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The Island of Guam, located in the Western Pacific Ocean, forms the southern tip of the Mariana Archipelago. Guam is an unincorporated U.S. territory. While just larger than 200 square miles (518 square kilometers), it is the biggest and most economically developed island in Micronesia. With a year-round population around 160,000 and more than a million tourists annually, Guam is also the most populous island in the region.
Ferdinand Magellan landed on Guam in 1521 and Spain claimed the island in 1565. The native Chamorro population, known for seafaring, hunting, and weaving, frequently rebelled against Spanish rule. There was considerable bloodshed as the Spaniards assumed power, followed by loss of life from diseases such as smallpox and influenza. Nevertheless, Chamorro culture remains strong. In the 2000 census, more than one-third of the total population of Guam claimed Chamorro ethnicity. Chamorro joins English as an official language on the island.
Spain ceded the island to the United States in 1899. Japan briefly invaded Guam in 1941, but by 1944 the United States regained control. July 21 is celebrated as Liberation Day, but as much as 80 percent of the structures on the island were destroyed in combat. Japan’s wartime crimes were largely left uncompensated. A World War II Loyalty Recognition Act was introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives in 2005, but passage remains uncertain.
The island population voted in 1982 to become a U.S. Commonwealth, like the Northern Mariana Islands, but its status has not changed. Guam remains militarily and politically important for the U.S. position in the Pacific. Residents do not pay taxes to the United States, but around $1 billion is transferred to Guam from the U.S. government annually. Guam’s currency is the U.S. dollar. Most food and industrial goods are imported. The island’s economy is largely dependent on Japanese tourism and U.S. military bases. Guam’s motto is “where America’s day begins,” due to the Chamorro Standard Time Zone.
The creation of Apra Harbor after World War II required significant ecological change. It is the only deep lagoon in the Marianas. The breakwater was built on top of reefs, and banks were formed to enclose the channel. The inner harbor requires frequent dredging. Artificial shorelines were also created. Guam’s transportation infrastructure, such as the harbor, continues to be important to the United States, which plans to expand the island’s military facilities.
Environmental policies on Guam have historically not been well monitored. A broad spectrum of environmental contaminates have been identified on former U.S. defense sites and active instillations. A currently unresolved issue is compensation for exposure to nuclear testing. Guam is downwind from the Marshall Islands, a testing site. The island’s harbor was also used for the decontamination of boats used in the atomic tests. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recovery plans for some threatened species, such as a local fruit bat and the Mariana crow. The island is often used as an example of bioinvasion. The brown tree snake was introduced on military ships and decimated native fauna. The snake is an apt climber and a generalist predator. Scientists believe that some island prey did not instinctually flee because they evolved largely without predators.
- James Brooke, “Decades after Abuses by the Japanese, Guam Hopes the S. Will Make Amends,” New York Times (August 14, 2005);
- Thomas H. Fritts and Gordon H. Rodda “The Role of Introduced Species in the Degradation of Island Ecosystems: A Case History of Guam,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics (v.29, 1998);
- Robert F. Rogers, Destiny’s Landfall: A History of Guam (University of Hawaii Press, 1995);
- S. General Accounting Office, Environmental Cleanup: Better Communication Needed for Dealing with Formerly Used Defense Sites in Guam (April 2002).