Conference tackles Guam's role in national defense amid status limitations
Updated: Nov 13
By Louella Losinio
The connection between security, sovereignty, peace and the pressing climate crisis was the focal point for discussion for community leaders, scholars and advocates at at the “Fanhita: Security, Sovereignty, and the Path to Peace” conference organized by the Commission on Decolonization this week.
“One of the primary aims of Fanhita is to broaden how we as a community think about Guam’s role in U.S. national defense and to expand considerations of security to include each of the many aspects that affect our livelihood and wellbeing as the people of Guam," Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said.
While typically tied to military power and strategies, the concept of security, in terms of Guam's needs, also involves the island's ability to address climate issues, healthcare, food sovereignty, waste management, education and environmental and cultural preservation, the governor said.
"All of these issues significantly impact our ability to survive in our homeland and cannot be ignored in conversations about security for Guam,” she added. Presentations at the conference centered on the current position of Guam as a non-self-governing territory, and its impact on these interlocking themes, and the next step toward the path to self-determination.
“We cannot be satisfied with the status quo and be satisfied with the limitations of our opportunities and ability to establish a good quality of life for the people of Guam," Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio said. "With decolonization and political status change, we can accomplish so much more for the island and for our people.”
At a yet-to-be scheduled plebiscite, voters will be asked to choose from three forms of political status: independence, statehood and free association.
Tenorio noted that each of the three options may offer opportunities and may come with challenges.
"It is especially important for our youth to join in these engagements and voice their opinions because they play a pivotal role in deciding Guam’s political status and shaping our island’s future, which they are set to inherit," he said.
Keynote speaker Javan Santos, a young public servant who has a background in public policy and climate advocacy, underscored the urgency of tackling climate-related threats to Guam's sovereignty. Santos secured a spot as a delegate at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or COP28 in December. He also highlighted the situation of neighboring nations like Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and the Marshall Islands, emphasizing that climate change poses not just an environmental challenge for these islands but a grave threat to political autonomy.
"Tuvalu, a low-lying island, is perilously close to being submerged entirely if climate change is left unaddressed," Santos said. "This not only endangers Tuvalu's existence but also jeopardizes their sovereignty, given that no recognized country has ever existed without actual land above sea level."
He mentioned Tuvalu’s plan to upload their land into the metaverse, an approach intertwining climate change with modern technology. He further highlighted the devastating impact of climate change on Vanuatu, recently ravaged by a category 5 cyclone. For low-lying atolls like Vanuatu, he said these typhoons pose existential threats, underlining the urgency of addressing climate change for both Pacific island nations and territories. Santos also pointed out that the Marshall Islands employs concrete and other materials to artificially elevate its islands, not only to preserve its sovereignty but also to safeguard its exclusive economic zones. He said his participation in international climate forums, including COP28, echoes Guam's determination to be heard globally. He stressed the importance of spotlighting Guam's unique challenges in international discussions, especially when negotiating agreements that could shape the island's future.
“I think it is really exciting that the COP28 presidency recognizes Guam’s sovereignty by selecting someone to represent Guam. If you look at the delegates, it is the Guam flag alongside foreign countries and the international youth climate delegate program," Santos said.
He said he worked on equal footing with countries around the world. “No matter what self-determination status you believe in, you have to admit that Guam getting a voice on the international stage when other states don’t have that access, is really exciting,” Santos said. Melvin Won Pat Borja, executive director of the Commission on Decolonization, set the conference's tone.
“At a time when Guam is the subject of many discussions and decisions regarding security and defense, the deficiencies of our status as an unincorporated territory become increasingly apparent," Borja said.
As a territory, Borja said, Guam is kept out of conversations on geopolitics and military activity that may have significant impacts on the islanders' everyday lives.
"This year’s Fanhita conference rejects this colonial inequity and creates a space for community discourse that centers on our people and the genuine security of our island,” he said.
"Guam's security considerations encompass more than hostile threats; they extend to our food sovereignty, resilience to natural disasters, healthcare capacity, public services, and infrastructure," he added.