Protests against a new US air base are taking place in the sea. In recent months, hundreds of ‘kayaktivists’ have patrolled the coast of Henoko Bay on the island of Okinawa, Japan, the bright colours of the boats at odds with the paddlers’ serious expressions. For most of the protests, US base personnel have watched from the beach, flanked by amphibious tanks. If the US Air Corps has its way, the waters will be landfilled to support two full-size runways surrounded by a seawall. Twenty million cubic metres of material will be dumped into the water to reclaim an area the size of 160 rugby fields. Construction will take five years but began to pick up over the summer. ‘Sediment input could begin at any time,’ says Kanna Mitsuta, executive director of Friends of the Earth, Japan. She warns that landfill will come at the cost of one of the most ecologically significant marine sites on the island.
Campaigners are particularly concerned about the fate of the dugong, a rare mammal similar to a manatee. Rarely seen – but given away by their telltale feeding paths through sea grass – the handful of dugongs at Henoko are the last of a once healthy Okinawa population. ‘The dugong used to come and feed here, but have been unconfirmed since the US base construction began,’ says Tomiko Suzuki, a member of the kayaktivist group Henoko Blue. ‘Altogether there are around 5,200 different marine species here,’ says Mitsuta, ‘262 of those species are endangered, including recently discovered reefs
of blue coral.’ The variety of life comes from Henoko’s diverse topography, including mangrove forests, seagrass beds, tidelands, sands, mud flats and coral reefs. According to campaigners, the construction plans have underestimated the complexity of this terrain. ‘The seafloor is as soft as mayonnaise for 30 metres down,’ says Mitsuta. ‘The amount of work needed to reinforce it will be costly as well as irreversible.’
Okinawa has been a military hotspot since the Second World War - Japan’s only home-fought battle took place on its soil. After the war, US forces occupied the island for 20 years longer than the rest of the country. Though it represents less than one per cent of Japan’s landmass, it continues to host nearly three-quarters of the 47,000 US troops based in the country and has the largest contingent of marines outside the US. The protests have contributed to anti-US sentiment in the area, centred around long-held concerns about the bases’ high crime rates and transportation hazards.
This was published in the October 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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