Danielle McLaughlin: Standing Rock, Environmental Justice, and Populism for all?
OPINION: Corporate America lost the latest battle at Standing Rock, but America's politically powerless will struggle to win the war.
Water is life. This mantra won out this week as peace came to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. In a tent city of thousands, after months of protest and violent resistance, the US federal government halted plans to run the Dakota Access Pipeline and its crude oil cargo alongside sacred Indian ground and under the Missouri River.
The Obama administration says it will engage in more consultation with the tribe to assess the impact of the pipeline's path under a major drinking water source, the Mississippi River. This is a pause, not an end. The incoming President has voiced support for the pipeline.
This week, environmental justice prevailed. But the scenario – impoverished and politically powerless communities bearing the dangerous brunt of corporate decision-making and government malaise, is replicated the world over, and daily.
Just 50km north of Manhattan, a Native American Tribe called the Ramapough Lunaape Nation continues its own battle with environmental toxins.
In the 1960s, the Ford Motor Company dumped millions of gallons of paint sludge in empty mines in a remote corner of their territory. Today, huge chunks of the sludge remain, leaching lead, arsenic and xylenes into soil and drinking water.
Cancer rates are soaring. "We've had weeks where we buried seven people in seven days" said Vincent Mann, Turtle Clan Chief of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation. "We were more than 800 souls at one point; now we're just 150."
The Head Chief of the Ramapough Lunaape Nation travelled to Standing Rock to protest. From their tribal lands in New Jersey, Chief Mann worked with protesters and medical insurance companies to make sure that injuries from violent confrontations with authorities were taken care of. It was necessary work. Protesters were blasted with fire hoses in sub-zero conditions. They suffered dog bites and pepper spray injuries; an activist from the Bronx nearly lost her arm after being hit by a concussion grenade hurled by law enforcement. The Ramapough Lunaape also lent spiritual support: "our tribe created a camp on our ceremonial land where tribe members prayed in support of Standing Rock".
The Standing Rock protest was extraordinary for its participants. The Sioux drew support from every other Native American nation in the US, but also from non-Native Americans: US veterans, and environmental and indigenous peoples' rights activists from around the world, including New Zealand.
Kiwi director Taika Waititi used his Hollywood pulpit in support of protecting the Sioux's sacred ground and water. Haka performed in Gisborne, Rotorua, and even one in Standing Rock blew up on social media.
It's also worth considering the broader political context in which the protest occurred. As right-wing populism bubbles up in the UK, Europe, Australia and the United States, the rights of indigenous people – also part of the populace, of course – have been ignored.
Is it because indigenous people are perceived as the "others" these movements reject (despite their unique and original claim to the land the populists seek to "reclaim")? Is it because environmental justice and other concerns of these communities are perceived to be at odds with job growth and putting food on the table, the economic engine of populism?
Perhaps it's a bit of both.
- Sunday Star Times