Environmentalists petition against new air station plans for Okinawa
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — A Yokosuka, Japan-based environmental group presented Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi a petition Wednesday asking for plans to build a new Marine Corps air station in the waters off northeast Okinawa to be scrapped.
The petition, signed by people from Japan and 84 other countries, said the new base would endanger the northernmost home of the dugong, an endangered saltwater manatee.
The base would be built on reclaimed land and a reef off the Marines’ Camp Schwab and the village of Henoko.
Masako Suzuki, a representative of the Association to Protect the Northernmost Dugong, handed the petition to an official at Tokyo’s Cabinet Office. The group is fairly new and loosely associated with the Save the Dugong Network, a Henoko-based group that has campaigned against the new base for years.
Henoko was selected as the site for a new base to replace Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, which is located in the middle of urban Ginowan in central Okinawa. As part of a plan to consolidate U.S. bases on Okinawa, the United States and Japan agreed in 1996 to close Futenma once an alternate site could be found on another base or in a less-developed area of Okinawa.
After much political wrangling, the Henoko site was selected in 1999. It wasn’t until July 2002, however, that the Futenma Relocation Council settled on the plan to build the airport on a reef about two miles offshore and connected to Camp Schwab by a causeway.
Environmentalists and anti-base activists are in opposition, claiming the construction will harm the rare sea mammals.
Takuma Higashionna, representative of the Save the Dugong Network said that his group has been working together with the Yokosuka-based association to protect the dugong, although his network was not a part of the petition activity.
“It is very encouraging that our efforts are now spreading to the rest of Japan and even to the United States,” he said Thursday. “This project is such a reckless and nonsensical plan.”
Higashionna’s group is among several anti-base organizations supporting a sit-in at the fishing port to oppose an environmental survey of the waters by Japan’s Defense Facilities Administration.
Japanese officials have said the new base will not be ready until 2015 at the earliest.
In 2002, Tokyo allocated 152 million yen (about $1.4 million) to study and protect the dugongs. The money was split between the Environment Ministry, which is investigating dugong habitats, and the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry, which is looking into the deaths of dugongs caught in fishing nets.
Fewer than 20 dugongs, cousins of Florida’s freshwater manatees, have been sighted in Okinawan waters in the past three decades. Most of them were dead, found washed up on beaches.
The worldwide population of dugongs, mistaken by early mariners for mermaids, is believed to be about 100,000. They are most commonly found in the waters off northern Australia and Indonesia.
Adult dugongs are about 10 feet long, have walrus-like faces, bright gray skin and dolphin-like tails. They have two arm-like appendages used for steering and scooping up food. Unlike their manatee relatives, adult male dugongs have tusks.
In 2002, the World Conservation Union adopted a resolution calling for the United States and Japan to take measures to protect Okinawa’s dugongs.
— Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.