Across the Americas, indigenous peoples protest fossil fuel and mining incursions on native lands
Chances are you've heard of the Keystone XL pipeline bill that President Obama vetoed in February — which would have authorized TransCanada to lay an pipeline on U.S. land from Montana to the refineries on the Gulf Coast, as part of a 1,179 mile trajectory for tar sand oil tapped in Alberta, Canada. In March, an attempted override of Obama's veto failed in the Senate, but Republican Senator John Hoeven from North Dakota, for one, said such a veto wouldn't be the end of efforts to authorize the environmentally controversial project. "We will attach it to another piece of legislation," Hoeven told The Hill before the veto override vote.
What you might not have heard so readily is that there has been sustained opposition to the Keystone XL by the indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe — one of nine tribes in South Dakota whose governments have opposed the pipeline — said in November of 2014 that congressional approval of the pipeline would constitute an "act of war" on soverign indigenous nations. The Yankton Sioux and Rosebud, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock tribes have all challenged the existing construction permit issued to TransCanada on their lands.
And the Lower Brule Sioux, according to Indian Country Today, in May celebrated the 147th anniversary of the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty the pipeline violates — by tossing TransCanada off its lands. "Invoking their rights under article one of the treaty, the tribe voted to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and evict TransCanada from its lands 'in direct response to the unethical business practices that TransCanada has demonstrated over the last six years.'" Indian Country reported. (Up to the moment coverage of indigenous opposition to the Keystone XL can be found here.)
This is not a new fight. In 2011, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) representing American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, announced its opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and its solidarity with Canadian First Nations. The First Nations in and around Alberta have been impacted by the extraction of oil from the tar sands since at least 2006, when an upswing in rare cancers in their populations was believed to have been caused by toxic wastewater from the processing of bitumen to synthetic crude oil (a procedure that makes the tar sand extractives capable of flowing through pipeline).
A recent New York Times opinion piece tries to draw attention to another indigenous protest on U.S. soil — this time in response to a measure that passed on the coattails of the National Defense Authorization Act in December 2014. The measure was the effort of two Arizona Republican legislators (Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake) and ceded 2,400 acres of National Forest lands — among them Oak Flat, a site sacred to the Apache — to Resolution Mining Company, a subsidiary of the Australian-English mining company Rio Tinto, to tap into a "massive copper deposit" in the region.
Justification for the high environmental costs of mining centers around the jobs it will produce — 3,700 according to supporters of the Resolution Mining Company deal — but for indigenous communities where the mines are located, that isn't much of an incentive when it is weighed against contamination of ground waters and other environmental degradations that will affect generations to come.
“It seems like us Apaches and other Indians care more about what this type of action does to the environment and the effects it leaves behind for us, while others tend to think more about today and the promise of jobs, but not necessarily what our creator God gave to us,” Terry Rambler, the chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, told Huff Post Politics in advance of the legislation's passage.
The consumer economy of the developed nations has fueled a proliferation of mining operations throughout the Americas in the past decade, and the indigenous communities most likely to be affected by the extractive operations have been steadfast in their opposition to them.
In 2010 the communities of San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc in Guatemala started protesting the El Tambor gold mining operation planned by the Canadian company Radius Gold. In March 2012, community members formed a human blockade to prevent machinery and employees from entering the site, for which final permits had been secured in February of that year. The community blockade continued through the sale of the mine's interests to Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (a U.S. company) in August of that year, until May 2014 when the protestors were violently evicted from the site by Guatemalan riot police.
The "La Puya" resistance movement was centered on the fact that the residents of the communities near the mine site were neither consulted nor informed about the mining project, and have profound concerns about water contamination and industrial consumption of water in a region where access to fresh water to meet human needs is already limited. Another Canadian mining operation, this time the Escobal silver mine run by Tahoe Resources, has also seen ongoing protests centered on water contamination concerns since it secured its permit for operation in 2013.
In 2012, Ecuadorian indigenous communities protested large scale Chinese mining projects; the same year indigenous demonstrators blocked the Pan-American Highway in Panama to protest against mining projects in Ojo de Agua; in April 2015, Nahuat indigenous peoples from the states of Puebla and Colima in Mexico filed three federal injunctions alleging that the "Secretary of Economy granted mining concession titles that affect their ancestral territories." and in May, a coalition of farmers and indigenous community members in Arequipa, Peru, engaged in widespread protests of a proposed Mexican-owned copper mine.
Increased risks and a precedent-setting case
There were fatalities and injuries to the protestors in Arequipa earlier this month, just as there were in 2012 when the protests centered on a Colorado-owned gold mining operation in the northern Peruvian region of Cajamarca. There has been violence perpetrated against protestors at the mines in Guatemala as well, and threats of violence to those who have been critical of mining companies in a case being heard by the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes — a case in which the Pacific Rim subsidiary of Canadian-Australian mining company OceanaGold is suing the government of El Salvador for $300 million in exploratory costs and the estimated profit it would have made if it received the permit to mine.
Officials from El Salvador maintain that the mining interest neither met legal requirements nor submitted feasibility studies. NGOs, including Oxfam, have called the suit a way to force the Central American nation to accede to unsafe mining conditions which would compromise water safety. If successful, the lawsuit would set a precedent enabling companies to sue countries when their laws or policies hurt profits.
Separate from the governmental lawsuit, the company has been challenged by community activists who say that Pacific Rim's El Dorado gold mine would contaminate local water supplies and the Rio Lempa, which supplies water for other regions of El Salvador. (It is estimated that 90 percent of the surface water in the country already contaminated.) Those same community activists say they have received death threats for speaking out against Pacific Rim.
Increasingly, in countries seeking to attract investment by selling subsoil resources and encouraging large-scale extractive projects, it has been the native populations who have offered the first challenge, usually by drawing attention — through protests, grassroots action and tribal proclamation — to the social and economic dispossession and environmental exploitation that is so frequently part and parcel of the corporate-governmental transaction.
The Indigenous Environmental Network keeps track of global indigenous activism on the environmental and economic justice fronts. As mentioned previously, Indian Country Today is a news media organization that writes frequently about indigenous opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Journalist Simon Moya-Smith writes frequently about indigenous activism along many lines. In terms of the OceanaGold case against El Salvador, a petition is being circulated by SumOfUs urging the World Bank to throw out the lawsuit.