Japan, Asia Times

Don vs dugong: Rummy's new Okinawa woe
By Miriam Kagan

WASHINGTON - As if US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld didn't have enough to worry about these days, now he's coming under the gun for threatening the dugong.

Dugongs, as you know, are sea mammals distantly related to the Florida manatee and, even more distantly (but more closely than they are to whales and dolphins), to the elephant. Dugongs inhabit warm, shallow waters throughout the Indo-Pacific region. Their most northerly home is the Japanese island of Okinawa, which also happens to be known for its US military bases. And that's where Rummy comes in.

The survival of the rare Okinawa dugong is being threatened by US Department of Defense (DOD) expansion plans, according to a lawsuit filed by a coalition of conservation groups on Friday in San Francisco. The district court action, Okinawa vs Rumsfeld, alleges that DOD plans to build a new heliport facility on a coral reef on the east coast of Okinawa would destroy the remaining habitat of the endangered dugong, a cultural icon of the island's people.

At issue is the proposed relocation of the existing US Futenma Air Station from central Okinawa to the coastal area of Henoko, the site of vast sea-grass beds upon which the dugongs depend for their food.

"The American military base planned on this coral reef threatens the survival of the Okinawa dugong and should be reconsidered," Takenobu Tsuchida of the Dugong Network Okinawa said in a statement.

Growing up to three meters in length and weighing up to 400 kilograms, dugongs depend on large sea-grass beds for their survival. They are celebrated in Japanese mythology as the sirens or "mermaids" that lured sailors with their haunting, song-like call.

Scientists estimate there are fewer than 50 dugongs left in and around Okinawa, and they are endangered everywhere else in the region. The mammals can be found in their greatest numbers around Australia, where there is a very large protected area of sea-grass beds.

The Okinawa dugong is a genetically isolated marine mammal, listed since1972 as a "natural monument" under Japan's Culture Properties Protection Law. It is also listed as a protected species in the US Endangered Species Act, which limits activities that might endanger habitats of such species.

"This population is considered the most isolated and imperiled dugong population in the world. The Okinawa Dugong is so threatened that it has been classified as nearly extinct," said Peter Galvin, Pacific director of the US-based Center for Biological Diversity. "This project, if constructed, would very likely drive the Okinawa dugong into extinction,"he said in a statement.

The lawsuit, filed by a coalition of groups from both sides of the Pacific Ocean, asks the DOD to comply with the US National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and conduct a complete public analysis to assess the impacts of the proposed heliport project on the dugong. The NHPA requires government agencies to complete a full public evaluation before undertaking activities outside the United States that might impact the cultural and natural resources of other nations.

"The people of Okinawa deserve respect for their cultural and natural heritage, just as Americans would expect government agencies to protect their natural treasures," said Takaaki Kagohashi of the Japan Environmental Lawyers Foundation.

This is not the first time that the DOD and residents of Okinawa have been in conflict. Huge protests erupted on the island in 1995 after the US military refused to turn over three service men accused of raping a 12-year-old girl, so they could be tried under Japanese laws.

Okinawans have also been protesting since the end of the Cold War to remove or reduce US military presence on the island. The US bases were set up after Japan's surrender at the end of World War II and now occupy about19 percent of the land on the main Okinawa Island. Roughly one-quarter of all the facilities used by the US military in Japan are in the Okinawa prefecture, which comprises only 0.6 percent of the country's total land area.

Current DOD plans call for a reorganization of the US armed forces abroad, which could lead to a reduced US presence on Okinawa. But residents there are concerned that the DOD seems to be expanding instead, and at the same time endangering a national treasure.

"All life on Earth has close connection and plays an important role. To save the Okinawa dugong, which is a globally threatened species, is to save my own life," plaintiff Anna Koshiishi said in a statement.

Opposition groups say the action marks a new era of international cooperation on environmental issues.

"With a globalizing economy, environmental issues have become borderless," said Kogohashi. "We believe wildlife and human beings live in one big house called the Earth. [Listing] the dugong's name as a plaintiff in this case will show we are all connected."