Pipeline Politics: Indigenous Solidarity and the Climate Crisis

Originally published in The Black Sheep Journal.

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The Keystone XL pipeline struggle has created new alliances between environmental NGOs opposing the pipeline, and indigenous peoples whose lands it would cross, which the strong presence of indigenous speakers at the recent Forward on Climate rally in DC illustrated . For environmentalists Keystone represents “game over” for climate change. For indigenous peoples it is another development project imposed without Free, Prior and Informed Consent, which will not benefit their communities. For these alliances to last beyond the limelight of the Keystone fight, grassroots activists of non-native backgrounds must ground their solidarity in a commitment to supporting long-standing indigenous struggles.

My involvement began on August 31, 2011 when I joined the first major tar sands action in Washington, DC, and was arrested for taking part in non-violent civil disobedience in front of the White House, calling on President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Despite protests, the southern leg of the pipeline is already under construction as are numerous pipeline projects in Canada, including Pacific Trails and Northern Gateway. Near where I live in New England, the Enbridge Trailbreaker is proposed to bring tar sands oil from Ontario to Portland, Maine. Even if we strike down Keystone, it is just one arm of the strategy of energy companies to transport tar sands oil and fracked natural gas to the coasts. The struggle against Keystone is quickly expanding to join with efforts against other pipelines.

Frontline communities and indigenous peoples aren’t just asking for the pipelines to be stopped. This is just one of many indignities their communities have faced at the hands of multinational corporations and colonialist governments. The Unis’tot’en Camp, blockading the “Energy Corridor” four companies seek to create through First Nations territory in British Columbia that has not been ceded to the Canadian government, states the following:

The Unis’tot’en Camp and Lhe Lin Liyin express solidarity to all communities impacted by climate change, pipelines, fracking and tar sands, and mining. We do so by understanding that we must also stop false solutions,” giving the examples of carbon offsets, REDD and biological offsets.

March at Cancun climate talks.

March at Cancun climate talks.

For the Unis’tot’en and other frontline communities all fossil fuels and false solutions must be challenged. But for big environmental NGOs, often funded by foundations that have a direct stake in the fossil fuels industry, these are risky stances. Take for example the Pew Charitable Trusts, a foundation built off of oil money, and long-time funders of environmental organizations. They are funding groups fighting the tar sands, including the North American Tar Sands Coalition, which, “keeps its decision-making body ‘invisible to the outside,’ while funneling millions of dollars to its preferred groups”, according to a new report. Pew looks to fund one-off campaigns, but long-term structural change is off the table for these folks. While the Sierra Club is gaining activist cred on the tar sands, they took the liberty of accepting $25 million in donations from frackers Chesapeake Energy before grassroots groups called them out.

Large environmental NGOs historically have struggled to make lasting alliances with indigenous peoples. When tropical deforestation was a hot topic internationally, indigenous peoples in to Amazon joined forces with Northern environmental NGOs to save their forests, creating the Amazon Alliance in 1992. The NGOs started to change their conservation policies, which all too often forced indigenous peoples of their lands. Sonja Pieck tells the story of how in the late 1990s media attention and funding waned and indigenous peoples started making their own demands, rather than let NGOs represent them. Many large NGOs like Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund stopped being active in the Amazon Alliance and de-prioritized the needs and demands of indigenous peoples. The requirements of funders and the importance of short-term victories pushed them back toward models of conservation that ignored indigenous communities in the name of “effectiveness.”

As collaboration between major environmental NGOs and Indigenous leaders expands, there is a danger Washington insiders will define the terms of victory.  For communities like the Unist’hot’en who have never been respected by the government, or seen political promises come true, these strategies are insufficient. Since the White House action and writing about pipeline politics in Fall 2011, have focused my energy on supporting local solidarity actions rather than trekking down to DC. While NGOs are taking a prominent role in the tar sands struggle, its real strength comes from the grassroots mobilization of people from all corners of the country. For many of us it is our first introduction to the struggles of indigenous peoples in North America. Yet alliances that come together in an exciting political moment can just as easily fragment when public attention fades.

The pipelines must be taken down in no uncertain terms, but we can’t be trapped in a “carbon fundamentalism,” where our activism rushes from one climate crisis to another. Frontline communities face long-standing struggles that won’t be won in one campaign. It’s not “solidarity” if it’s just convenient. It’s not “solidarity” if we stand up for the pipelines, but don’t listen to other demands, like recognition of indigenous territories. The pipelines are one important front in an international struggle against ecological destruction, climate change and the ravaging of indigenous territories. It’s at the grassroots level where this movement is strongest and most resilient to the siren calls of big money and political leaders. If we heed the voices of those most impacted by fossil fuels and colonialism, we are on the threshold of new and meaningful solidarity.

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