The pandemic has shaken the island territory of Guam, creating insecurity not seen since World War II. Graduate Student Affiliate Kristin Oberiano explains how the US’s imperial relationship with Guam has made its citizens uniquely vulnerable to infection and food shortages during this crisis.
By Kristin Oberiano
When US Navy Captain Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt pleaded for help to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 aboard his ship on March 31, 2020, international media cast their gaze toward the US’s unincorporated island territory of Guam in the western Pacific. Some of the ship’s sailors tested positive for COVID-19 after a four-day off-ship stay in Vietnam earlier in the month. In order to control the spread of the virus, the ship was subsequently docked in Guam, and the US Navy assured Guam’s local residents that all the sailors would remain pier-side to prevent contact with island residents. However, as positive cases rose, Crozier and the navy admiral sought options to move sailors off the ship and outside the military bases.
The question of whether to quarantine sailors in civilian hotels met protests from Indigenous Chamoru activist groups and local island leaders, who correctly pointed out the fragility of the island’s public health care system and the potential strain on the local population of about 170,000. Their protests emphasized the nature of Guam’s unequal territorial (read: colonial) status with the United States; in which its residents have limited representation in Congress and little recourse to air grievances in regard to the military’s presence.
Beyond the naval base’s gates, the government of Guam had been working hard to ensure the public health of island residents since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed on March 15. Within a week, Governor Lou Leon Guerrero closed the island’s public schools, halted nonessential businesses, converted public clinics into COVID-specific ICU wards, implemented a mandatory quarantine period for inbound travelers, and prohibited large gatherings on an island where close-knit large families frequently visit each other. The limited resources of the government meant that they mostly focused on policies to flatten the curve and support medical frontlines. It also meant working with the US naval admiral to help quarantine sailors in local civilian hotels in the village of Tumon, the island’s tourism district.
Lurking beneath the emergencies of COVID-19 testing, mandatory quarantines, and military-civilian relations were the secondary effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The island’s food security was a pressing concern. It is estimated that Guam imports nearly 90 percent of its food from off the island. Thus, when news about lockdowns in the US continent reached Guam, island residents were concerned about the possibility of interruptions in the steady-stream cargo ships carrying food and produce. Although it is not uncommon for Guam’s supermarket shelves to go bare for a week—typhoons regularly cause logistical problems with food distribution—the uncertainty of an expanded or prolonged COVID-19 lockdown in the US continent remains a major concern for island residents.
The island’s dependence on imported foods is a result of the United States post-World War II military policy in Guam and its continued colonial relationship with the United States. After US military forces reoccupied the island in 1944, it implemented widespread land annexation in order to project United States power in the Pacific region in the latter half of the twentieth century.1 The US Navy condemned two-thirds of the island, and much of it was considered by indigenous Chamoru landowners to be the best land for agriculture and grazing. According to Chamoru historian Tony Palomo, “Farmlands were converted into airfields and villages which had escaped destruction during the actual fighting were moved elsewhere…with the massive military buildup, thoughts of reverting Guam to its prewar agricultural economy were wishful thinking.”2
The US Navy also attempted to condemn Tumon Bay—the same area where USS Theodore Roosevelt sailors were quarantined—and transform it into a military-only recreational beach facility, barring Chamoru land owners and local residents from using the land for agriculture and the bay for fishing. And significantly, the environmental damage caused by destructive WWII American bombing and the subsequent rebuilding of infrastructure proved challenging to Chamoru farmers who wanted to return to their farms. To this day, a sign is erected every so often to warn drivers of “unexploded ordnance” that litter the island. The US military still retains 30 percent of the island; military property is bounded by fences, armed guards, and warning signs denoting federal ownership.
These postwar militarized land annexations displaced thousands of indigenous Chamoru families who utilized the land for a subsistence culture rooted in the Chamoru values of inafa’maolek (Chamoru for “to make good to each other”) and chenchule’ (giving) that nourished them for thousands of years.3 These values of community interdependence and reciprocal relations helped Chamoru society through bouts of droughts, natural disasters, epidemics, and war by emphasizing mutual responsibilities within the community. This means if a family had a large harvest of bananas or slaughtered an animal, the family would share it with other families who may not have any, and thus reifying relations that bonded those families in the first place. Inafa’maolek and chenchule’ go beyond the realm of food and resources and are the basis for how each person relates to one another and to the entire community.4
Without access to lands and oceans to feed themselves or to develop large-scale commercial agriculture or aquaculture, Chamorus transitioned into a cash economy working in government or private sector. The island’s food system transformed as well. Guam residents became reliant on imported foods and canned foods, hence the island’s particular love for Spam. By the 1970s, tourism became Guam’s main civilian economy, and many residents worked in the hospitality industry. These transformations came with an economic dependence on the military and tourism to sustain Guam’s community, a textbook example of the “militourism” phenomena that is also seen in other Pacific Islands including Hawaii, the Philippines, and Okinawa, islands and archipelagos that too have an inclination for Spam.
