The fight again tar sands is about more than the environment
Date Written: 2015-10-27
Publisher: Red Pepper
Year Published: 2015
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX18154
Indigenous rights defender Eriel Deranger explains how the struggle against tar sands mining is about protecting her people's rights and culture.
Like many indigenous people in the environmental justice movement I have never considered myself an environmentalist. I am a defender of indigenous rights and a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) or K’ai Taile Denesuline, the people of the willow, a reference to the Athabasca Delta, in what is now Canada, where my people have lived since time immemorial. My forebears signed a treaty with the government in 1899 to protect and preserve the rights of the Denesuline community but our culture is now in the cross hairs of the largest industrial giga-project on the planet, the Alberta tar sands.
he Athabasca Delta is one of the world’s largest inland freshwater deltas, recognised by UNESCO as a world heritage site for its diverse flora and fauna; and like the Niger Delta it is sought out by multinational corporations for its rich deposits of fossil fuels. Companies from across the globe have obtained licences from the Canadian and provincial governments to mine the bitumen-rich tar sands. The extraction of this dirty fossil fuel requires destructive methods that fragment, contaminate and compromise large tracts of land that have historically been used by indigenous people.
nstitutional racism and societal norms depicting indigenous peoples as second-class citizens allowed governments to ignore our concerns. There has been little effort by government agencies to address the environmental or human rights concerns brought forward by my people. Instead they are determined to industrialise our homelands.
Like the Ogoni people, we have taken it upon ourselves to find alternative means to pressure multinational corporations and governments to recognise the unique rights of our people. Since the Ogoni Bill of Rights in 1990, there has been a dramatic shift in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, from the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to Truth and Reconciliation in Canada and the countless court victories recognising and affirming indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and autonomy.
These movements are often rooted in a desire to challenge oppression, subjugation and marginalisation by colonial powers and neoliberal agendas. However, the cross-sectionality of multiple movements can also serve as a challenge. In an attempt to merge movements we have to find effective ways to address the root causes that bring us together, and not get lost in surface issues such as simply protecting a piece of land, a species or a waterway, as was commonly done by earlier environmentalists. It is imperative that we work to address collective issues such as colonialism, racism and sexism, and the continued marginalisation of those deemed less worthy. Many people only see and hear ‘environmental’ and forget ‘justice’.
Environmental groups began campaigning for the protection and preservation of the Arctic slope in the 1950s without any direct consultation with the Gwich’in people. They negotiated a US federal protection designation that left out any recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and cultural interconnectedness to the region.
While the designation of the wildlife refuge allowed indigenous peoples to continue to live in the region, it didn’t recognise their sovereignty or cross-border use. When oil was discovered in the 1970s, there was controversy about whether to drill in the region.
During the past decade there has been a concerted effort to address and amend these behaviours and weave movements together in pursuit of environmental justice. One of the biggest challenges of integrating multiple movements under one umbrella is the need to deconstruct power and privilege within our respective movements – a task that is not easy, straightforward or welcome at times.