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Serianthes nelsonii is the tallest tree in the Mariana Islands and only found on Guåhan – where the tree is named Håyun lågu – and Luta – where the tree is named Tronkon guåfi – and nowhere else in the world.
Unfortunately, this tree is critically endangered with one adult tree on Guåhan and less than 40 trees in Luta. The last adult reproducing tree on Guåhan grows in the limestone forest at Tailalo’ (named North West Field by the Department of Defense).
The Håyun lågu tree is one of the symbols of the social movement led by Prutehi Litekyan against the Department of Defense’s planned construction of Life Fire Training Range Complex, which threatens the surrounding forest growing on unique karst limestone outcrops. Once destroyed, they can never be recovered.
In 2016, Prutehi Litekyan initiated the movement to protect the endemic tree. The resistance spreads beyond the roots of this majestic tree down the cliffs beneath the lands and waters of Litekyan because the LFTRC’s surface danger zone overlays these landscapes.
The movement now intertwines land sovereignty, cultural preservation, traditional as well as scientific ecological knowledge, and indigenous rights in a distinct Pacific Island approach.
Social movement research
As my interdisciplinary PhD research centers around Serianthes and is intertwined with this movement, I started an ethnographic research study in 2017. This study included documenting the lived experiences intrinsic to this movement grounded in indigenous epistemology.
My research question asked if the National Environmental Policy Act can address the injustices
towards the CHamoru people holistically, advancing both environmental protection and Indigenous rights.
Using social movement theory, I explored how people mobilized around the issue, how the movement relates to historical concerns, and how indigenous cultures are affected by decision-making processes such as NEPA.
Besides participant observation, I interviewed activists and stakeholders and conducted an archival document analysis on pertinent newspaper articles and historical documents.
Book chapter shares results
The findings of my study are summarized in a chapter of the newly released book “Indigenous peoples, heritage and landscape in the Asia Pacific: Knowledge co-production and empowerment” edited by Stephen Acabado and Da-wei Kim.
The title of my chapter is “Prutehi Litekyan: A social movement to protect biocultural diversity and restore indigenous land sovereignty on Guåhan”. The writing of the chapter is interwoven with quotes from activists, scientists, and policy makers; manhoben (youth) and manamko’ (elders), as their words root the story of this movement.
A co-production of knowledge
Prutehi Litekyan brought together a co-production of knowledge because traditional ecological knowledge holders, healers, fishermen, archeologist, and biological sciences worked together, advocating for the protection of the biocultural diversity of Litekyan and Tailalo’, rooted in indigenous epistemology.
The group urged to maintain a respectful connection to the land, hoping for a sustainable social and political resolve.
Landscape stories embedded in the culture
The ethnography depicts a different kind of story connected to landscapes, one that is not evaluated nor considered by the NEPA process. The way people described the living landscape involved spirituality, connecting them to their own cultural identity in a unique way, each with a different story.
The landscape embodies the close ties, people hold dearly, that exist between culture and spirituality. Cultural groups hold ceremonies at spiritually charged places in Litekyan. Evidence of past healing practices along the cave areas is present, as a lusong (mortor) is carved into the limestone with the lommok (pestel) still in place.
Today, yo’åmte (traditional healers) still collect åmot (medicine) at Litekyan and take their apprentices to Litekyan, passing on their knowledge. The original landowners carry on a deep connection but also remember and live their fight for justice, in the hopes of returning their rightfulness to their land.
Manhoben fight for their future
For the manhoben, the landscape of Litekyan offers a place-based learning experience that communicates knowledge and wisdom. Young people told me that seeing the handprints of their ancestors in the caves helped them find their cultural identity. Yet most people have not witnessed the landscape of Tailalo’ because of military access restrictions.
But knowing there are endangered species and vast cultural sights barred off to access, saddened the youth, yet in the same beat empowered them to advocate for their biocultural diversity protection.
The book chapter reviews the different phases of the NEPA process and discusses public input and how it is perceived by this law. The NEPA procedures failed to incorporate indigenous worldviews. The NEPA process does not include indigenous practices and value systems, especially spirituality and the sacredness of the land.
Because the law requires federal agencies only to “consider” the public input, that in itself perpetuates the continuous political disempowerment that began in the colonial era.
In summary, decision-making tools like NEPA, the Endangered Species Act, and National Historic Preservation Act need re-evaluation and must include a process that acknowledges and legitimizes the CHamoru knowledge and value systems.
Activists and stakeholders suggested bottom-up approaches are needed to build upon local knowledge which can advance local decision-making. Local legislation can outline regulations which include and legitimize the voice of the people.
True participation can occur via a local knowledge body, such as a Kumision or council of elders, which exists in other Micronesian Islands. A co-production of knowledge consisting of traditional and scientific knowledge holders can advance the inclusion of traditional practices and indigenous knowledge systems and protect the unique biocultural diversity our island holds and has the potential to restore indigenous land sovereignty.
For more information
You can order the book on amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Indigenous-Peoples-Heritage-Landscape-Pacific/dp/0367648717.
Have your voice heard in your own personal way. If it is by attending a wave, writing a letter, providing testimony or telling your neighbor or friend how you value Litekyan and Tailalo’, we are one step closer to protecting this valuable forest and the preservation of cultural practices and spiritual connections to the land.
You can also contact me at [email protected]
Else Demeulenaere is the Associate Director for Natural Resources for the Center for Island Sustainability at the University of Guam where she mentors students and leads several forest restoration, endangered species recovery, and ethnobotanical projects. You can reach her at [email protected]
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