Text and photos by Hannah Magnuson
About 60 residents gathered at Paseo Stadium in Agana, Guam, on Saturday, April 13, in an act of solidarity with the island’s natural resources.
As Earth Month hit mid-swing, they carried homemade signs that said things like, “There is No Planet B” and “Certified Tree Hugger.” From local advocacy leaders to college students and schoolchildren, they assembled to participate in the second annual March to Protect Mother Earth.
The march came at a time when the U.S. territory is under considerable strain: forces including invasive species, coral bleaching and wildfires threaten the small Pacific island’s natural resources and wildlife while its consumption and population remain sky high.
“What we love, we can save,” Senator Sabina E. Perez announced to the crowd, after marching alongside the community members.
Sen. Perez is one of several newly elected legislators pushing forward an agenda bent on reevaluating Guam’s resource management and adaptation strategies. The Guam legislature has a host of bills under consideration, including a mandate for the Guam government to purchase energy-efficient products and electric vehicles, funding programs to address invasive species and creating a task force to strategize around the island’s oil disposal. Amid the noise, the marchers used their collective voice to press lawmakers to turn campaigns and proposals into actions.
Joni Kerr (not pictured), a marine biology professor at Guam Community College, organized the march as a way to spur local interest in the natural world. The march was sponsored by Guam Nature Alliance, an organization that aligns government, nonprofits, and private sector and educational players around preserving the small Pacific island’s land and water resources.
Michelle Voacolo (right) worries about recent U.S. rollbacks of policies aimed at environmental conservation and climate change mitigation. She says she is hopeful that Guam’s local government leaders will make those issues a priority. She cited promises made by the newly elected Governor Leon Guerrero, who has publicly supported measures to mitigate climate change and develop a Green Economy in Guam. “I feel sorry for the U.S.,” said Voacolo, a native of New Jersey now living in Guam, as she walked alongside South Marine Corps Drive. “We’re progressive here.”
Voacolo is the founder of the Micronesia Climate Change Alliance, a nonprofit promoting climate change education in schools. She stressed the need for individual community members to adjust their behaviors to combat the climate crisis. “We as people also need to step up,” she said.
Sen. Perez supported a slew of bills protecting Guam’s natural resources in the weeks leading up to the march, including a controversial bill she authored to ban scuba spearfishing. She’s also working to prevent the U.S. Marines firing range proposed for Guam’s northern limestone forest, citing the habitat and endangered species – such as native snails — the firing range would destroy. “If we’re more mindful we can protect this beautiful island,” she told the crowd.
Marchers walked alongside South Marine Corps Drive as a steady stream of cars raced by, sometimes honking in support. Many marchers carried signs decrying the burning of fossil fuels and the use of gasoline-powered vehicles, and promoting clean energy.
Some marchers made direct appeals to address climate change. Coral bleaching caused by warming ocean temperatures has killed about one-third of the island’s coral reefs in the last six years. “That 1.5 marker—our lives depend on that,” Voacolo said. She referred to the goal set by the Paris Agreement to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. “In the [U.S.], it can be hard to connect climate change with its impacts, but not here. It’s our reality.”
Perez was joined by Sen. Kelly Marsh, another first-term legislator who took office in January after a campaign centered heavily on cultural and environmental conservation. Marsh spoke to the need for policies to curb pollution and limit waste. “These issues are real. If we ignore them it doesn’t mean they’re ignoring us,” she said.
Marchers of all ages took to the streets near Guam’s capital. Kristan Finney, a mother of two and legal counsel for the Guam Environmental Protection Agency, said her daughters, Marianne, 9, and London, 6, pushed her to attend the march after attending it last year. Finney wants the island to work toward reducing its waste and increasing its recycling and composting services. “We’re vulnerable as an island,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of space.”
The march featured a host of young activists, including Tori Manley, a 22-year-old liberal arts student at Guam Community College. Manley’s interest in environmental advocacy piqued after she challenged herself to abstain from eating or using products made with chemicals – a task she found surprisingly difficult. “It led me to zero waste, to veganism, to here,” she said.
Guam’s focus on environmental priorities is slated to extend beyond Earth Month. The legislature has introduced a host of bills since its inauguration in January, centered on improving Guam’s energy efficiency, wildlife and waste disposal. Bills under consideration include a mandate for the Guam government to purchase energy-efficient products and electric vehicles, funding programs to address invasive species and creating a task force to strategize on solutions for the island’s oil disposal.
Photo at top: Guam residents took to the streets during Earth Month to show their support for environmentally-friendly policies such as those incentivizing clean energy and natural resource preservation. (Hannah Magnuson/MEDILL)