Meanwhile, agriculture remains a relatively small portion of Guam’s economy, and the reliance on imported foods continues to be substantial. Despite the distance, almost all of Guam’s food comes from the US mainland, a result of the arguably dated Jones Act, a 1920s mercantilist law that benefited American trade across the Pacific. The Jones Act also increases the cost of food for those in Guam and the other territories. As a result, Guam’s cost of living is higher than the average city in the US, despite a lower median salary. This lack of food sovereignty—the ability to afford and to control where one’s food comes from—is another manifestation of US colonialism in Guam.
The COVID-19 pandemic only amplifies the historical and present imperial relationship between the United States and its Pacific island territory of Guam. The trifecta of US military’s large presence on the island, the overall decline in tourism, and the shortage of food security and sovereignty on Guam culminates into a worrisome situation for the months ahead. The USS Theodore Roosevelt’s presence on Guam worried local residents about the possible spread of the virus to the civilian community. By the time of its departure on May 20, USS Theodore Roosevelt’s active COVID-19 cases reached 1,140. Guam’s local community recorded between zero and two confirmed cases every day for over a week, even with increased village testing. Throughout this pandemic, the USS Theodore Roosevelt managed to receive more COVID-19 testing kits than Guam’s public health system, an example of the resource disparity that exists between the island’s military and civilian populations. A single transmission from the military to civilian population could have jeopardized the government of Guam’s effort to contain and slow down the spread of the virus.
Furthermore, local farmers—perhaps the biggest hope for a self-sustaining island—have found it difficult to sell their produce as a result of social distancing measures that closed the island’s largest weekend farmers’ market and a reduction of hotel and restaurant orders that correlate to the drop in number of tourists visiting the island. One farmer noted that she had to leave some several thousand pounds of produce hanging on the vine due to loss of orders from restaurants and hotels. Other farmers have decided to plant less in order to prevent losses in the future, thus putting local fresh food supplies at risk. The already fragile local agriculture economy was hit hard by the economic ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet the spirit of inafa’maolek runs strong. Island residents have found ways to aid the local community during this time of need, such as locally producing personal protective equipment, donating food to charity, cooking comfort food for medical frontliners, and checking in on manamko’ (elders) who are sheltering in place. At the end of each of her daily public press conferences, Governor Leon Guerrero recognizes a “COVID Hero,” an individual or organization who has contributed positively to the island’s community.
One such organization is Guåhan Sustainable Culture (GSC), a nonprofit dedicated to food sovereignty and food security on Guam. This organization, of which I am a part, launched an initiative called “Supporting Farmers, Sustaining Families,” which utilizes funds donated through its GoFundMe page to purchase excess produce from local farmers and in turn donate fresh produce to charitable organizations and directly to families affected by the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic. Since starting on April 10, we have given away over 4,300 pounds of local produce, and will continue this program even after the COVID-19 pandemic ends.
With the notion of food sovereignty in mind, GSC hopes that this program increases opportunities for local farmers to sell produce in the depressed market, providing access to fresh, local foods to communities experiencing financial hardships. It also reduces food waste, another core goal of GSC’s mission for environmental sustainability. Ultimately, rather than relying on tourism or military spending to bolster the economy and import food to feed island residents, GSC hopes to increase the prospects for a stable local agricultural economy that will lead to a more self-sustaining island.
While colonialism has facilitated a dependence on colonial structures and while militarism has made it difficult to practice a self-sustaining local food system, this COVID-19 pandemic has shown that the strength of Guam’s community lies in the understood fundamental values of inafa’maolek. Undoubtedly, at the other side of this pandemic, the world will look different. For Guam, we need to look inward to the values that hold us together to reimagine the possibilities of a more independent, self-sustaining, and food sovereign island.
