromised.

The compliance laws are littered with loopholes and have little to do with ecological integrity. The enormous legal fees corporations spend to avoid responsibility for their toxic messes could just as well be channeled into actually cleaning up the sites. We were further indignant to learn that major polluters such as Dupont make obscene profits through the manufacture of plastic protective wear and remediation chemicals used in the clean-up process.

The woman's "inside" report was distressing. If the environmental politics of our own bioregion are in jeopardy, how can we realistically address the devastation in Micronesia and other parts of the world? One woman felt that a fundamentalist faith in Science exacerbates the dilemma. Assuming technological gods will solve everything, people shield themselves from the horrible truth that our planet is in imminent peril.

If people deny what is happening, they can relinquish responsibility. Another woman mentioned A Chorus of Stones, Susan Griffin's extraordinary work which interweaves personal stories of denial with the global implications for war and other acts of violence. One woman said that an important front for activist struggle involves helping individuals experientially overcome denial in part by "changing their conversations."

When people begin to language in terms of an interrelated web of life, the ecological connections between Micronesia, Puerto Rico and our own back yard become starkly apparent, opening up the possibility for new cosmologies.

# # #

5/18/98 - Via email, a reader sent EVE ONLINE the following thoughtful and informative response:

I want to express my appreciation of your [EVE ONLINE's] interest in the situation of the people of the Marshall Islands and the results of using the islands as a test-bed for bombs and missles. I am an anthropologist who works with Marshallese people and issues. I would like to comment on a couple of points you have made on your Web page, hoping that by suggesting a more nuanced reading your can find more effective political actions.

The "genocide" practiced upon the Marshallese is not the direct genocide of the Nazis or the ethnic cleansing of the Serbs; it is both a dehumanization, produced by military rivalry, the cold war, and a psuedo-scientific "objectivity", and also a sort of cultural genocide produced by bureaucratic disorganization wherein various powerful US agencies and officials see the Marshallese through the lens of their own self-interests. Indeed, there are more Marshallese people now than ever before, dispersed among more communities spread throughout the Pacific and the United States.

The political status of the Republic of the Marshall Islands is a Freely Associated State, rather than a commonwealth such as Puerto Rico. The significance of this is that where as a commonwealth is included in the political body and nation, as a FAS the Marshalls can be represented as a backward economy, a country that should be standing on its own, autonomous and self-sufficient, which facilitates the US withdrawal of the funds that would sustain the warped economy created by the US administration while the people attempt to develop a sounder alternative.

You can help make a difference. The Compact of Free Association is up for renegotiations, which will begin next year (if the schedule is followed). The situation of the Marshallese is not well known or much remarked upon, and I believe a few committed individuals who let their congressional representatives know they wish to see fair treatment of the Marshallese (and other Micronesians also tied to the US by a Compact) could have a significant impact.

They don't need a lot of money; they do need some system that will hold local politicians accountable for their use of government-to-government funding, enhanced access to food and education for the poor, and the long term security that will allow the next two generations to learn from the experience of their predecessors while developing solutions that do not do violence to their culture while adapting their society to the new world order.

You can also begin to lobby for renegotion of US reparations to the Marshallese for nuclear contamination of people and lands under the "changed circumstances" provisions of the Compact. You can learn more about these issues at the online Web sites of the RMI government and the people of Bikini atoll.

There is another way the US is attacking the ecology, the lands, the people, and the culture of the Marshalls that is at least as serious a the nuclear testing: global warming may cause the islands to disappear entirely beneath the waves. Support for a transition from fossil fuels is another way of redressing the imbalance between islanders and the mainland.

Darlene Keju-Johnson died last year of cancer, a big loss for the people of the Marshalls. The NGO she founded, Youth-to-Youth in Health, continues to work for the health, safety, and empowerment of islanders.

Best wishes,
Jim Hess

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