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A US Military Base Could Kill Off Japan’s Last Dugongs

Ian Teh

The Japanese island of Okinawa is the last holdout for dugongs. Now Camp Schwab is set to build new runways over their feeding ground.

Hand painted signs outside the base. All photos by Ian Teh

Okinawa is an island on the most southern end of Japan. To mainland residents, it's mostly known as a place for tropical holidays and the foreign military. In fact, 74 percent of American military facilities on Japanese soil are in Okinawa. This is despite the fact Okinawa only accounts for 0.6 percent of Japanese territory.

Once called the "Galápagos of the East" Okinawa is also the last remaining home for Japanese dugongs. It's estimated that around only 50 of these animals still exist and of that number most are concentrated in a feeding ground around Henoko Bay. Unfortunately, this is where the US Military wants to expand two aircraft runways into the bay. The dugongs, it's assumed, will starve while another 262 other endangered species will also be affected.

To find out how local residents and protesters feel about this, we spoke to photographer Ian Teh who was contracted by Greenpeace to cover Okinawa's recent protests.

The entrance to the camp

VICE: Hi Ian, can you tell me why dugongs live in just this one bay?
Ian Teh: Because ironically the presence of this military base, Camp Schwab, stopped any further development around the bay. This preserved it as almost pristine and this expansion will destroy the last bit of land that isn't that developed in Okinawa.

So the dugongs won't be able to go elsewhere?
I'm no specialist on that, but Japanese dugongs are sensitive. They follow a trail through the sea grass every day to the bay. If the bay isn't there, it's likely they'll starve.

Why are there so few Japanese dugongs left?
They're completely herbivorous and they move slowly. This makes them prone to being killed by other predators. Then after the war, it was humans that tended to kill dugongs for food. There was a lot of malnutrition in Okinawa after the war. And then finally they breed slowly. They only give birth to a single calf only a few times in a lifetime and that calf remains with the mother for a year and a half. All this makes it difficult for the species to survive if their environment is affected.

Looking down the hill towards the reef and sea grasses

Can you tell me about the island? What's it like to live there?
It's pretty sleepy. You wouldn't know there's anything going wrong until you get to Camp Schwab and you see pickets and people demonstrating. Most of the protesters are retired and I think for them it's very much about the legacy. They're worried their children won't grow up in a beautiful place like they did.

So the protesters are locals?
Most are locals. Some do it for the dugongs, but others want the base out because they feel it's a frontier for tensions with other countries. It's multifaceted, but it almost always comes down to the environment.

Shin Nishihira documents the things that will be lost when the base fills in the bay to make way for a military airstrip

Let's talk through some of the characters. Who is the guy surrounded by shells and photos of marine life?
He used to be one of the people who demonstrated at sea but his boat was damaged. He felt like there were enough people demonstrating so used his energy to create a private museum. In this way he brings people in to learn about how important the environment is to the area.

Takuma Higashionna, 53

And the guy with the kayaks behind him?
He's great because he was actually one of the construction workers. Then one day he decided that wasn't what he wanted to do so he gave up his job and started protesting. Now for work, he stores people's kayaks and often uses them for demonstrations.

Police remove a protester, politely

How have the police responded to demonstrators?
When I've been there, they've seemed very polite and professional. The protesters are the same and they all use non-violent tactics. Generally you would find these elderly people linking arms to block trucks coming into the base that might be carrying building equipment. And the police come out, riot police, and they physically lift these people out. It's quite professional, but I think that's partly because the police are locals.

So people sympathize with the protestors?
If you just took the Okinawan public, a poll was made and 80 percent opposed the building work. You've got local politicians against this thing. So it's very unusual for the Japanese government to override the voice of the people.

Most protesters are elderly locals

So why is the government overriding public opinion? To what extent does the US have a say in how this goes ahead?
I was told by some of my colleagues that the US government was OK with whatever was decided. They think most of the pressure is coming from the Japanese mainland government, but they're not sure why.

What do you hope will happen next?
I asked everybody the same thing. A lot want all the bases out. Okinawa lost almost a third of its population in WW2 because it was the last keystone battlefront for Japan. The bases are a strong reminder of this time and that's tied up in their environmental impact. This is why I think the expansion shouldn't go ahead.

If you'd like to show your opposition to the expansion of Camp Schwab, check out this link.

Interview by Julian Morgans. Follow him on Twitter.