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Standing Rock and how to save the environment: Learning it from indigenous peoples
CauseBecause Bureau, December 15, 2016

With the world facing impending environmental doom (doesn’t help that the world’s second highest carbon emitter has a climate-change denier for President) in the not-so-distant future, one would be wise to turn to Noam Chomsky for his views: ‘The only communities standing between humankind and the realisation of such a catastrophe is the world’s indigenous people… All over the world, it’s the indigenous communities trying to hold us back: First Nations in Canada, Indigenous people in Bolivia, Aborigines in Australia, tribal people in India. It’s phenomenal all over the world that those who we call “primitive” are trying to save those of us who we call “enlightened” from total disaster.’

Similar themes were explored in the book New World of Indigenous Resistance: Noam Chomsky and Voices from North, South, and Central America.  It is indeed ironical that so-called ‘civilised’ people have little appreciation for nature or understanding of basic science, while those whom we preach the benefits of classroom education and modern technology are much more in harmony with their environment. The history of cultural homogenisation by the world’s imperial powers—now assimilated and internalised by most nations—has pushed the alternate (and ecofriendly) lifestyles and practices of these indigenous people to the brink of extinction. However, as can be seen by numerous brave and uplifting examples, the resistance offered by the same people has been equally relentless against very difficult odds. When state and corporate (or capitalists, if you may) repression join forces, it is only the might of people power that can potentially put up an equally potent fightback. And even then, more often than not, it is not enough. However, if the rights of this planet and its many living and life-giving inhabitants and resources are to be preserved, the movements of indigenous people need to be supported, followed and replicated. In the light of the recent resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States, we take a look at it and a few other inspirational movements.

Between a Rock and hard places
The Standing Rock protest is led by Native Americans (or you might simply want to call them Americans) against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is a $3.7 billion project designed to transport crude oil from the Bakken oil field in North Dakota to a refinery in Patoka, Illinois, near Chicago. Although opposition to this project started in 2014, it is only recently that the issue has gained worldwide prominence. The central issue is that this pipeline will contaminate the water supply from the nearby Missouri river while also desecrating sacred native lands and creating rampant environmental damage to the local flora and fauna (pipeline leaks are a fairly common phenomenon). The primary opponents (and the people most affected) of this project are the local Standing Rock Sioux tribe – they are a tribe of around 10,000 with a reservation in the central part of North and South Dakota. They are being supported by Native American groups, environmental activists, civil society groups and thousands of individuals (millions if you count the number of online supporters too).

According to local leaders, the project was given the go-ahead without consulting them and without conducting a thorough impact assessment. Although the protests are non-violent, the local law-enforcement authorities, often armed with tanks and riot gear, have been found to resort to aggressive and often disproportionate methods to quell the agitators, including using pepper spray, teargas, rubber bullets and Tasers. The movement supporters, in turn, have taken to camping in and around the pipeline site to halt the progress of its construction as well as to register their defiance.

The larger questions related to the continuing investment in fracking and oil infrastructure have much to do with climate change and how they abet ongoing environmental destruction. The negative impact of fossil fuels is already well documented and protests such as this one are essentially against further exploitation and usage of these fuels. Most environmentalists believe that fossil fuels need to remain where they belong—deep under the earth—if there’s any hope of thwarting global warming. The contrast between the indigenous people fighting to save the environment and corporate groups (with state support) attempting to destroy that very same environment couldn’t be more stark.

Interestingly, during the planning stage, the pipeline route was shifted towards the Sioux reservation area away from the city of Bismarck, since it was considered to be a potential threat to that city’s water supply. All of this smacks of only one thing: Native Americans’ lives and health are of lesser value than white Americans’. It is another chapter in the long, sordid and brutal oppression of indigenous people. While the court has ruled in favour of the pipeline, the current president Barack Obama has stated that alternate routes will be explored (unlikely to happen now). Although this is welcome news, this doesn’t take care of the surrounding environment and the bigger issue of climate change or the continual abuse of indigenous rights. One wonders if there’s any point of international agreements like the Paris Treaty or the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when cases like the DAPL occur ever so often and indigenous people pay the price for so-called ‘development’. As stated by Standing Rock tribal chairman David Archambault – ‘Whether it’s gold from the Black Hills or hydropower from the Missouri or oil pipelines that threaten our ancestral inheritance, the tribes have always paid the price for America’s prosperity.’

