Editorial: Whose land is this island?

There was a moment in the gubernatorial campaign of 2018 that wrangled many debates and tested many consciences. “This is my island, Ray! I’m from here, Ray!” then-candidate Lou Leon Guerrero exclaimed in a pocket meeting, taunting then-Lt. Gov. Ray Tenorio. The implication was simple: she is Chamorro. He is not. So, the implication continues, how could he care for Guam more than she?

For good or for bad – and, truly, that’s not what this article is about – she was sending a message to Chamorro voters that she would, indeed, protect their interests, promote their progress.

Three years later – in retrospect – what could have been a seminal moment seems more like the use of racial warfare in two sentences to fool Chamorros into voting for her. She could have proven during her term that she never meant to pit Chamorros against non-Chamorros, but instead to fight for issues, where Chamorros have been wronged – like the 1950 taking of their land without just compensation.

Since January of this year, after learning from Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite that his agency intended to declare hundreds of acres of wrongfully-taken land in Fadian as excess, Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero has had every opportunity to get that land back into the hands of its original land owners.

Instead, she wants to take 102 acres of the land facing Route 15 on the way to Pagat, lease it from the Navy for 100 years, build a medical campus on it, and not give a cent to the original landowners, who were NOT justly compensated, when the land was taken through eminent domain in 1950.

In April, Speaker Therese Terlaje was the first to expose the governor’s plan and question it. She held an oversight hearing, where she reminded the members and executives of the Guam Ancestral Lands Commission about a series of laws that detail the government’s obligation and processes in returning excess lands to ancestral claimants, or the heirs of the pre-condemnation owners (if the original landowners are dead). Ms. Leon Guerrero, as a freshman senator in 1995, actually voted for the pioneer statute among these laws: Public Law 23-23, or the Guam Land Claims Act.

Maybe the governor is caught up in the trappings of power. Maybe there’s something she wants to do with Oka Point – the site designated and ready for the construction of her beloved medical campus – that is pressing and important to her. All we know is that, yes, it is critical we build a new hospital. And, we do believe that in her heart of hearts – from the time she voted for the Guam Land Claims Act (and probably way before that) to the time she exclaimed, “This is my island, Ray,” that she meant it, indeed. Something has changed in our governor. Perhaps the voices of the people of the land she wants to take can help Lou Leon Guerrero to remember why people wanted her to be governor, and remind her she is governor because of the people.

Those voices were heard Thursday night, when Ms. Terlaje held another oversight hearing on the topic. We applaud the speaker for her tenacity, courage and obvious preparation she did for this hearing. Using her lawyerly skills, no one could avoid the questions even though some tried multiple times to not answer the questions.

Taking together all that we have reported, all the FOIA documents that we requested and put them together with the testimonies and evidence presented at Thursday’s hearing, one clear message emerges: Governor, you must stop. Build the medical campus some where else. Return the land.

Below we provide a compilation of the pleas five of the landowners make to the governor. Listen closely, governor. The appeal from an old woman, who leases a tiny lot from the Chamorro Land Trust while her father has a claim to more than a million square meters of land you want to take without just compensation, is heartbreaking.

We want to continue exposing obvious moral and legal violations and see this story through until still-living original landowners and their heirs receive the deeds for their lands.

Speaker Terlaje asked many good questions Thursday night that raise even more questions. One shocking revelation is the governor already placed into motion a plan to take over 100 acres just for her so-called Guam Medical Complex. To give you an idea of just how much land this is, consider that Oka Point is about 35 acres and that the land GRMC is on is about seven acres. Why would the governor want to take 102 acres for three buildings and a parking lot?

Either the governor was not telling the truth – or one of her advisors lied to her – when she publicly stated that the ancestral land owners had already received compensation as required by law. Despite our FOIA and repeated requests to the Governor, she still has not produced even an iota of the research she claims to have made to come to that conclusion. As a matter of fact, all the pre-Organic Act documents in Civil Case 34-50, which led to the condemnations, show the landowners were paid far below fair market value for the land then-Gov. Carlton Skinner took.

A missing document

Throughout the hearing, Ms. Terlaje asked administration land officials of the whereabouts of a very important document that appears to be missing. In the Navy secretary’s letter to the governor, he references an October 5, 2020 letter she sent to him that purportedly outlines requests she made about the disposition of Naval lands on Guam. That letter was neither provided to the speaker – who has oversight of land issues – nor to Kandit, in response to our Freedom of Information Act request for such documents.  It is critical the legislature and the people know exactly what the governor wrote in this letter. It appears based on the Secretary of the Navy’s response to the governor’s letter, that the governor may have requested more lands than we were made to believe. So why is this letter missing?

The governor now has a very clear moral and legal mandate to stop all negotiations with the Navy for a license or a lease. In fact, the Navy also has a clear moral and legal mandate to stop all negotiations with the governor. Nothing out of the ordinary is being asked in this case. In the identical manner that millions of square meters of ancestral lands were conveyed to GovGuam by Congress, then pursuant to our Ancestral Land laws conveyed to land claimants, the same must happen in this case.

Kandit will continue its investigative reporting on this story. The Navy has responded to a series of questions we asked Naval Facilities Engineering Command last week. We are grateful for their cooperation, will publish their response, and hope that as more facts come to light, the Commander and the Secretary of the Navy report these lands as excess not to the governor, but to the United States Congress, so the lands may be returned.

Listen closely, governor. This isn’t just your island. It’s their island; it’s our island, too.

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