Politics of Poverty

Standing with Standing Rock

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Supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe rally in opposition of the Dakota Access oil pipeline in front of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016, in Washington, DC. Source: The author.

Lessons from the fight to protect sacred lands and clean water in North Dakota.

What’s happening in North Dakota right now could very well be taking place anywhere in the world where economic interests of oil and mining companies face off against the rights of local communities to meaningfully participate in decisions that affect their lives. Oxfam works around the world to support communities involved in extractive industries conflicts – most recently, at Peru’s largest copper mine, Las Bambas. This time, the conflict is on US soil.  The area around the Dakota Access Pipeline has become increasingly militarized. Reports from the ground depict over 100 riot gear officers, armored trucks, bulldozers and snipers deployed by Morton County Sheriff’s Department to deal with Native Americans and their allies.

‘Water is life’ is the motto of the Dakota Access Pipeline opposition movement.  Since April this year, the movement has been growing and has drawn thousands from around the country and the globe to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, near the South Dakota border. The Standing Rock Sioux oppose the construction of the pipeline on the grounds that it threatens their public health and welfare, water supply and cultural resources.

The $3.7 billion pipeline, which developer Energy Transfer Partners claims is 60 percent complete, was initially slated to cross the Missouri River near the city of Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota. Both city councils rejected the plan, citing concern over risks of possible contamination – including contamination of the state capital’s drinking water. As a result, the route of the pipeline was moved to a crossing half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

If completed, the underground pipeline will span 1,168 miles and transport 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the North Dakota Bakken Region through South Dakota and Iowa to a river port in Patoka, Illinois. The pipeline would then link to markets and refineries in the Midwest, East Coast and Gulf Coast.

The US Army Corps of Engineers approved the project and granted the permits in July. The Standing Rock Sioux maintain that the Corps did not properly consult them prior to shifting the pipeline route, and that the new crossing will pose risks to their drinking water and destroy sacred sites and burial grounds. In July the tribe filed a lawsuit against the Corps in federal district court asking for a preliminary injunction to stop the construction of the pipeline.

Just last month, the US District judge issued a ruling rejecting the injunction, stating that the Army Corps of Engineers “likely complied” with its obligation to consult with Standing Rock Sioux. The Standing Rock Sioux has said they will appeal the ruling. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has since stepped in and said the tribe has raised important issues. The DOJ has said it will not allow the pipeline to be built on the land until the Army can reexamine its decision. It also asked that the company voluntarily halt construction of the project for 20 miles on either side of Lake Oahe. The Interior Department also invited federally recognized tribes to a formal government-to-government consultation on “how federal decision-making on infrastructure project can better allow for timely and meaningful tribal input”.

This is the heart of the issue: consultation. The Standing Rock Sioux contend that a survey of cultural resources was not conducted, that a full Environmental Impact Statement was not conducted, and that they were not consulted. The right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is recognized in the 2007 UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The US opposed the Declaration at first, and it wasn’t until repeated calls from Native Americans throughout the country that, three years later, the federal government reversed its position and announced its support of the Declaration. For the US government, the decision reflects a commitment to address historical consequences in which, as President Obama stated, “few have been more marginalized and ignored by Washington for as long as Native Americans – our First Americans.”

For companies, the business case for FPIC is just common sense. The risks of not obtaining community consent are significant and quantifiable.  A community scorned or ignored can organize and mobilize and exact significant financial price for sponsors of large-scale, high impact projects – through blockades, protests, and brand damage. Last year, Oxfam documented the extent to which oil and mining companies are adopting policies in support of FPIC.

Thus far, the response from the company and local government has been similar to what Oxfam has witnessed in Peru and elsewhere around the world, attempting to criminalize protest and limit coverage of the reality on the ground. Energy Transfer Partners has sued a number of protesters, claiming they have threatened or intimidated contractors and are blocking work at the site.  North Dakota’s governor declared a state of emergency. Criminal trespassing and rioting charges were filed (and later dropped) against Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman by the North Dakota State Attorney.  A filmmaker has been charged with three felonies, with the combined charges amounting to a 45-year maximum sentence.  And just last Thursday, more than 100 riot gear officers with automatic rifles, armored police, bulldozer, sound canon and Humvees were deployed to raid the resistance camp.  Hundreds more were arrested this past weekend for nonviolent resistance.

The Standing Rock Sioux join indigenous peoples around the world who are fighting to protect their sacred lands and clean water. The water protectors have the solidarity of thousands of people across the US and across the globe. The struggle has transformed into an emblem. Energy Transfer Partners and the government officials who are supporting them need to look at the costs of other similar large-scale, high-risk projects that have been rammed through without consulting the people whose lands are at risk. They must respect the Standing Rock Sioux’s right to prior consent and to defend their land and livelihoods.

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