The burden of territorial status
Brief Chat with Guam Lt. Gov. Joshua Tenorio
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Guam sits in the corner, watching and listening to members of the Pacific Islands Forum tackle climate change, among other concerns affecting the region. Last year, the territory’s attempt to join the Forum as a full-time member received a cold shoulder.
“Unfortunately, we are not in the position to apply for full membership with PIF because of our situation—despite the fact that full membership has been given to French territories,” Lt. Gov. Josh Tenorio said. “But really, our desire is just to be able to communicate with each other even without full membership.”
The Forum comprises 18 members. Other than New Caledonia and French Polynesia, which are both French territories, all members are sovereign nations. As a U.S. territory in the Blue Pacific Continent where it shares similar cultural backgrounds with neighboring islands, Guam exists on its Goldilocks status.
“The U.S. government made a statement registering their opposition to our application for PIF membership,” Tenorio said.
Nevertheless, Guam is able to participate in regional discussions through the Pacific Island Council of South Australia, Tenorio said. “We were able to discuss the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent. Climate change is not going to be regulated through PIF. The council is stepping up efforts to address climate resilience,” he said.
Without full membership in PIF, Tenorio said Guam is able to expand opportunities to engage individually with the regional bloc’s member states. “We have made a commitment with the PIF Secretariat to be present at future conventions even though we are not a full member,” he said.
Tenorio, who is serving his second term as Guam’s lt. governor, is Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero’s anointed Democratic Party candidate for governor in 2026.
Guam may pin its hopes on political alignment with the White House to gain some advantages, but Tenorio said this does not guarantee fair treatment for the territory. The island's political status is in limbo, with unresolved challenges hampering the self-determination plebiscite.
“What disappoints me is the lack of consultation before a series of decisions are made,” Tenorio said. “Even though I am a partisan Democrat— and of course a supporter of the White House— it doesn’t mean that I cannot be critical of the federal government.”
One recent policy decision that is likely to affect Guam and the other Pacific territories is the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Sanctuary which will extend to the southwest of Hawaii.
Currently, the Pacific Remote Islands monument area consists of approximately 495,189 square miles in the central Pacific Ocean, encompassing seven islands and atolls: Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Island, Johnston, Wake, Palmyra Atoll and Kingman Reef.
The marine sanctuary designation banned fishing operations within the protected areas. According to the White House, the potential new National Marine Sanctuary would conserve 777,000 square miles, including the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument and currently unprotected submerged lands and waters.
“I have yet to comprehend the nature of the movement. I am looking into it,” Tenorio said. “While I understand the ecological advantage of this policy, I am trying to understand where that comes into place with our efforts to develop and enjoy the economic zone around Guam.”
He said the federal government must engage Guam and other affected U.S. territories to determine the potential impact of the marine monument's expansion on the local fishing industry.
“We need to be in a situation where we have a balance to make sure that the resources we have in the waters are going to be around for future generations, while also making sure that they are present to have a livelihood for our people,”
Tenorio said. “If we are able to discuss this with the federal government, then we will be able to find that balance. I’m open-minded but we need to really examine this policy.”
Uifa’atali Amata Radewagen, American Samoa’s delegate to the U.S. Congress, earlier raised the same concerns, criticizing the Biden administration for not making any effort to discuss the plan with the Pacific delegations prior to announcing the initial process to expand the Pacific Remote Islands Marine Monument to the southwest of Hawaii.
Local political leaderships are at a disadvantage, Tenorio said. “We are trying to understand the intention and the ramifications of the broad policy that is there now. I think the bigger issue is federal control,” he said. “We are in a situation where we are just the recipients of these decisions as opposed to being part of the decision-making.”