Natural (base) selection: The potential costs of a U.S. military base in the Galapagos

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Charmaine Willis, Andrew Stravers, and Carla Martinez Machain.

The Galapagos Islands photographed from space. Image source: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center Photostream

Environmental activists were shocked to learn over the summer that the U.S. military will soon be deploying counternarcotics forces to an airfield on the island of San Cristóbal, in the Galápagos Islands of Ecuador. The Galápagos, known for inspiring Darwin’s theory of evolution, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The presence of military aircraft that come with significant pollution and noise concerns could threaten their fragile ecosystem, which is already strained by excessive tourism. Beyond the aircraft’s environmental impact, our research shows that such a deployment could harm relations between the U.S. and South American partner states

A lack of transparency

It stands out that this decision was made by Ecuador’s defense minister, Oswaldo Jarrín, without consulting the National Legislature. Ecuador’s constitution prohibits the installation of foreign military bases on Ecuadorian soil. This constitutional provision was motivated by Ecuador previously hosting a U.S. military presence in Manta, terminated in 2009 after public opinion in Ecuador turned against it. The U.S. aircraft would get around this problem by using an existing Ecuadorian military base, much as was the case in Manta (this point was made by Ecuardor’s President Lenin Moreno). Still, the lack of a transparent policy process may harm efforts to create support for an increased U.S. military presence in Ecuador. 

U.S. Embassy officials who we interviewed during fieldwork in South America noted that one of the challenges they face when planning military exercises in the region is fighting misinformation (“fake news”). Many locals harbor suspicions that U.S. troops are deploying to the region as part of a planned invasion of Venezuela. People throughout the region also talk about the U.S. building secret spy bases in Panama or Colombia. Generally, a lack of transparency surrounding the planned Galápagos deployments is likely to lead the public to ascribe the most negative, interventionist motives to them. 

Isolated does not equal better

San Cristóbal is an island with a very small population of 6,000. Its airport is mainly used for flights that carry tourists to the island. Though deploying U.S. forces to a sparsely populated area may appear to be less disruptive, this may not work in favor of the U.S. The conventional wisdom is that military installations with a smaller footprint will receive a smaller backlash from the population. However, our research shows that having direct contact with members of the U.S. military is actually beneficial in creating positive perceptions of the U.S. military, government, and population. Simply meeting a member of the U.S. military increases the probability of a favorable view of the U.S. military by between 5-8% among a host state population. If someone in an individual’s social network receives an economic benefit from the presence, it increases by between 6-11%. 

For example, the population of the city of Manta (pop. 192,000) was actually active in countermobilizing against the protesters from the capital city and from abroad who wanted the U.S. military to leave Ecuador. Those who interacted with the U.S. military had more favorable opinions of it than those who only knew about the deployment from news reports. This is true even independently of potential economic benefits that locals may receive from the military presence. On an island of 600, a U.S. military presence is unlikely to mobilize support in favor of it from locals.  Even if it did, their numbers would be extremely small and unlikely to change the balance of public opinion.

Should we expect protests?

Already on June 17, activists in the capital city of Quito protested against the American military presence. Since the summer months, however, media attention to this issue has dropped dramatically, with no major news reports on it appearing since July. It is also unclear to what extent a protest movement will develop in this instance; past events offer conflicting evidence. In the Philippines, protests against the U.S. military presence have been sporadic in recent years. Protests usually emerge in response to crimes committed by U.S. forces, something that will be less likely with a small deployment on a sparsely populated island. Like Ecuador, the Philippines once hosted U.S. military bases and currently grants the U.S. military the “temporary” use of some of its bases via a visiting forces agreement.

Our recent fieldwork in the Philippines suggests that the lack of a visible U.S. military base (and permanent U.S. presence) may make it more difficult for activists to rally opposition outside of precipitating events such as crimes or accidents attributable to the U.S. military. As one Filipino activist noted in an interview, the term “SOFA” (Status of Forces Agreement) invokes past negative experiences with American colonialism, while “VFA” (Visiting Forces Agreement) is more innocuous and less likely to incur resistance. 

At the same time, Ecuador’s past experience with anti-U.S. base activism suggests that even if there is not a local protest movement, national and transnational activists may lead the opposition. An anti-U.S. base movement played a key role in the closure of the base in Ecuador in 2009, and this movement was distinctive because INGOs led the call for base removal, despite local support for the U.S. military presence. 

Additionally, Okinawa, Japan’s experience over the past two decades suggests that base-related environmental concerns tend to draw the attention of environmental INGOs. The decades-long plan to relocate the Futenma Marine base to Henoko Beach has been met with both local opposition and opposition from INGOs such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Concerns about the plan arose after the discovery of several threatened and endangered species, including the dugong, in the waters off Henoko. Similarly, in Germany, protesters against the US Air Force base in Ramstein often point to the environmental damage caused by the base, including increased aircraft emissions and the polluting of the local water supply. 

Furthermore, local NGOs may look to UNESCO and the greater international community to pressure the Ecuadorian and U.S. governments to refrain from using the airfield for military operations due to the Galápagos’ World Heritage status. Okinawan NGOs are currently trying to leverage a World Heritage bid in the Yanbaru forest to pressure Japan and the US military to cease operations in what remains of the Northern Training Area. 

A problematic location

The selection of a site in the Galápagos Islands may initially seem like an unobtrusive place for a small U.S. counternarcotics military presence. However, after a deeper look at U.S. public diplomacy efforts and the life cycles of protest movements, the site looks increasingly problematic. The cultural and scientific significance of the Galápagos will likely trigger  significant international opposition from INGOs that will support nascent protest movements with resources and organizational assistance. The U.S. will have limited ability to develop a base of support within the local community among those who meet and interact with U.S. forces and see it as beneficial.

Sustainable basing relations are built through a transparent policy process that engages the population of the country in question. Of particular importance is personal interactions with individuals in communities that surround U.S. installations, who often become the strongest supporters of a continued U.S. presence. The new deployment to the Galápagos goes against these lessons from previous basing experiences, and it may be wise to reevaluate whether having access to this airfield is worth the potential environmental and political costs within Ecuador and in the wider region.

This material is partly based upon work supported by, or in part by, the Henry Luce Foundation, the Minerva Research Initiative, U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Research Office under grant number W911NF-18-1-0087. Opinions and interpretations are those of the authors and not the Army or Department of Defense

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