Protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, in context
On Saturday, September 17, a coalition of activists and organizations demonstrated at Philadelphia City Hall and TD Bank in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, a Native American nation located in North Dakota whose water protectors have been protesting the proposed construction of an oil pipeline near their land since April. The persistence and volume of the protest have struck many international observers as unique in recent history—the BBC called it “the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years”—but in fact, similar uprisings and convergences have been taking place all across América (the continent) since colonization began and into the present. Here’s a short overview of the #NoDAPL protest and some of its contemporaries across the Western Hemisphere.
In the US: #NoDAPL—Stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline
In 2014, Energy Transfer Partners announced that it planned to build a $3.8 billion pipeline moving crude oil from extraction sites in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. While motivated in part by safety concerns about aboveground transportation, the route’s proximity to large bodies of water did not inspire confidence in the neighboring Native American nations. On July 27, two days after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave federal authorization to planned construction under Lake Oahe, the Standing Rock Sioux filed a lawsuit alleging that the plans violate the Clean Water Act and may not comply with the National Historic Preservation Act, which protects their sacred sites.
Since then, the protests have become a gathering place for activists from Native American nations, environmentalist groups, and even politicians awaiting a final decision from the court. On September 3rd, protesters moved a half-mile from their base camp to land held by Energy Transfer Partners in response to the destruction of a burial site claimed by the Standing Rock Sioux, and entered a violent confrontation with private security forces.
Ruth Hopkins, a journalist with Indian Country Today, was one of many witnesses who reported the use of dogs on the water protectors. The AP reported that several private security guards and dogs were also injured.
Unlike much of Latin America, the United States has never ratified the ILO’s Convention 169, which guarantees certain rights to indigenous and tribal peoples.
On September 9, the federal judge considering the lawsuit ruled that the pipeline could proceed, a decision the Sioux will appeal. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army and the Departments of Justice and the Interior together asked Energy Transfer Partners to halt construction within 20 miles of Lake Oahe while the risks were assessed, in recognition of the Sioux’s concerns, and on September 16, a federal appeals court ruled to halt construction until the assessments are completed. That’s to say, the water is safe—for now. On September 20, Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II brought his concerns to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. It’s worth noting that unlike much of Latin America, the United States has never ratified the ILO’s Convention 169, which guarantees certain rights to indigenous and tribal peoples.
In Perú: Máxima Acuña—Stopping the Conga Mine
Five years ago, an American company, Newmont Mining, and its Peruvian partner Yanacocha were granted a concession of 7400 acres to develop and exploit a gold mine in a northern Andean region near Cajamarca. As part of the plan, two freshwater lakes would be converted to drain toxic runoff. But Máxima Acuña, an Andean woman, was living and farming on the concession, having bought a plot of land there in the 1990’s, and has become a symbol of resistance through her adamant refusal to sell out. Earlier this year, she explained to The Guardian how her concern for the integrity of the water supply has motivated her to stand strong.
“In Cajamarca, we know what mines can do. In no time it would have poisoned the trout and the livestock. If we don’t have water we don’t have a life or a future,” she said.
Despite winning a lawsuit against Newmont and Yanacocha, after which Newmont declared that it no longer planned to pursue development of the Conga Mine, Acuña still faces aggressions from the private security employed by Yanacocha. Just last week, her daughter reported that she was attacked by the private guards she found destroying her harvest, and had to go to the hospital. The Goldman Environmental Foundation has denounced the attack.
In Honduras: Berta Cáceres and COPINH—Stopping the Agua Zarca dam
In 2009, a military coup deposed the democratically elected President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, and within the year the new government had approved 41 concessions for hydroelectric dam projects, many of which went to multinational development groups. In the case of the Río Gualcarque, an area where many indigenous people continue to live, four dams were proposed, with the Agua Zarca dam becoming a focal point. Since space for the project was conceded in 2010, those indigenous people have pointed out multiple times that their right to “la consulta previa”—essentially, to be part of the government’s decision-making process around their land—was violated (this is one of the rights protected by Convention 169, which Honduras ratified).
