The Color of Climate

Keystone XL Is Back, and Threatening Indigenous People All Over Again

Indigenous people all over the world face similar environmental health hazards

Photo illustration; Image source: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This is The Color of Climate, a weekly column from OneZero exploring how climate change and other environmental issues uniquely impact the future of communities of color.

Elders of the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux stood in the direct path of the Keystone XL pipeline on April 14 to protest the project, which would carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The pipeline, which is under construction, would tear directly through their Montana lands, threatening wildlife and the tribe’s only sources of fresh water.

For elders of the Fort Peck tribe, the threat posed by the Keystone XL brings back haunting memories from over half a century ago.

“I was one of the kids who had to drink contaminated water from the oil boom in the ’60s,” Fort Peck elder Cheyenne Foote told Last Real Indians, a news website that covers Native American affairs. “We finally have clean water and now we see history is ready to repeat itself. I do not want my grandkids to experience the same illness I did from drinking poisonous water.”

The showdown between the region’s indigenous communities and TC Energy, a Canada-based company, has been ongoing for over a decade. President Barack Obama shut down the Keystone XL pipeline project in 2015 after years of protests, but President Donald Trump threw the pipeline a lifeline during his first week in office, signing an order to reverse Obama’s decision. TC Energy began construction in early April, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Late last year, another TC Energy oil pipeline spilled over 380,000 gallons of crude oil into the wetlands of rural North Dakota.

The harm experienced by Foote and the elders in Fort Peck is shared by indigenous people all over the United States and across the world. A 2019 review published in Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management examined all the existing academic research on the negative health impacts of pollution on indigenous communities. It showed that the most common pollution-related health impacts that they experienced stemmed from their consumption of polluted water and food gathered from the wild.

Lead author Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, PhD, an ethnoecology and biocultural diversity researcher at the University of Helsinki, tells OneZero that these groups saw an increased risk of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease as well as neurological disorders and growth deficiencies in children. The health impacts, he says, are “pervasive and deeply worrying.”

“I cannot describe how depressing it was for all of us to review the more than 680 studies that have meticulously documented how pollution increases burdens of disease among indigenous communities from all over the world,” he says. “The amount of empirical evidence of pollution-driven health impacts is just overwhelming, and we believe that a global review of this large body of research was long overdue.”

Like Peck, indigenous people around the world actively protest their unjust situation. “There is also a very positive, optimistic, and forward-looking finding stemming from this paper,” Fernández-Llamazares says, “which is that indigenous peoples are fighting against the spread of pollution in very meaningful and important ways.”

According to the paper, indigenous people are developing policy and bringing lawsuits to hold polluters accountable, leading monitoring programs, maintaining traditional ways of living, and protesting through social mobilization, blockades, and resistance camps.

“Through our review, we hope to bring visibility to all the Indigenous communities who are arduously fighting to combat pollution impacting their territories,” Fernández-Llamazares says. “Their efforts should be recognized and supported.”

Fernández-Llamazares is absolutely right that these efforts should be recognized, so here are some other recent stories of indigenous communities fighting for their right to survive into the future:

  • In March, the Nari Nari, an indigenous community in New South Wales, Australia, won back the legal rights to Gayini, over 214,000 acres of ecologically significant wetlands after more than 150 years of dispossession. Along with a few environmental nonprofits, the tribe has fought to repossess the land for over 30 years.
  • Legendary indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke continues to protest the replacement of another tar sands oil pipeline, the Enbridge Line 3, runs from Alberta, Canada to her home state of Minnesota. The original pipeline, which was built in 1968, is decaying. LaDuke spoke about the effort to stop construction on the pipeline, which has continued despite the coronavirus pandemic, with environmentalist Bill McKibben for Rolling Stone last week.
  • Ruth Hopkins, a Dakota/Lakota Sioux writer, biologist, attorney, and former tribal judge, wrote about pipeline protests in Canada for Teen Vogue, arguing that colonial governments must “respect Indigenous Tribal Sovereignty” and address “the climate emergency by transitioning away from hazardous, nonrenewable fossil fuels before it’s too late.”
  • Indigenous groups in Brazil protested President Jair Bolsonaro’s attempt to push a bill through the legislature that would allow mining on indigenous lands, the AP reported.
  • Protesters blockaded railways throughout Canada in an attempt to shut down the construction of the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline, which is being built by TC Energy, as The Intercept reported.

Drew Costley is a Staff Writer at FutureHuman covering the environment, health, science and tech. Previously @ SFGate, East Bay Express, USA Today, etc.

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