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  5. Peace and Environment in the Marshall Islands:Beyond the Rolling Waves of Development

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FOCUS March 2008 Volume 51

Peace and Environment in the Marshall Islands:Beyond the Rolling Waves of Development

Chisato Mano*

* Chisato Mano is the Marshall Project Coordinator, Asia Volunteer Center.

For the people of Marshall Islands, the ocean and islands are life itself. The people lived their daily lives, traveling to and from islands in small boats and canoes, and taking the fruits of the ocean and islands.

Viewed from above, the Marshall Islands, consisting of twenty-nine atolls in the center of the Pacific Ocean between Guam and Hawaii, are small islands floating on the bright cobalt blue and emerald green sea. Each atoll has over ten islands, and Marshall Islands as a whole has over 1,200 of them. The total land area of all the islands is only one hundred eighty one square kilometer, but the ocean spreads endlessly. In this vast and remote, even by Pacific standards, ocean state, there are currently about 60,000 people.

Looming environmental crisis

The survival of Marshall Islands is under threat. This issue has been raised by non-governmental organizations over the years. In their December 1997 statement issued on the occasion of the 3rd Session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 3) held in Kyoto, they asserted that "80% of the Marshall Islands will be underwater in the 21st Century."

In recent years, significant changes in the shorelines and the bleaching of the corals in Marshall Islands have become noticeable. The islanders talk about the changes in the environment, saying, "the corals no longer shine" or "you can't catch fish in the lagoons."

Frequent drought, water shortage and high waves that cause damage in Micronesia (of which Marshall Islands form a part) are attributed to abnormal weather. With only two meters above sea level on the average, the Marshall Islands are vulnerable to changes in tide levels.

An area on the ocean side of Majuro Atoll, the current capital, emits a strange smell. It comes from the only waste dumpsite on the island. Wastes, collected from all over the island in large containers, are simply dumped in this site. Concrete shore-protection walls are there as stopgap measure to prevent the wastes from flowing into the sea, but the pollution of the land and sea as well as damage to the health of the inhabitants are serious.

The sad state of the island filled with non-degradable waste represents the rapid life-style change in the Marshall Islands in the last half century.

The environmental crisis closing in from outside and within the islands is undermining the traditional way of maximizing the limited resources.

Generations of Marshall Islanders have lived in self- sufficiency gathering the fruits of the land (such as coconuts, breadfruits and pandan) as well as that of the sea. But scarred from the unfortunate history of being at the mercy of foreign powers, life on the islands even today remains complex and difficult from pressures beyond their control.

Years under successive foreign powers

While the Pacific islands as a whole share the same experience of suffering, the Marshall Islands in particular suffered from a varied past. It was originally "discovered" by Spain in 1528 during the Age of Great Voyages. Germany acquired the Islands in 1885 and made it its protectorate. Then, after a period of occupation by the Japanese, it came under U. S. rule. In the final days of the Pacific War, while it was under the military occupation of the then Japanese Forces, many islanders came under fire and lost their lives.

Remains of military hardware, dating back from the Pacific war (second World War), litter areas on the islands. On the Imiej Island in the Jaluit atoll, Japanese military airplanes and vehicles are left untouched in over one hundred battle sites.

From 1946 to 1958, sixty-seven nuclear tests were conducted by the United States in the Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. The Bravo hydrogen bomb test on the Bikini Atoll on 1 March 1954 caused volumes of radioactive fallout on the islands and irrevocable environmental pollution. These effects displaced the people of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls for half a century.[1]

Marshall Islands stand on the frontlines of arms development.

Recovering the shattered harmony

One of the concrete main roads of Majuro is jammed with cars everyday. The capital has many fine buildings made of corals and cement. It also has a large population of people from other islands looking for education, medical care and work. Many of them suffer from alcoholism, while some commit suicide with no apparent reason.[2] The inhabitants are forced to make a uniform effort in adapting to the image of the "south sea island" that tourists' demand, for the benefit of visiting divers who come looking for beautiful corals.

Some people in the Marshall Islands are trying to rediscover the abundant sea and islands, and their sense of community. They try to recall their myths and history to be passed on to the next generation. They would like to understand the history that led to the shattering of community harmony in the islands. Victims of nuclear tests try to orally pass on to their children and grandchildren the story of their suffering. Every year, the memory of 1 March 1954 nuclear test is recalled on the islands.

Integrity of the environment and peace for the people of the Marshall Islands are not raised in international conferences, neither the "picturesque" images of the islands that reflect the challenges of the human race. But the Marshall Islands people make the effort to recover their own dignity and celebrate their origins in the midst of looming waves of development, to pursue their simple yet strong wish to pass on the beautiful sea and the islands to the next generation. The message from the Marshallese nuclear test victims (called hibakusha in Japan) is strong. "We are concerned about the health of our children and grandchildren. Of course it is important that all islands in the Marshall Islands become a safe place. But the world becoming a completely weapons-free place is more important."

In the Marshall Islands and in Japan, we hope to work to recover the wisdom and pride that do not get caught in the chain of development, by each one of us rediscovering our own lives and trying to connect ourselves and the world.

For further information please contact: Asia Volunteer Center, 2-30, Chayamachi, Kita-ku, Osaka City, Japan 530-0013; ph (816) 6376-3545; fax (816) 6376-3548; e-mail:;


1. The Nuclear Claims Tribunal awarded compensation to the people of Bikini and Enewetak Atolls in 2001 and 2000 decisions respectively. The Tribunal noted the loss of use of their land as well as the suffering they endured in resettlement areas that could not provide the conditions similar to their previous life in Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. See the website of the Nuclear Claims Tribunal for the full text of their decisions: www.

2. A study of youth suicide in Micronesia over three decades shows the high rate of suicide in Marshall Islands, see Donald H. Rubinstein, "Youth Suicide and Social Change in Micronesia," Occasional Papers (December 2002), Kagoshima University Research Center of the Pacific Islands. Also, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has identified youth suicide as one of the serious problems in Marshall Islands, see "Priorities of the People: Hardship in the Marshall Islands" in