- Ana Villa has fearlessly confronted agribusiness multinationals and armed groups that have tried to take over the land where rural communities and Indigenous people live in the Colombian plains.
- She risks her life fighting for the rights of vulnerable communities in the municipality of Cumaribo, a region that serves as the intermediate zone between the savanna and the Amazon rainforest in eastern Colombia’s Vichada department.
- The communities’ support has empowered her to continue her fight in a dangerous region for environmental defenders.
This article originally appeared in Mongabay and is a journalistic collaboration between Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and Colombian digital news website Rutas del Conflicto.
Featured image: Ana Villa has made several trips to Bogotá to report safety and environmental breaches in the Colombian plains. Image by Ana Villa.
Ana Villa has traveled dozens of times on the highways of Vichada department in eastern Colombia, in service to her rural community. These trips can take up to 18 hours and cross an extensive savanna that’s the ancestral home of Indigenous communities and today hosts landless peasant farmers, or campesinos, who arrived in the area several decades ago. More recent arrivals, coming in the past 15 years, include agribusinesses, agroforestry and oil companies.
Villa defines herself as a “woman of character,” and her persistence has been key when dealing with land rights and environmental issues on behalf of her people in the municipality of Cumaribo. “Anita,” as her acquaintances call her, has not been afraid to confront the multinationals that have come to the region to establish large monoculture plantations, or the violent criminal groups that seek to dispossess rural and Indigenous communities of their land.
In 1991, Villa and her family arrived in Cumaribo seeking better opportunities and fleeing the violence that displaced them from their home in Cubarral, in Meta department, also on the Colombian plains. In 1996, she bought Las Azucenas, an estate that, in her words, “was only savanna and cheap,” but had no property title, like many other plots in Vichada.
Cumaribo is the largest municipality in Colombia by area, at 74,000 square kilometers (28,500 square miles) — more than three times larger than El Salvador, and more than twice the size of Belgium. It’s located in the Orinoquía region, the basin of the Orinoco River that forms an intermediate zone between the savanna and the Amazon rainforest. It’s in this region, with its enormous water wealth, where farmers like Ana Villa have sought out opportunities to build a dignified life. Large companies have also been attracted to the region, drawn by the extensive stretches of fertile soil in which to set up their industrial farms.
“There are two kinds of leaders: born leaders who seek to defend their community, and leaders on paper who claim for themselves and never seek collective gain,” says Luis Torres, a rural community leader from Vichada and friend of Villa’s. “She is a born leader. We admire her and that is why she’s in charge of everything.”
Villa has been active across a range of platforms to report the abuses that rural and Indigenous people living in Vichada experience. She has received threats from criminal groups for trying to help dozens of families obtain land rights. On one occasion, armed men cornered her and she confronted them. Besides her reports, she has also stood up to large agribusiness multinationals trying to take over land in the region.
This is her story.
“I started to worry about environmental issues when I saw that the streams on my farm were drying out,” Ana Villa says. “I filed a complaint after they sprayed the entire river basin with glyphosate. Since then, I started to fight for water.”
Her leadership and drive to protect natural resources soon extended beyond Cumaribo. Villa has taken her claims and protests to Yopal, the capital of the Casanare department, also in the Colombian plains. In 2014, the eastern region of Colombia was gripped by an intense summer that caused water shortages.
Some communities in the affected departments took their grievances to Yopal to demand answers from Corporinoquia, the departmental environmental authority. Leading environmental activists, including Villa, met to demand the resignation of Corporinoquia’s executives. They argued the authorities had taken little action in times of drought and didn’t follow up on complaints from communities about water contamination by the oil and agroforestry industries. “You go and report [it] and nothing is done. We wanted them to quit because they weren’t doing what they were supposed to do,” Villa says.
Martha Jhoven Plazas Roa, at the time the director of Corporinoquia, said in the authority’s 2014 accountability report that Corporinoquia had responded to most of the complaints and had carried out proper environmental controls in the region. She said that of the 1,123 complaints the corporation received in 2014, it handled about 1,000.
However, according to Villa, in the almost seven years since then almost nothing has changed; the complaints have not yielded the expected results, and companies continue to pollute the water. Making a request to the environmental authority is more complex today because its headquarters in Cumaribo has been closed since the end of 2020. Anyone trying to engage with Corporinoquia must travel at least five hours to La Primavera, another municipality in Vichada.