“In defense of the Río Gualcarque, which is sacred to us, we have been violated, attacked, and assassinated. That is the case with Berta.”
The public face of resistance to these projects was Berta Cáceres, a Lenca woman who in the 90’s co-founded the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), and who also rose to international prominence after winning the Goldman Prize. The group and its constituents were active participants in the protests which followed the coup, and instrumental in organizing resistance to the dam projects, which would take place on and around their land. However, indigenous leaders have been and are being targeted for harassment, arrest, and assassination. Cáceres was killed in March by a US-trained and -funded military death squad, prompting most of the dams’ international funders to withdraw their support. At least two more members of COPINH, Lesbia Yaneth Urquía and Nelson García, have also been killed since then.
At the same meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council where the Standing Rock Sioux addressed their concerns, Francisco Javier Sánchez, COPINH’s latest spokesperson, asked for the construction of the Agua Zarca dam to end. “In defense of the Río Gualcarque, which is sacred to us, we have been violated, attacked, and assassinated. That is the case with Berta.”
In Guatemala: Lote Ocho—Stopping Hudbay Mineral Inc.
Gang rapes. The vicious murder of a peacemaker at a protest. Hudbay Minerals, which operates in Guatemala’s Mayan highlands, is only the latest Canadian extractor to be accused of such offenses, which in this case, as in those previously discussed, were perpetrated by private security guards in the company’s employ.
In 2007, at least eleven women were attacked in their homes during what was supposed to be a forced eviction, to clear the way for the mine. Margarita Caal Caal, one of the plaintiffs, described a group of six soldiers, police officers and security guards who broke into her home and raped her while her husband was in the fields. The crime bears a chilling resemblance to the state-sanctioned policy of mass rape of indigenous women which persisted during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, which at the time of the incident had ended only eleven years beforehand.
The violence of these acts has changed the terms of the debate around Hudbay’s ethics from one about land use and environmental issues to a reckoning with boldfaced colonial violence. Since impunity continues to plague Guatemala’s legal system, the survivors of Lote Ocho have taken the unprecedented step of bringing their case to trial in Canada. Unlike in the murder of Berta Cáceres, which saw the material authors of the crime punished while those who ordered it walk free, Caal Caal and the other plaintiffs are looking for justice from the multinational company which has so negatively shaped the conditions of their lives.
The case is still in progress.
Getting involved in Philadelphia
The local groups which comprise “Philly #NoDAPL Solidarity” have been organizing together for about a month, prompted to come together by the escalation of the protests at Standing Rock. On September 17, Native and non-Native members demonstrated outside of City Hall before briefly occupying TD Bank, which has been a significant source of funding for the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
“The expectation is that if this project can be starved financially, that would be ideal for starting to crush it,” explained Jed Laucharoen, an organizer within the Philly coalition. “For those of us on the East Coast who are not out there, that can be one of the ways [to be in solidarity].
"They charge the corporations to clean up, but you can never clean it up. It will never be pristine again.”
In addition to the many parallels the #NoDAPL movement has with extractive activity in indigenous lands in Latin America, Laucharoen pointed out that “the majority owners [of the pipeline project] are both heavily involved in infrastructure here in Philadelphia, [namely] the oil refinery and the Mariner East Pipeline. We do see this as a broad issue. It’s an issue where these companies will gladly push through the most vulnerable communities to try and get their work done because they can and just because we don’t have [as many] Native reservations here on the East Coast doesn’t mean it won’t happen here.”
Pedro Torres is Chief of the Jatibonicu Taíno Tribal Nation of Puerto Rico, and was in attendance at the Philadelphia protest. “Water is an important element for the survival of humankind,” he said, echoing the Standing Rock Sioux, the Andean people of Peru, the Lenca people of Honduras, the Mayans of Guatemala, and so many others. “These corporations have carte blanche to build this, that, construct left and right. They charge them to clean up, but you can never clean it up. It will never be pristine again.”
You can follow Philly #NoDAPL Solidarity on Twitter @PhillyNoDAPL to find out about upcoming actions and new developments in the case.