Power 4 Puerto Rico held a momentous panel discussion with representatives from each of the five island colonies currently “possessed” by the United States. This historic event was an unprecedented milestone as it was an intentional gathering of all US island colonies with the purpose of expressing their solidarity with one another, denouncing the evils of unending colonialism, and demanding their rights to self-determination. Many do not realize that the United States in the year 2022 continues to possess colonies, nor do they imagine the degrading human rights violations people in these colonies suffer because they are not U.S. citizens living in any one of the 50 states. For these reasons, the work of the panel was crucial. It now brings considerable attention to the manufactured disasters in public health, housing, food security, public safety, and infrastructure, which these island colonies suffer because of U.S. colonialism. Moreover, it was inspiring to hear panelists discuss the building of achievable pathways to self-determination and sovereignty for the island colonies. The United States does a good job at disguising the true, ugly nature of colonialism. This explains why many people are not enraged with this otherwise unacceptable dehumanizing institution. Remarkably, this panel discussion began with a call out to the United States government, which has been adamant about denouncing Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, while hypocritically is an occupying military power holding five island colonies: Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guahan (Guam), Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It was difficult to hear the parallel and heart-wrenching experiences shared by the island populations, e.g., how they painfully endure the manufactured disasters that the U.S. creates inside its colonies. Maluseu Doris Tulifau, the representative from American Samoa, highlighted that a staggering 90% of their population suffers from noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which include heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, and chronic lung disease. Tulifau illuminated how these diseases are the inevitable consequence of U.S. colonialism. She said, “When the U.S. came to our countries to take over our harbors, they imported their foods, and the type of food they gave to our countries was the type of food that made sure our people had high NCDs”. Sommer Sibilly-Brown, founder of the Virgin Islands Good Food Coalition, struggles to combat this entirely preventable health crisis in the U.S. Virgin Islands, however, she made it clear that throughout the US colonies, the numbers are trending in the wrong direction. U.S. control of food imports and local agriculture results in disproportionately higher rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. Sibilly-Brown explained that this stemmed from the U.S. invasion of the island colonies. When they took control of their new colonies’ ports and most of their land, the US also took control of the people’s diets. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, The U.S. took control of most of the land suitable for agriculture, and dedicated this land to growing sugar cane and pineapple production, which the U.S. then sold as exports. To feed the people living in the U.S. Virgin Islands, they imported cheap, nutrient deficient, processed foods like white rice, wheat products, canned goods, etc. This story repeats itself in all U.S. colonies. Puerto Rico imports more than 80% of its food, the U.S. Virgin Islands imports more than 97% of its food, and Sibily-Brown raised the terrifying consequences of such profound fabricated dependency and food insecurity when she posed the scenario that “one ship could come with all of our food poisoned and everybody in the U.S. Virgin Islands would cease to exist”. However, this scenario isn’t that different from the situation we find ourselves in now. The foods the U.S. exports to its colonies is in effect killing the people who live there, it’s just happening more slowly. Sibily-Brown observed, “The U.S. uses our food in the colonies as a war tactic. It is an act of violence when you have 40% of a population that is morbidly obese, suffering from hypertension, and cancer, that didn’t have that issue one generation ago… People who were enslaved on sugar cane fields today in this age are still enslaved to sugar; it is just hidden in the coke, the cereal, and the ketchup. They just switched the shackles, they switched the way in which we interact and now it seems invisible to us. ” This is why she is working hard to promote local farmers and local food systems in the U.S. Virgin Islands because she sees food as a vital part of identity, cultural preservation, sovereignty, and health.
A generative theme continually raised by the panel was the bitter reality of life under US military occupation. Tiara Na’puti, the representative from Guahan (Guam) explained that The U.S. Department of Defense is building a high-fire training range complex, which has already caused the desecration of an area equivalent to 900 football fields of sacred lands in Guahan. Na’puti added that the desecration of sacred lands also comes with contamination. The U.S Department of Defense, which is the largest polluting entity on the planet, already occupies 35% of Guahan and as a result of that occupation, Guahan has multiple superfund sites, which are considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the most toxic land. Not only did the U.S Department of Defense single handedly create these superfund sites, but they also refuse to clean them up. This is the same story in Vieques, Puerto Rico. After a long and organized campaign, the Puerto Rican people successfully expelled the U.S. Military from Vieques in 2003, after 60 years of dropping an average of 1,464 tons of bombs on the island. Tragically, the military refused to clean up the toxic waste when they left. Now the small island of Vieques has higher rates of cancer than the entirety of Puerto Rico. In Guahan, U.S. military construction of a live firing range is threatening the clean water of those who live there. Na’puti said “the northern Guam lens aquaphor supplies 85-90% of the fresh drinking water on the island, and the operation of the firing range that they’re constructing will require the firing of approximately 18,000 bullets a day near this freshwater resource. And the bullets are not benign because they contain lead, chemicals, and heavy contaminants that obviously can leach into the air and the water”. John “Bolis” Gonzales, the representative from the Northern Mariana Islands, explained that the U.S. has never truly cared about the people of the Northern Mariana Islands, and CIA documents explain that “essentially the entire part of Micronesia is strategic military defense for the U.S. and that is why the U.S. despite our geographical distance, the separation by water and the ocean, need to sustain us for the military defense”. However, the U.S. maintaining defense sites on the Northern Mariana Islands is not sustaining the population. Just like in other colonies where there is a U.S. defense site there is contamination, and on the Northern Mariana Islands they are still working to clean up hazardous waste sites left by the U.S. Department of Defense from over 50 years ago. In one of the Northern Mariana Islands, Saipan, they continue to have millions of pounds of unexploded bombs, artillery shells, grenades, bullets and other munitions left over from World War II! This is why it is so important to go beyond referring to these public health crises on the island colonies as U.S. government neglect because they are truly U.S. manufactured disasters. The U.S. government is aware of the consequences of its activities, but they do not care about the well-being of the people inhabiting their island colonies. In addition to its disregard for the welfare of those living in the colonies, U.S. colonialism permits the government to commit revolting violations of basic and internationally recognized human rights.
The panel ended with all representatives discussing what self-determination means to them and to the island from which they came. It was inspiring to hear the visions the panelists shared about paths to sovereignty for islands that have endured forced dependency for so long. Sommer Sibilly-Brown discussed the importance of food sovereignty in the process of self-determination. She got specific saying, “If we are ever to consider separating ourselves from our colonizers, one of the things we have to consider is what percentage of our food can we grow, what are the regional relationships necessary, how do we keep ground water, how much fresh water supply does an 84 square mile island have to support the growing of food, what is the appropriate land management practice in order to keep the land healthy to grow over time, what is the currency of exchange, and what will be the rate of which we pay for food”. At first glance these considerations may seem overwhelming, but the panel revealed how truly capable the island colonies are of becoming self-determined because despite the continual U.S. manufactured disasters that the islanders endure, their communities continue to collectively respond to these disasters while receiving virtually no support from the U.S. government already. The big takeaway from the panel discussion was that although the island colonies may be small in size, they are powerful forces, and we are all stronger when we are in intentional solidarity with each other. Sibilly-Brown issued a call to action for everyone to remember the island colonies, learn more about them, and see if there are ways you can support their right to self-determination. She ended her remarks with, “When you hear of legislation or anything that is happening that affects everyone, bring us in. Ask: I wonder what this means for the U.S. Virgin Islands, I wonder what this means for Guam, I wonder what this means for American Samoa, and you can also ask your local representatives those questions”.