Being the leader of her community entails many responsibilities for Villa, including taking care of her neighbors’ and colleagues’ requests, and being the face of the claims against municipal administrations, public force, settlers who want to take over lands, multinational agribusiness companies, and even criminal armed groups. Addressing all this has put Villa in danger on several occasions. In 2014, while backing the protests against Corporinoquia’s management, she received her first death threat. “A man called me and said that my community had to obey him and leave the companies alone,” she recalls.
A year later, in 2015, while she was on her way to a meeting with villagers petitioning for their land rights, she was intercepted by armed men. “I don’t know what happened to me at that time. I had a lot of [anger] and I started telling them everything that crossed my mind: that they were used to killing people tied up because they were cowards. I told them that if they were going to kill me, they would have to kill me right there,” Villa says. Some residents of Cumaribo who witnessed the incident came to her aid and forced the three armed men to leave.
But Villa also speaks firmly to villagers if she sees that they are the ones damaging the environment. “The truth is that community members are targeted to plant coca. Sometimes they don’t think about the future,” Villa says, noting that the difficulty of growing food crops often pushes rural people to cultivate the more lucrative coca plant for the illegal drug trade. “In several meetings, I have told them that we must not cut down the forests, that we [should] plant the savanna and take care of the forests in Vichada because they are very small, and from there, streams that make up the river basin are born. If we cut down the forests, we are going to kill the fauna, we will destroy everything.”
“We trust Anita and that’s why we’ve asked her to stand up against it all,” says Torres, the community leader. “We take care of each other because those of us who claim land are targets of threats.” Villa says the community’s support is her source of strength, and that she’s not afraid to exercise leadership in a dangerous region for environmental defenders because “the community has my back, we all take care of each other.”
2021 brought good news for Ana Villa and her family. After more than a decade of claims, they received the property title to Las Azucenas, the farm they bought in 1996. This win provided another impetus for Villa to continue supporting 13 families in her municipality who are also seeking official titles to the lands they have inhabited for decades.
Villa has played a fundamental role in the community since 2014, when she witnessed families from a village in Cumaribo being displaced from where they lived. The villagers have sought official ownership of the land from the National Land Agency (known by its acronym in Spanish as ANT). Villa says she witnessed armed men arrive claiming to be the owners of those properties. One of the displaced villagers, Nepomuceno Pilón Caicedo, later became Villa’s friend and partner in pushing the families’ claims. “We are settlers. When we arrived there was nothing. We built our houses there and eventually the village,” Caicedo says. Villa has helped them contact lawyers for advice and collect information to request ownership of the lands. “I help the community members with information, contacts and writing documents,” she says.
Her activism has made Villa an expert on land issues. “When I started as a leader in the Community Action Council, I joined the Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation as a volunteer and I began to learn about land claims and what to do in those cases,” she says. The Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation is an organization that assists vulnerable communities, rural and Indigenous people fight for their rights. To date, Villa has helped 20 families in various villages who are in the process of formalizing ownership of their lands with the ANT, or by making requests to the Land Restitution Unit, the government agency in charge of verifying that applicants have lost their lands due to Colombia’s long-running armed conflict, and taking these cases before specialized judges.
An official with the Norman Pérez Bello Claretian Corporation describes Villa as a very active leader who has been present in various political events to report what is happening in her community and the abuses that villagers and Indigenous people who live in Vichada are going through. “Ana helped us a lot to build and establish a protection and self-care system in rural areas,” the official says. “She is a woman who has always made an effort to report and make her voice heard as a campesina who defends human, land, ecosystem and environmental rights.”
In 2013, Villa and other social leaders created the Association of Community Action Council of Vichada (Asojuntas Vichada), which was the beginning of the reports regarding the irregular accumulation of vacant land by various companies on the Colombian plains. This is one of the major battles she has fought.
In the council, she met Luis Guillermo Pérez Casas, a lawyer. Together, they began to document how the company Colombia Agro, which at the time was owned by the U.S. multinational Cargill, had accumulated about 50,000 hectares (nearly 124,000 acres) comprising more than 40 campesino properties. Cargill had done this with the assistance of Brigard Urrutia, a law firm, it was later revealed.
Colombia Agro had created dozens of paper companies, each of which would buy a piece of land and thus evade the limits on accumulating vacant land. Under a 1994 law, no individual or company may own more than one property that has been vacant. The legislation seeks to guarantee that state lands are handed over to underprivileged villagers and distributed to a few. In Vichada department, no more than 3,000 hectares (7,413 acres) can be granted to a single applicant.