Update: After nine days of strict lockdown measures, Guam eased its restrictions on May 10, allowing some businesses to reopen with safety provisions. As of late May 2020, Guam has recorded 171 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and five deaths.
—Kristin Oberiano, Graduate Student Affiliate, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs
A sincere saina ma’åse to Andrew Gumataotao who has given comments and feedback for this article.
Graduate Student Affiliate Kristin Oberiano is a history PhD candidate at Harvard University. Her dissertation, “Filipino Migration, Chamoru Indigeneity, and the Making of the United States Pacific Empire, 1898-1997,” explores the historical relationships between Filipinos and Chamorus on Guam to historicize the processes of settler colonialism, race-making, and militarism in the Pacific. Her research has been supported by the US Fulbright Program, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard Center for American Political Studies, and the Harvard Asia Center.
Oberiano is a third-generation Filipino born and raised on Guam and is currently aiding in the island’s COVID-19 relief efforts in her role as secretary of nonprofit organization, Guåhan Sustainable Culture.
- Kristin Oberiano, history PhD candidate and Secretary of Guåhan Sustainable Culture (GSC), harvests some pechay (bok choy) with farmer Katrina Reyes, owner of Gualo-ta Farms in the Pacific Island of Guam. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing measures, Guam’s local farmers had trouble selling their produce due to the decline in the tourism economy and a slowdown in the hotel and restaurant industries. GSC seeks to alleviate farm produce waste by launching its “Supporting Farmers, Sustaining Families” initiative. With generous donations from the island’s community, GSC purchases excess produce from local farmers and then gives the produce to families experiencing financial hardships and organizations helping with COVID-19 relief efforts. Credit: Marlyn Oberiano
- NAVAL BASE GUAM (April 29, 2020). Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) prepare to embark the ship after weeks of cleaning and essential watch standing. Thousands of sailors from Theodore Roosevelt were moved to local hotels in an effort to implement an aggressive mitigation strategy to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health of the sailors. Theodore Roosevelt's essential watch standers and cleaning team conducted a crew swap April 29, turning over a clean ship to a COVID negative crew after completion of their off-ship quarantine or isolation. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Jordan E. Gilbert) Credit: Navy Medicine
- Local produce from Guam. Clockwise from the top: sweet potato, kangkong (water spinach), bittermelon, hot peppers, chico, mango, eggplant, saluyot jute (upper left) and katuray (center). Although Guam imports approximately 90 percent of its food from off the island, Guam has a variety of tropical fruits and vegetables that are prized in Chamoru, Filipino, and Asian and Pacific Island cuisine. To combat food insecurity, there is a growing food sovereignty movement which seeks to increase the production and availability of these culturally relevant foods. Guåhan Sustainable Culture partners with organizations such as the Farmer’s Cooperative of Guam, Farm to Table Guam, Micronesia Climate Alliance, and the University of Guam College of Natural and Applied Sciences Extension Program to educate the community about local produce, how to grow local fruits and vegetables, and to advocate for the farming community in Guam. Credit: Used with permission from Kristin Oberiano
- Kristin Oberiano and Guåhan Sustainable Culture (GSC) volunteers, Rita and Mia Gumban, give away free fresh local produce bags to residents of Guam’s southern villages of Malesso’ (Merizo) and Umatac on May 7, 2020. GSC has partnered with several village mayor’s offices in order to increase outreach of its “Supporting Farmers, Sustaining Families” initiative, which purchases local produce from farmers and gives it to families experiencing hardships as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic on Guam. The initiative is coordinated by GSC Board members, Marlyn Oberiano (cofounder), Kristin Oberiano (secretary), Michelle Crisostomo (cofounder), and Denise Crisostomo (board member). The initiative is supported by generous donations of community members such as the Bank of Guam, the Filipino Community of Guam, and GSC’s GoFundMe campaign donors. Credit: Used with permission from Kristin Oberiano
- Anne Hattori, “Guardians of Our Soil: Indigenous Responses to Post-World War II Military Land Appropriation on Guam,” In Farms, Firms, and Runways: Perspectives on U.S. Military Bases in the Western Pacific, ed. L. Eve Armetrout Ma, 186–202, 2001.
- Palomo quoted in Hattori, “Guardians of Our Soil,” 190.
- Hattori, “Guardians of Our Soil.”
- Anne Hattori, “A Take on Taking: Unwrapping Complexities of Oceanic Gifting in the Chamorro Context,” President’s Address at the Pacific Historical Association Conference 2018, 8.