The steely resolve of India’s tribals
In India, adivasis and tribal groups have been at the forefront of staving off corporate looting of natural resources, done almost always with state support and which always leads to environmental disasters. Notwithstanding statements like ‘Naxalism is the greatest internal security threat to India’ and the ongoing war being fought by an increasingly repressive State against its own people in the forests and village of its hinterland, it is, again, the indigenous people and adivasis of our country who are fighting to protect the environment and refusing to kowtow to business interests. A more famous example of this is the POSCO protests that started in 2005. Touted as the largest foreign investment project ever in India, the $12 billion Pohang Iron and Steel Company (POSCO) project in Orissa consisted of setting up of a steel plant, mining of iron ore and creation of necessary infrastructure including a minor private port. POSCO is a South Korean company but has plenty of American shareholders. Local tribal groups who would be most adversely affected by these plans have been resisting this project, led by the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti, since the MoU was signed. The problem arose with the requirement of 4,004 acres of land for the steel plant as well as the mining lease on 6,204 hectares in Sundargarh District. While official government records claimed that only 10 per cent belonged to the local cultivators, they, in turn, countered that much of the proposed land to be acquired had been under cultivation by them for generations, a claim backed by independent studies. The land demanded by POSCO is used by local tribal groups to grow leaves for paan (betel) along with fish farming and other mixed crop farming – all of these provide them with income and food security, and maintain the local, sustainable economy. Their unique culture, heritage and way of life is also inextricably linked with the eco system around them.

Unsurprisingly, the tribal people dependent on this land protested vociferously. Their demand was simple – no amount of compensation would help, the project had to shut down. Then there was the iron-ore mining which had already ravaged existing water resources, contaminated them, and depleted groundwater sources. This catastrophic situation was exacerbated by the state government’s commitment to facilitate the provision of 7,000 crore litres of water per year for the plant alone. The assault on one of the country’s last forest areas and its consequences for the overall environment and all its inhabitants would be final and irreversible.

Later on, protestors invoked the Forest Rights Act which gave them the right as forest dwellers to deny outside acquisition of the land. In light of the potential environmental damage, threat to the local communities, violations of law, and data fudging, the battle lines between an increasingly violent State backing its precious foreign investment and the tribal people have been drawn. On one side is the ‘greater good’ paradigm of the elected government and on the other is the right of people to choose their way of life and decide their own future. Orissa (or Odisha) is one of those few states in the country that has the misfortune (or not) of being both mineral-rich and dirt-poor at the same time. This naturally attracts big corporations of the likes of Tata, ArcelorMittal and Vedanta – all more than willing to mine the hell out of its natural environment. The discerning reader knows the winners and losers if this is allowed to happen without proper checks and credible impact assessments. So do the local people. And hence the resistance movement that has drawn the admiration and ire of various people, depending on whose benefits they value more. The standoff has resulted in unyielding protests, accusations, arrests, killings, bomb blasts, and as of this year, further woes for POSCO due to regulatory issues, namely environmental clearances. As a result, POSCO has told the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that it will not pursue the steel plant project any more. If final and credible, that will be a major victory—and one of the few ones—for the beleaguered tribal groups.

Land acquisition is, of course, a thorny issue in this country, with the number of displaced people running into millions. The resulting loss of income, jobs, land and assets, the measly to non-existent rehabilitation and resettlement, and an apathetic and labyrinthine bureaucracy do little to help them (a pertinent question – how do you get compensation when you are not on the ‘official’ records as a landowner?).


All that glitters need not be mined
Latin America has seen several indigenous people-led movements over the past years, with its most visible success arguably being the election of Evo Morales as the President of Bolivia in 2006. There have been plenty of noteworthy groups and individuals who faced up to the mighty corporate-state nexus and emerged victorious against seemingly insurmountable odds. One famous example is the movement against Newmont Mining Corp in Peru. The company is the biggest stakeholder of the Yanacocha gold mine (in Cajamarca) which is South America’s largest. The remaining 49 per cent is owned by Peruvian partners and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. Operational since 1993, it covers 535 square miles and is one of the world’s largest gold mines. Right from the start it had been beset with allegations that the land and environmental clearances were obtained through bribery, bought off at dirt-cheap rates, and without consulting the local, indigenous people who lived and depended on the land. Even the land acquired for the mine was apparently bought off by duping the poor and illiterate indigenous people. Work had started there with massive open pits and leach pads – an unmitigated disaster in an area full of farms that relied on water coming from the mountains (the mine is situated between 3,500 and 4,100 metres above sea level, with development activities in four primary basins).