Cargill, one of the largest agribusiness companies in the world, has had a presence in Colombia since the 1960s. Communities in several countries where the company operates have complained about its business and environmental practices, according to a 2019 report by the U.S. environmental campaign group Mighty Earth.
Ana Villa and the lawyer Luis Guillermo Pérez showed how Cargill, with the help of Colombian officials, had acquired land larger than the urban and suburban areas of Bogotá, spanning 47,700 hectares (118,000 acres). Villa says she began investigating the case when several foreigners arrived in the region to buy the land that the government had already granted to villagers after a process that took decades. She says many of the villagers sold their land at low prices due to the difficult conditions of violence in which they lived. The outsiders, after a few months, resold the land to Cargill for much higher prices.
Villa says that while the company was obtaining titles for properties in Cumaribo, rural and Indigenous communities who had been trying for years to obtain land titles continued to wait in vain. Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to verify that the ANT had denied several adjudication requests from Villa’s neighbors, who, as victims of forced displacement, had to go to the Land Restitution Unit. The unit accepted their cases and will present them before a judge.
In 2013, Villa and Pérez’s complaint reached Colombia’s Congress, via the offices of Senator Jorge Enrique Robledo and Representative Wilson Árias. The two congressmen that same year initiated a debate in which they stated that the then Colombian ambassador to the U.S., Carlos Urrutia, was a partner in the law firm advising Cargill. Villa traveled from Cumaribo to Bogotá and participated in the debate in Congress, testifying about what she and other leaders in the area had documented.
After the debate, Urrutia resigned as ambassador, but Cargill and its subsidiary remained in the area as owners of the properties where corn and soy crops were being cultivated. Villa continued to be the spokesperson for the rural and Indigenous communities who complained daily about the effects of the agrochemicals used by the company.
The fight against environmental pollution
In Cumaribo several rural and Indigenous communities have complained to Corporinoquia about Colombia Agro’s environmental behavior between 2013 and 2015. Villa has led several of those claims to protect the health of Indigenous people as well as the ecosystems of the area. “They all drink the water from the river, that’s what they bathe with. Fish died some time ago. We went with the engineer Julián Quintero” — a former Corporinoquia contractor who has helped Villa draft the environmental complaints — “and we even saw dead rays, and the Indigenous people got sick,” Villa says.
The mismanagement of Colombia Agro’s waste has been recorded in several visits made by Corporinoquia. Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto requested information on these visits, and the environmental authority said it has carried out five inspection processes since 2013, in which it found that Colombia Agro did not have permits for the discharge of industrial wastewater.
In two visits, it found an “open-air disposal of solid and hazardous waste” on two properties,” as well as “the illegal capture of water (surface and underground) and discharge of domestic and non-domestic wastewater to the ground, without the respective permits” on three properties.
The complaints against the company’s environmental impact escalated into a criminal prosecution in 2016, after a villager living close to the company reported the aerial spraying of crops using the herbicide paraquat. According to Colombian environmental regulations, this chemical may only be used manually. The newspaper El Espectador reported in 2015 that prosecutors had charged various officials from Colombia Agro with environmental damage, including former manager Juan Aquilino Pérez and the contractor in charge of aerial spraying.
Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to verify that Aquilino Pérez and other company officials and contractors were charged in 2016 for the illegal use of resources, aggravated damage to renewable resources, and environmental contamination. As of March 2021, the criminal process is still ongoing and no ruling has been handed down.
According to the residents of the area, the prosecution for environmental damage caused Colombia Agro to reduce its operations in the area in 2017. However, Ana Villa says that in 2019 the company returned stronger and resumed its agribusiness project. To find out if they are still operating in the area, we searched for the ownership titles and confirmed that they continue to belong to Colombia Agro through the companies it created to acquire them. By reviewing documents from the Chamber of Commerce, we were also able to confirm that Cargill is no longer associated with Colombia Agro.
The documents show that, in 2016, the parent company that owns Colombia Agro went from Black River SAS, which was a Cargill subsidiary, to Proterra, a company created by former Cargill officials.
