‘We want our land back’
Proposed site for a new hospital hits a raw nerve
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Maria Tenorio Lujan was 16 when her family was forced off their land in Mangilao in the mid-1950s. The three parcels of land on Route 15 owned by her father, mother and uncle were among the properties acquired by the U.S. Navy during its administration.
“They told us to move and we didn’t know where to go. My father went out to buy another land,” Mrs. Lujan recalled. “I don’t remember if we got help with the move. Back then they didn’t tell us what was going on.”
But Mrs. Lujan remembers her childhood and the life her family left behind when they moved off the land originally acquired by her grandparents in the 1920s. “That’s the land where we were getting our sustenance,” she said. “We were growing corn, sweet potatoes, taro and lemai. It was also the source of our livelihood. My father was selling vegetables and fruits.”
Seventy years later, her long dream of going back to her old stomping ground has retreated farther beyond the horizon. “I am 84. This may be my last chance to see it happen,” Mrs. Lujan said.
Seated next to her during the interview were his son, Frank Lujan, and her great-granddaughters, Ke’Isa Cruz, 17, and Jamie Ballestra, 10. “We don’t have any more land to give them,” she said, gesturing her hand toward the girls “We need our land back.”
On Guam, land is more than real estate property. It is literally the base of the CHamoru culture. It forms a core part of identity, beliefs and spirituality. It bonds clans. “Our land has sentimental value to us. Our land is who we are,” Frank Lujan said. “My grandfather and grand-uncle farmed on their land, where they also raised animals. When they took away our land, they took away our identity.”
The landowners’ struggle for the return of their ancestral lands has been a protracted affair. It is a recurring sore spot between the local community and the military. The issue has once again reemerged, this time with the government of Guam as a flashpoint. At the core of fresh discussions is the Navy-controlled property in Mangilao, locally known for its landmark called “Eagle’s Field,” where Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero is proposing to build a new medical and public health campus. The Navy has agreed to license the property to the government of Guam for 99 years.
Adjacent to this area is a site being considered by the Missile Defense Agency as the location for a radar system that will form part of Guam’s missile defense architecture.
The Lujan family is among the 53 original landowners who stake claims in the project area. The three parcels of land owned by the Lujans measured a total of 16.5 acres combined. “The military built a radio antenna on the land. In the old days, they needed an antenna. The military doesn’t need it anymore,” Frank Lujan said.
During the post-war military land acquisition, the Navy took control of more than 85,000 acres, accounting for 63 percent of all the land in Guam. The Navy’s footprint shrank after turning over "excess lands" to the local government in the 1990s. The land return was the result of the Base Realignment and Closure program that entailed the shutdown of more than 350 military installations across the nation and overseas between 1988 and 2005. The Navy still retains control over about 49,000 acres of land, roughly a third of the island.
“Obviously, we have finite land on Guam. Our children and grandchildren have no lands left to live on,” Frank Lujan said. “The CHamoru people will be homeless. Our grandchildren will end up renting, and it’s not cheap.”
When the Navy returned the surplus land, it came with conditions set by U.S. Public Law 106-504, which bars the transfer of real estate assets to their original owners. The restrictions resulted in the creation of the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission Land Bank Trust to compensate the original landowners.
“Unfortunately, for the past two decades, the Land Bank has failed to pay a single owner a penny of compensation because it is underfunded,” Gov Leon Guerrero said.
The governor has proposed the Land Bank Reform Act of 2022 to explore a funding mechanism to compensate the affected landowners and “clarify the criteria for ancestral owners eligible to receive compensation.” The proposed bill would also provide a method to calculate the land value and distribute compensation to original owners or their descendants.
“At the current value, we would end up receiving $137,000. Then you subtract the fees and taxes,” Frank Lujan said. “We don’t need the money. Money comes and goes. We don’t need another land. We just want what rightfully belongs to us: our own land."
The fact that the government will have to look for money to fund the compensation program indicated that “they don’t have the funds to pay us, to begin with. That doesn’t make sense,” Lujan said.
The governor has asked the legislature to expedite the passage of her proposed Landbank Reform Act. But Speaker Therese Terlaje is not too keen on the proposal.
“I agree that we need a new hospital and have supported the efforts that have come before the legislature. However, if there is an intent and willingness to lease Eagles Field for 99 years, then that sounds like excess to me," Terlaje said after a meeting with landowners last month.
"If we were not bold, not unified, nobody would have gotten their land back. Unless the local law is changed, we should honor it. This is justice for Guam and the landowners, and I thank them for reminding us of the real effects of the massive land takings and of generations that were displaced," the speaker added.
In June 2017, the Navy released its “Report to Congress" on "the Status of the ‘Net Negative’ Policy Regarding Navy Acreage on Guam.” The report indicated that the Department of the Navy owns 36,411.60 acres of fast land, including former Air Force properties, on Guam. After 734 acres pending transfer or acquisition are completed, the Navy will own 35,803.20 acres of fast land. This number excludes lands owned by other federal agencies such as the Department of the Interior and submerged lands.
In 2011, the Guam Economic Development Authority prepared a report titled “Potentially Releasable Federal Land,” which identified 2,339 acres of federally owned terrestrial land and 17,021 acres of federally owned, submerged land for transfer to the government of Guam. The list consists of 54 sites marked by GovGuam as “releasable."
“While GEDA recognizes that 2,870 acres are only 8 percent of the 35,803.20 acres owned by DOD, and that ancestral owners desire to regain ownership of all properties previously taken as a result of the injustices created during federal land takings, these properties are believed to be unnecessary for Marine relocation,” GEDA said in a separate report in June 2019, which recommended the transfer of 17,031 acres of submerged land.
Among the properties identified as “releasable” is a 30-acre parcel that sits on the northwest boundary of the old Federal Aviation Authority area, which was previously returned to the civilian government.
“The property is not within the Radio Frequency Interference Free arc pursuant to the Navy’s GLUP ’94 update,” GEDA said. “This portion was not transferred along with the old FAA area as the Navy Public Works Center was still utilizing a portion of the existing buildings. However, the buildings are no longer being utilized.”
GovGuam is also eyeing a 22-acre site located near the intersection of Route 3 and Route 3A (Potts Junction), which forms the northern boundary of the parcel that is surrounded on the east, south and west by private property. “The Air Force has deactivated its fuel storage facilities,” GEDA said.
Correction: In the print edition, Mrs. Lujan was identified as Maria Taitano Lujan. Her full name is Maria Tenorio Lujan. Our sincere apologies.