Sunday, January 03, 2010

Buildup raises access worry: Some fear blocking of cultural site

Buildup raises access worry: Some fear blocking of cultural site

By Amritha Alladi • Pacific Sunday News • January 3, 2010

Access concerns: Michael Bevacqua, right, explains the lusong to Dylan Guerrero at a cultural site on the Pagat trail, yesterday. Some residents are worried access to the site may be restricted if the military uses the area for a live-fire range. (Vuong Duong/For Pacific Sunday News)

Stones once used for grinding are strewn on the ground of an ancient village that once neighbored Pagat Cave.

Yesterday, a group of Guam residents trekked about 1.3 miles over rocky terrain to see the site, fearing those few remaining vestiges of a civilization that once was may soon be swept away.

"It really opened my eyes," said 25-year-old Crystal Nelson. "I felt really disappointed in myself, being one of the countless number of locals who don't take the time out to really appreciate what we have on the island."

The Guahan Coalition for Peace and Justice yesterday arranged the "We Are Guahan" hike to raise awareness about the Pagat freshwater caves and the ancient Chamorro village and archaeological burial grounds near it. The coalition wanted give local residents a chance to visit it before it's too late, according to hike leader Kie Susuico.

The Defense Department's draft Environmental Impact Statement shows the military wants to put three live-fire ranges on a large portion of that area, and some Guam residents worry that may bar access to the pristine caves and cultural site.

Susuico, who's been hiking to cultural sites for three-and-a-half years, said out of perhaps 130 hikes, he's only seen Chamorro people on about four of them.

"The rest of the time, it's all military. So for me, it seems like our people, the Chamorros, don't even know what's down there which is pretty sad," he said.

He wants the local population to stand up for the historical and cultural importance of the site, since the Defense Department doesn't seem to respect it, he said.

"I think it's crazy. Pagat is on the National Register of Historic Places, just like Arlington National Cemetery or Mount Rushmore," he said. "They wouldn't put a firing range there, you know? To me it seems like they don't even care about our rights, our history, our culture or anything like that."

As much as he is frustrated with the military's proposed plans, his message is intended for the local residents as well: Wake up.

If we don't reclaim our history, protect our heritage, our culture, our language, I think we'll truly be lost. To me, right now it's on the verge of going, and I really wish people would start to care more about it," he said.

Joshua Dunn from Chalan Pago certainly answered that call.

Dunn has lived on the island for 14 years. Until yesterday, he hadn't visited the Pagat Cave area. The chance the island may soon lose a valuable resource inspired him to join the Guahan hikers yesterday.

"I had a lot of invites from people to go do it before, but I just never really had the time to do it," he said. "But I'm free today."

And even former military members in the group expressed disappointment the military may restrict access to some of Guam's most beautiful sites.

"I believe they've taken all the (best) spots." said Devorah Covington, who served in the Air Force. "They don't need to get rid of the historical sites. This is our island. At least give us access."

'Sacred site'

University of Guam adjunct history professor and former senator Hope Cristobal guided the hikers through the ancient Chamorro burial grounds, a "sacred site," which dates back to the pre-latte period, she said. There, she demonstrated a 17th-century-style funeral ceremony.

Inarajan resident Manny Chong said hikers saw latte stones at the village, and stones used by the ancient Chamorros for grinding.

"It's been worn down by the weather, but it's still obvious that used to be an ancient village," Chong said. "If it's given to the military, they're going to destroy that. We want to see it in its natural state. We want the younger generations to see it."

Cristobal gave the hikers a history lesson on life since the time explorers landed on Guam. She described the brutalities the Spaniards imposed on Guam's ancestors, Nelson said after the hike.

Land worries

But for Nelson, there's more at stake than the loss of cultural and natural assets.

Nelson owns property near Pagat, and the military's proposal may mean a chunk of her land will be taken.

"It's disheartening that people think that they can just come and take the land, without any consideration to (the people living there)," she said. "They come and they just want to strip its natural assets for national security."

However, according to the latest statement released by JGPO public information officer Capt. Neil Ruggiero, the Defense Department has tried to utilize its own property for the military realignment. But it must follow federal environmental laws and planning processes to determine the best locations for the facilities and ranges necessary for the buildup.

"We have also learned that it may be wise to develop property near existing bases to allow functions to be grouped together in one location and eliminate the need to travel from one range or training area to another," Ruggiero said. "This will ease impacts, such as traffic, on the surrounding community."

Barrigada resident Robin L.G. Marquardt feels otherwise.

"The federal government on Guam probably has enough land to do their activity as it is now, so taking more land than they already have may be unnecessary or may be thoughtless," he said. "It needs to be measured, not just a decision made like buying a cup of coffee."

Marquardt joined yesterday's hike to support the community and to see with his own eyes the beauty of what could possibly be lost, he said.

He and the other hikers agreed on one thing: local residents need to visit these sites now.

"We want the locals, the people who are here, to see it. (Those) who have never seen it, they should go and learn about their island, go check it out," Chong said. "Get in touch with the past."

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