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Saving Dugongs

If you thought anti-war protesters were pissed off at George Bush, you haven’t met Friends of the Dugong. A few weeks ago, the Okinawa Environmental Network sponsored the first annual conference on the military and the environment in Okinawa, Japan. Delegates from Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam met with U.S. Greens to call the U.S. military on the carpet for a legacy of environmental degradation that stretches back decades.

The most pressing issue was, indeed, the fate of the dugong, a manatee-like creature sacred to the people of Okinawa, a chain of 160 islands in the South China Sea. The main island is 100 kilometers long, 50 kilometers wide, and home to 38 U.S. military facilities. Now the U.S. Marine Corps wants to build a heliport runway stretching almost a mile into the Pacific Ocean. The runway will slice through a coral reef just starting to spawn after dying back because of previous military activity. Nine endangered species, including the dugong, have been spotted on the reef.

“The Japanese were really excited to hear how popular manatees are in the U.S. They want to come here and do a dugong road show,” said environmentalist Peter Galvin, who runs the California office of the Center for Biological Diversity, a national environmental group.

The dugong is believed to warn people of a catastrophic event, such as a tsunami, by appearing close to shore. Like manatees, dugongs are thought to be mermaids. Galvin says Japanese fishermen and one 92-year-old woman told visiting U.S. environmentalists that they are ready to jump into the Pacific and place their bodies between construction rigs and the dugongs in a soggy variety of Gandhi-style direct action.

About 50 dugongs remain in the shallow waters surrounding Okinawa, and about 80,000 still swim in other parts of the world. But their numbers are declining, thanks in part to pollution from sabotaged oil fields in the Gulf War, which caused far more damage to marine life than the Exxon Valdez spill did.

Environmentalism is just now entering the mainstream in Japan, but South Korean citizens regularly take to the streets to protest on environmental issues, in throngs of several hundred thousand. The U.S. is often the focus of their ire. And in the Philippines, environmentalists are suing the U.S. military for a cleanup of toxic sites on former military bases estimated to cost $2 billion.

Galvin said he was invited to the conference because the Center for Biological Diversity had successfully sued the U.S. Department of Defense to stop the bombing of Farallon de Medinilla, an island under U.S. control near Saipan in the Pacific Ocean where a number of endangered birds can be found. Congress later exempted the DOD from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Now some members of Congress, backed by the Bush administration, are attempting to pass legislation removing more than 25 million acres of DOD-controlled land and 800,000 square miles of ocean from the country’s major environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and superfund legislation. The New York Times, in a recent editorial, called the legislation “despicable.”

Demonstrators in Okinawa, shouting “No Bush,” seemed to share this general sentiment, although it was difficult to tell whether their feelings were inspired by the dugong or the war in Iraq. To many, there may have been little difference: The conference was capped by a resolution calling on the U.S. military to clean up its toxic legacy, end military training exercises in natural areas, adopt a “polluter pays” principle — and wage peace.