While revenues from the mine has resulted in a windfall for its owners and the government’s tax coffers, poverty remains the distinct feature of the local people, with 53 per cent of the population in Cajamarca under the national poverty line of about $100 a month. Contamination of water and land, mercury-based poisoning, death of animals and livestock, depletion of lakes and water resources, massive displacement, and rampant environmental damage have resulted due to the mine’s operations. Thanks to the operational nature of these mines (huge pits are dug and mountainous piles of rock moved into it which are then sprayed with a cyanide wash so that tiny specks of gold ore seep down), toxic spills and contaminations in the food and water are frequent. A 2005 Frontline and New York Times investigation discovered that the company had violated so many environmental regulations that a Newmont senior vice president warned the company’s senior management that it was at risk of ‘criminal prosecution or imprisonment’. Later, the company admitted that the valid claims and concerns of the Cajamarca community weren’t listened to or accounted for by it.

Despite all of this, one gold mine wasn’t enough for Newmont. It wanted a second one in the same Cajamarca region – the $4.8 billion Conga gold mine which, at the beginning, required the destruction of four alpine lakes. Not surprisingly and justifiably so, local famers, workers and peasants united together to vehemently oppose this project which would wreak further havoc on their already fragile land and water resources. Again, unsurprisingly, the state police found it justifiable to shoot at and arrest protestors occupying the concession area. One such firing resulted in the death of five people, including a 16-year-old boy. Vocal activists have also been threatened and in some cases brutally murdered. 

One of the most recognised faces of this movement is Maxima Acuña de Chaupe, an indigenous farm worker who fought off Newmont’s attempts to appropriate her land for the mine, culminating in a lawsuit that sought to imprison her family for invading their own land. If this sounds like a Dickensian nightmare, it is. The company attempted to buy her off in 2011 for the Conga mine. When she refused, the company left no stone unturned in harassing, abusing and physically harming her and her family in their frenzy to evict them. One such incident resulted in Chaupe and her daughter being unconscious and her son landing in the hospital. Finally, when all intimidation tactics failed, they resorted to an outrageous lawsuit claiming that she was occupying company land. After three years since the start of her ordeal, the lawsuit was dismissed by an appeals court.

Even better news came through earlier this year when, in the face of relentless opposition by local and civil rights groups, Newmont withdrew its plans for the Conga mine. A huge victory for the indigenous people and a testament to people power. However, it doesn’t diminish the destruction that has been a direct consequence of the Yanacocha mine and, as always, no one has been held accountable yet, let alone prosecuted and brought to justice. How easy it is for a well-funded corporation in collusion with supposedly fair and neutral entities like the World Bank and with overt State support to stroll into a beautiful, pristine land and bully the locals and treat the environment as its private playground, insulated from the outside world.

First People, last to know
Australia’s violent history and the severe oppression of its indigenous people, also known as First Peoples (including the lost generation, as it is inoffensively called), is well known. Less known is the struggle of the Aboriginal community to be given their rights and the continuing denial by most white Australians of their ancestors’ shameful past as well as the continuing marginalisation of those people. One such case that exemplifies all these are the uranium mines in Australia’s Northern Territory (NT). In the 1960s and early ‘70s, uranium was discovered in the Alligator Rivers region of NT, a good part of which would later become Kakadu National Park (Australia’s second largest national park and a World Heritage Site). At the time of discovery, the expectation was that uranium would become one of the major export items of the country and was eagerly sought after by mining companies with support from the government. The mining projects were Ranger, Nabarlek, Jabiluka and Koongarra, all of which were home for the Mirarr Gundjeihmi people and other indigenous groups. These mining areas were, however, conveniently excluded from the national park. It should be noted that the local indigenous communities had lived in this region for thousands of years with their artefacts and rock art of cultural and archaeological significance.