Robert Philipp Hutter, who, according to his LinkedIn profile, worked for Cargill in 1999 and is the son of former Cargill president Heinz Hutter, is also the president of Proterra. According to its website, Proterra is a private equity fund manager, and while Cargill no longer owns it, the multinational still “maintains its relationship with Proterra as committed limited partner to the Funds.”
Mongabay Latam and Rutas del Conflicto were able to establish that Matthew David Waller, partner and head of finance and operations of Proterra, has an ongoing criminal case with Colombian prosecutors for damage to the environment, related to the Colombia Agro case and its properties in Vichada.
We contacted Cargill representatives in Colombia to ask if the company directly managed the properties, if it had resumed the agribusiness project in Vichada, and if it had made adjustments to comply with Colombian environmental regulations. But Cargill only said that since 2015 it has had no ties with the companies that own the land in Vichada. We tried to contact Matthew Waller from Proterra and officials from Colombia Agro, but got no response.
There is no clarity on the presence and performance of companies like Colombia Agro in the region. Ana Villa says she fears the agribusiness projects have been reactivated, which in the past, and according to reports from Corporinoquia, have caused damage to the natural resources of Cumaribo.
Also, the presence of criminal armed groups in the region has increased over the past year. Several Indigenous and rural communities have reported threats against leaders who defend their rights to own land and have a healthy environment. Even the Ombudsman’s Office, with its early warning system, raised concerns in April 2020 about the increase in criminal armed groups and threats to social leaders in municipalities in Meta and Vichada.
Several neighbors have warned Villa about the dangers of traveling to certain areas. She says she’s become very discreet while traveling to relay community requests to government agencies. “My life has changed a lot since becoming a leader, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. I know that there are many complications such as threats and risks, but I have dedicated myself to the people most in need, to the people who live in the most remote and abandoned territories,” she says.
Despite all this, whenever she is needed, she is willing to travel, if necessary for more than 25 hours. That doesn’t matter to her, she says. She insists on finding solutions that help improve the living conditions of her rural community and of the Indigenous people who trust her work.
This article was first published here on Mongabay’s Latam site on March 16, 2021.
by Ginna Santisteban, Óscar Parra, Pilar Puentes on 11 August 2021 | Translated by Romina Castagnino
For more information
Fabio Víquez I firstname.lastname@example.org I +506 87089747
Leo Cerda I email@example.com I +101 202 3418609
A delegation of representatives from six countries of America, representing Black and Indigenous communities and organizations belonging to the Black and Indigenous Liberation Movement (BILM) joined the Anishinaabe Nation and other Indigenous Peoples under the United States to demand that Enbridge Corporation stop the construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline, as well as all extractivist, racists, and colonial projects that violate their rights, territories and culture.
August 19, Minneapolis, USA. Between August 18 to 21, a delegation composed of representatives from social movements and Indigenous and Black communities from Canada, United States, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Chile and Ecuador; members of BILM; joined the communities of the Anishinaabe Nation and other Peoples of the United States to demand the suspension of Canadian oil company, Enbridge’s project, which plans to build Line 3, one of the largest crude oil transportation pipelines in the United States.
The BILM delegation of representatives demands the end of the colonial-extractivist model endangering the life of Indigenous Peoples and Black communities. Line 3 and other extractivist projects that are being implemented throughout the American continents negatively affect Indigenous Peoples violating their rights, territories, and culture; endangering especially biodiversity, water sources, and other vital resources for humanity; and also contributing to the environmental problems that affect the planet.
“The Anishinaabe People’s struggle against climate change is critical not only for them but for the entire planet. This struggle is particularly important for Black and Indigenous Peoples across the Americas for how it can unite us…and our communities must unite to stop the destruction of our planet, our territories and our own bodies.” Mike Bento, representative from New York City Shut It Down.
Line 3 is a project aiming to expand the pipeline that begins in Alberta, Canada and ends in Wisconsin, US, to transport almost a million barrels of oil per day. This project was proposed in 2014 by Enbridge, a Canadian oil company, responsible for the largest oil spill inside the US. Enbridge seeks to build a new oil pipeline corridor that will cross pristine wetlands and the territory of the Anishinaabe Peoples’ treaty lands through the headwaters of the Mississippi river up to the river banks of Lake Superior.
This is a time for mutual solidarity against racial capitalism, the carceral state, extractivism, patriarchy, and mass displacement. We are here to stand in solidarity with our relatives because there is no Climate Justice without Racial Justice.
