The news from the Dakotas is heartening. After a massive protest lasting much of 2016, the Army Corps of Engineers decided it would not allow a crude oil pipeline to move forward and threaten the drinking water and sacred lands of the Great Sioux Nation.
Rarely do the indigenous peoples of the Americas win, and when we do, our victories can be temporary—like this one. Who knows whether the new administration, led by a US president who has invested in the pipeline, will respect the Army Corps decision?
This news brought tears of happiness to my eyes. But we know the joy will be brief, because they will not stop. We must remain vigilant, for we are the jealous guardians of our Mother Earth.
I traveled 3,000 miles in October, from the Embera community of Chibigui puru in Panama, to show solidarity on the plains of North Dakota. Culture and spiritual practices separate the Sioux of the Dakota grasslands from my people in Panama’s Darien rainforest. And yet, we speak the same language, we see the forest from the inside. We embrace the land that is home to the trees, and the forests the trees become. We are part of the landscape; you cannot drill us out like you would pull oil from the ground.
The forces that fuel climate change threaten the land of the Sioux and the forests of the Embera. The threats may be different, but the end result is ruin—for us, for the environment we protect and for the planet that sustains us.
We see what others call “progress” and we know what it brings. Most times, we make accommodations and adjustments, and sometimes we stand up for our rights. We try to keep the landscape intact, and honor what our ancestors have left us to protect, but we often pay with our lives when the violence comes.
The Lenca in Honduras, for example, sought to stop the construction of a dam across a river that is sacred to them, a project so big, it threatened to flood their rainforests. The blockade stalled the project and it is now suspended. But the price has been paid in blood, as armed mercenaries kill the protest leaders one by one, like my sister Berta Caceres, winner of the 2015 Goldman Prize for environmental activism.
The Sioux have declared their intent, on behalf of all residents of the Dakotas, to safeguard the graves of their ancestors, along with the grand landscape of the northern US prairie and the Missouri River that nurtures it. There is no need to risk the water their future depends on for a pipeline of crude oil, carrying the fuel of degradations past.
This pipeline, like all the others, would not be harmless. The oil it will carry could leak into the Missouri, poisoning the water and coating miles of shoreline with crude oil. We have seen this in the Peruvian Amazon, where an oil pipeline has breached 23 timesin the last five years.
With climate change nudging American industries to stop burning oil, why build yet another pipeline that would keep the fires burning?
In the indigenous forests of Panama, we have our own fires to fight. Over the past 25 years, almost one fifth of our forestland have been destroyed. Deforestation across Latin America fuels more than half the region’s carbon emissions.
Worldwide, tropical forests that remain on indigenous lands contain an estimated 54,500 megatonnes of carbon, and we struggle against every type of entity imaginable—governments, industry and investors, local authorities, the United Nations, and even conservation organizations—to maintain control over our lands and this wealth of trees.
Our experience is that the battle is always worth fighting, and it starts with strengthening rights and returning to the intent of treaties and agreements. True sustainable development anywhere in the world should embrace our approach, include us in the planning, and allow us to share in the prosperity that results. But all too often we are tossed aside for pipelines and plantations and mines—and are rarely allowed to join this “progress.”
Members of the United Nations are talking now in Cancun, Mexico, about an international treaty to safeguard the planet’s biodiversity—most of which can be found in our rainforests. At the start of last month, they met in Marrakech, Morocco, for another round of climate change talks. We bring our message of solidarity to all of these meetings. Each one is an opportunity for the strands of human rights and environmental concern to merge. But few governments are listening.
In last year’s climate change treaty, nations pledged to lower emissions and provide the policies for how they would do so. Research from scientists shows that recognizing and enforcing our property rights was the best and most cost-effective way to reduce deforestation, yet only most countries do not include forest peoples in their plans.
And so the industries of the west burn their fossil fuels and produce their commodities, pushing the indigenous peoples aside and watching in surprise as the ocean levels rise when nature pushes back.
For the Sioux and the Embera and all of the many other indigenous peoples who have borne witness at Standing Rock, nature is our life—a concept that is not yet universally embraced. Do not meet us with water cannons and attack dogs, or bullets in the dark of night. The road to prosperity in this time of climate change does not squeeze itself into a pipeline that mars our territories. Instead, it includes us.