Hurricane Matthew has come and gone, leaving devastation in its wake. So far, at least 1,000 people are reported to have died in Haiti, and at least 39 have died throughout the southeastern United States. In North Carolina, the rivers are still rising. Given the destruction, you would think climate change would be taken seriously by our government.
Instead, a panel of federal judges ruled against the Standing Rock Sioux, allowing construction of the oil pipeline to continue. To add insult to injury, the decision came on the eve of Columbus Day, which many indigenous people view as a day celebrating the start of the genocide against native peoples in the Western Hemisphere.
In a break with history, though, and despite the court’s order, the U.S. Army, along with the departments of Justice and the Interior, issued a statement as well, saying:
“The Army will not authorize constructing the Dakota Access pipeline on Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe. We repeat our request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe. We also look forward to a serious discussion during a series of consultations … on whether there should be nationwide reform on the Tribal consultation process for these types of infrastructure projects.”
It is on that Army Corps of Engineers land that the main resistance camps have been set up, where thousands, mostly indigenous people from more than 200 tribes from across the U.S., Canada and Latin America, have gathered to protect land and water, blocking the construction of the $3.8 billion, four-state Dakota Access oil pipeline. This is Lakota-Dakota ancestral land, taken without tribal consent by the U.S. Army.
Native Americans were the first to respond to what is considered the illegal construction of the pipeline. By the time three federal government agencies issued their joint statement halting construction of the Dakota Access pipeline on September 9, there were some 5,000 protesters on site in Cannon Ball, North Dakota challenging the project. The groups spread out over a massive campsite on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, where the tribe says the construction of the pipeline threatens their water source and sacred lands.
Resilient Despite Ruling and Arrests
123 arrests have been made since early August. 27 were arrested this past Monday alone. Charges have ranged between misdemeanor and felony charges including criminal trespass, reckless endangerment, and terrorizing law enforcement. Governor Jack Dalrymple declared an emergency state in August, has brought in the National Guard, has asked President Obama for further financial assistance, and has approved out-of-state support from the National Sheriffs’ Association.
At least ninety of the charges fall under civil disobedience— trespassing on construction sites, locking to bulldozers—but none were carrying weapons or behaving violently. Yet individuals peacefully gathering and blocking construcation were continually met with militaristic like force.
Sheriff Laney called the protests earlier this week a ‘riot' “While some would like to say this was a protest, this was not a protest – this was a riot. When you have that many people engage in that kind of behavior, inciting others to break the law, cheering others on as they do break the law, refusing to leave when they are asked to leave, that’s not a protest… Today, 27 arrests were made – not because we wanted that to happen, because those people on scene chose for that to happen.”
What the sheriff describes above is a peaceful protest. In response to the exaggeration of danger posed, the protesters have taken to calling themselves “protectors,” a semantic distinction that can sound a little hokey until you take into account the historical stereotypes of savagery that they are laboring against. Most days, protesters march or caravan to nearby construction sites to dance, sing, and engage in prayerful ceremonies where elders and children participate.
In a confrontation on September 3rd, six individuals were bitten by dogs brought in by a security force; one officer was pinned against his truck in response; he was let go without injury.
On September 25th, ‘protectors' returned to the construction site to plant corn and willow trees in the pathway of the
pipeline. Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier told the local press that a security guard was assaulted, sustaining minor injuries, and a protester was spotted with a gun. (Kirchmeier’s office did not supply evidence of either claim, and no arrests were made.) Then, on September 28th, in perhaps the most troubling confrontation so far, officers surrounded a group of protesters, holding loaded rifles. The protesters threw their arms in the air, shouting, “We have no weapons! We have no weapons!” Both sides retreated unscathed, but it was a deaf and reckless move on the part of the state.
Dale Americanhorse, who was charged with one felony and three misdemeanors stemming from August 31, will begin court proceedings on December 23.
“We as water protectors are not intimidated by the trumped-up charges they throw at us,” Americanhorse said. “We are not backing down and will continue to do exactly what we do. Protect.”
Keeping Up the Defense and Preparing for Winter
The camps have grown smaller. Some activists, like Dale “Happi” Americanhorse Jr., have traveled to Iowa to assist in what Americanhorse says is a losing battle against Dakota Access Pipeline. Other activists simply cannot handle the elements, for inside a thin canvas tent, deep in the night, cold bites the skin, and by day fierce winds and thinning shade can only toughen or shatter activists’ resolve.
For the thousands that do remain encamped and resolute against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the 17 international banks funding the 1,172-mile project, the politicians whom activists say are forcing agendas and filling pocketbooks, and the federal government’s broken treaty promises, they’re preparing for the long haul.
“We are fighting three battles right now,” a Facebook post published by the Red Warrior Camp stated. “We are protecting the sacred from the Dakota Access Pipeline, we are defending ourselves from the fascist state armed to harm, and we are reinforcing our camp to face the harsh weather that is arriving.”
Tipis and Mongolian-style yurts are replacing flimsy North Face tents in the encampments. Some activists are building wind-breaking fences around their designated spots. Wood stoves are providing warmth in a handful of larger military-styled tents. Massive trees have been brought in for log cabins, hay bales for windbreakers. More activists have moved to the nearby Cannon Ball River, a tributary of the Missouri River, for its wooded banks offer some shelter.
Those that remain are not surrendering.
Grassroots Environmental Protection Happening on an International Level
It's not simply an issue of indigenous land rights—many groups who showed up at Standing Rock are hoping to mount a larger unified effort to combat climate change. According to Leo Cerda, Ecuador field coordinator of the group Amazon Watch and member of the Kichwa tribe, the plight of indigenous land rights in the face of corporate resource extraction is a global phenomenon. Cerda, who hails from the Ecuadorean Amazon, traveled with a group of four all the way to North Dakota to show solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux, he states-
“The indigenous struggle against governments and corporations is the same all over the world. “We have been among the only people doing anything to stop climate change,”
A new study by the World Resources Institute, a resource management NGO, lends credence to that claim. Analyzing deforestation rates in Amazonian regions of Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia over the course of 12 years, the WRI found that legally recognized indigenous forestlands experienced significantly lower rates of forest loss. In Bolivia and Brazil, non-indigenous lands were deforested at nearly three times the rate of their indigenous counterparts; in Colombia, the rate was double.
The study also found that indigenous forestlands in these three countries would provide between $25 and $34 billion in carbon sequestration over the next 20 years. The report urged for indigenously-held forestlands to become a central tenet of climate change mitigation strategies, a course of action conspicuously absent from Bolivia, Brazil, and Colombia's Nationally Determined Contributions to the UN's new climate deal.
Meanwhile, in a stunning coordinated action, nine climate activists were arrested Tuesday for attempting to shut down all tar-sands oil coming into the United States from Canada by manually turning off pipelines in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and Washington state. One of the protesters, Leonard Higgins, said on a video later posted online from the pipeline site in Coal Banks, Montana: “We’re in a state of emergency to protect our loved ones and our families, our communities. We need to step up as citizens and take action where our leaders are not. That’s what I’m prepared to do when I close the valve.”
Also among the nine arrested was Ken Ward. In 2013, Ward and Jay O’Hara anchored a small lobster boat off the coast of Massachusetts, blocking a ship from delivering 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point power plant, one of the region’s largest contributors to greenhouse gases. In a remarkable turn of events, their prosecutor, local District Attorney Samuel Sutter, dropped the criminal charges against the men, saying: “Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking.”
Perhaps leadership from the top has been lacking. But from a small boat bobbing in the ocean to the growing resistance camps in North Dakota, the climate movement is on the rise.