First nations continue tar sands pushback


George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation – a tribal nation whose traditional homeland lies downstream from Canada’s Athabascan tar sands – articulated the devastating impacts of oil development on traditional peoples when he said, “if we don't have land and we don't have anywhere to carry out our traditional lifestyles, we lose who we are as a people.”  A decision by the U.S. State Department this week represents a significant step towards the preservation of the homeland and culture of indigenous peoples impacted by the tar sands.

First Nations communities like the Cree, Dene and Metis presently experience profound negative impacts to their lands, waters, health and human rights arising from the tar sands project.  These Canadian tar sands are the largest industrial project in the world, spanning 10.6 million acres and intending to produce over 1 million barrels of oil per day via highly-destructive methods of extraction and refinement. Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network describes the Athabascan tar sands region as a “landscape resembling a war zone marked with 200-foot-deep pits and thousands of acres of destroyed boreal forests.”

And the lion’s share of the oil extracted is intended for the U.S. market.  

Despite these staggering impacts – for example, exceedingly high cancer rates in indigenous communities around the extractive regions, and high rates of land and aquatic animal birth defects – few are aware of this project, let alone of the havoc it wreaks.  Until recently, U.S. support for the project continued unabated.  The U.S. State Department has been preparing to approve the third major pipeline project, called Keystone XL, from the tar sands to oil refineries in Texas.

But the tide is turning.  During a recent visit by Avatar director James Cameron to the tar sands, the acclaimed filmmaker exhorted decision-makers to "include the First Nations in these important policy decisions because right now they can't even trust the water they are drinking."  Shortly after that visit, Republican Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in which he voiced his opposition to the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Senator Johanns named his concerns with this proposed 1,600-mile long pipeline, intended to transport oil from Canada’s tar sands to U.S. oil refineries.   In his letter, the Senator noted the potential for large-scale oil contamination of the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies nearly 80 percent of potable water and over 80 percent of irrigation water for the state of Nebraska.

And in an historic victory, this week the State Department decided to indefinitely delay its decision on the approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline.  Officials cited the multiplicity of interests, both regional and international, that must be addressed and reconciled before any pipeline construction can proceed.  Indigenous leaders recognize that until the U.S. denies the permit or the pipeline proponent withdraws its application, there is still work to do.

Even so, the coalition of concerned citizens involved in this campaign – tribal nations, residents along the pipeline route, farmers, and environmentalists – acknowledges this decision as an unequivocal success.  More so, leaders see this step as an indication of the loss of popular consensus around oil’s viability as a long-term energy resource.  Tribal peoples along the pipeline’s proposed route, and at the source of the devastation, continue to stand in solidarity with one another in pursuit of environmental justice, human rights, and a sane, sustainable energy policy for the Americas.

Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the North America Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders.  For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations, please contact Caitlin at [email protected].

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