By the late 1970s and early ‘80s, the Northern Land Council (NLC), on behalf of the Aboriginal landowners, entered into agreements for these projects. This was due to the 1976 Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, which gives Aboriginals rights and claims over their traditional land. The same, however, can be vetoed by the government. Much controversy surrounded these agreements as the NLC was found to represent only some of the Aboriginal landowners; the Mirarr community alleged that the negotiations were completed under extreme duress. This becomes clear when one considers certain facts from that time: for instance, the process of giving land titles to the Aboriginal people was just started by the newly constituted NLC, with the locals struggling to get their deserved titles or unable to understand the complexities and consequences of the same. According to people privy to the Ranger mine agreement including negotiators, traditional owners were misled, pressurised and not adequately consulted during the discussions. However, these mining projects were always opposed by the indigenous people. But in true collaborative spirit, first the federal government overruled their objections and then the Ranger Inquiry proclaimed: ‘In the end we form the view that their opinion shall not prevail.’

The Ranger mine – operated by Energy Resources Australia (ERA), which is majority-owned by Rio Tinto – became fully functional in 1980; it was finally closed down last year. In that period, more than 200 environmental breaches have been recorded including the unintentional release of approximately 12 million litres of contaminated water. Uranium contamination is highly dangerous (as it contains radioactive particles) and poses a bigger threat to children and young people. Aside from the destruction of natural resources, historical sites of importance have also been disfigured. Rehabilitating the entire eco system is expected to cost around $500 million, though this is akin to putting a bandage over a festering, ageing wound.

The second proposed mine at Koongarra was officially closed in 2013, with mining operations never taking off thanks to the unrelenting struggle of the locals. The French company AREVA acquired the mine in 1995 and had been trying to access it ever since, resorting to bribes and propaganda to achieve its objective. However, as demonstrated by exemplary leaders like Jeffrey Lee (traditional owner of the Djok clan), they failed to do so with the Aboriginals uniting behind this cause.

The Jabiluka mine has a more chequered history. The 1982 agreement approving the mining lease was disputed by many locals with claims of non-representation or extreme pressure by the authorities to yield. In 1983, the newly elected Labour government put a stop on new mining activity, which halted any potential work on this mine. With ERA purchasing it in 1991 and a pro-mining government coming into power in the late ‘90s, a green signal was given for work to commence on it, resulting in the mine being operational for a short period between 1998 and 1999. This triggered off a massive resistance movement led by the Mirarr group, with the twin premise of environmental concerns as well as the rights, both moral and legal, of the traditional owners. The movement attracted environmentalists, students, civil society groups and, of course, the indigenous people, with blockades, peaceful protests, sabotage of mining equipments, sit-ins and the inevitable arrests over extensive periods. ERA on its part, with State support, continued to highlight the monetary benefits of the project while attempting to create divisions among the Aboriginal community by pitting one indigenous group against another. With the resistance movement showing no sign of abating, ERA entered into a long-term agreement with the Mirarr community in 2005 – it explicitly stated that mining could only proceed with the written consent of the Mirarr traditional owners. Despite tremendous pressure, financial incentives, and the full might of corporate-state power, the Mirarr people remained defiant and steadfast in their refusal to sacrifice their lands for the profit of a few (mostly ERA’s top honchos and shareholders). The clean-up of the mine to be undertaken by ERA had been ordered in 2003.

The major takeaway from these movements demonstrates the synergy between environmental and indigenous issues and the many intersecting points of concern, perhaps much more than other social movements. Indigenous people understand that projects, whether industrial or developmental in nature (like tourism), need to put the environment and their culture and history first, rather than treating them as secondary factors.

Thoughts
One doesn’t need to read the recent news that 2016 is on course to be the hottest year on record, in order to accept the science and reality of climate change. It is the single biggest catastrophic event facing humanity and if concrete action isn’t taken soon, it will be too late to save the planet. But with the never-ending onslaught on the environment, thousands of planned and ongoing mining and fossil fuels projects, and increasing consumerism, there’s little reason for hope. Here’s where indigenous people can teach and guide the rest of the world. For centuries, they have nurtured and protected their surrounding environment, treating it with the respect that it deserves. Instead of foisting ‘development’ and trying to modernise them, it would be much advisable for us to learn the art of sustainable living from them. It is equally important to recognise the uniqueness and beauty of their culture and refrain from diluting it in any way, shape, or form. Of course, without romanticising the indigenous person, information and cultural exchange should ideally be both ways. However, history has shown repeatedly that it is usually one group imposing its power and so-called superiority on the other. If the many movements led by these people are any indication, the people of this world would do well to listen to them and heed their calls.




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