“This is a time for mutual solidarity against racial capitalism, the carceral state, extractivism, patriarchy, and mass displacement. We are here to stand in solidarity with our relatives because there is no Climate Justice without Racial Justice.
Our fight to end centuries of colonization requires us to work together, to organize across borders and across languages in order to achieve liberation and self determination for our peoples across the hemisphere“, expressed Leo Cerda, founding member of the BILM Movement, and a member of the Kichwa indigenous people.
The State of Minnesota’s Environmental Impact Statement for Line 3 recognizes that the project will have “disproportionate and adverse impacts” on Native Peoples (Section 11.5), meaning this project does not comply with the basic environmental standard or the approved safeguards for recognized Indigenous territories. The construction of this pipeline is an act of environmental racism.
Amin Matias, member of the Dominican Afrodescendant Network, said that “Indigenous peoples, local communities and Black Peoples must resist against a development model that threatens our lives and the planet. We are here to condemn extractivism and fight against the structural racism that Black and Indigenous Peoples experience.”
The implementation plan for the Line 3 project will go through not only Anishinaabe territory, but also the territory of others, such as Dakota and Lakota Peoples. The establishment of this project would violate the Anishinaabe people and nation in its pathway, endangering the flora and fauna, pristine wetlands as well as the culture and the sovereignty of these indigenous Peoples.
Teresa de Jesús Mojica Morga, Coordinator of the Network of Afro-Latin American, Afro-Caribbean and Diaspora Women-Mexico Chapter, stated that
“Solidarity among Indigenous and Black Peoples strengthens our struggle against extractivism and the abuse of the great economic powers promoting Line 3 in Minnesota, as well as in many other territories. Indigenous Peoples protect nature to preserve the planet for all humanity”.
As for Rosa Marina Flores Cruz, an Black-Indigenous Binnizá woman from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, and member of the Indigenous Peoples’ Assembly of the Isthmus in Defense of Land and Territory, declared:
“We are here to make a common front. In the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico, we are facing mega wind energy projects, which is renewable energy, but also projects to establish gas pipelines, and paradoxically, both types of projects follow the same logic of dispossession and appropriation of our territories”.
The consequences of the extractivist activities in both North America and Latin America are reflected in the impact on the territories, biodiversity, forests, soil, water, and the air quality which above all affect the population living there, for example, the case of Texaco in the Ecuadorian Amazon, a company that during its extraction period (between 1960 and 1992) produced 68 million cubic meters of wastewater filled with heavy metals and carcinogens, affecting the Siona, Secoya and Cofán Indigenous Peoples for several generations.
“Indigenous Peoples have to stop the expansion of extractive industries. Line 3 is intended to transport crude oil, but in my territory, in the Kichwa community of Serena, in the Amazon jungles of Ecuador, they want to set up mining concessions not authorized by us, the Indigenous Peoples,” said Majo Andrade Cerda, an Indigenous person from the Kichwa community of Serena, in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
The Black and Indigenous Liberation Movement (BILM) is a coalition of collectives, peoples, grassroots organizations and social movements from across the Americas. It was born in 2020 to support struggles against racism, discrimination, violence, colonialism and the ravages of racial capitalism. The movement seeks to unite all the voices of the continent and establish a solidarity action network that allows us to raise awareness of the demands of each community and territory so that together we can fight the inequality and injustice experienced by Indigenous Peoples and Black communities. More info
Established in 1990, The Indigenous Environmental Network is an international environmental justice nonprofit that works with tribal grassroots organizations to build the capacity of Indigenous communities. IEN’s activities include empowering Indigenous communities and tribal governments to develop mechanisms to protect our sacred sites, land, water, air, natural resources, the health of both our people and all living things, and to build economically sustainable communities.
Learn more here: ienearth.org
The Center for Biological Diversity
For Immediate Release, August 18, 2021
Julie Teel Simmonds, Center for Biological Diversity, (619) 990-2999, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sharon Lavigne, RISE St. James, (225) 206-0900, email@example.com
Anne Rolfes, Louisiana Bucket Brigade, (504) 452-4909, firstname.lastname@example.org
Decision Follows Lawsuit, Permit Suspension, Public Pressure
WASHINGTON— The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Wednesday it will require a full “environmental impact statement” for the massive petrochemical complex Formosa Plastics proposes to build in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The decision is a major victory for opponents of the plant, who sued to block the project in January 2020 and convinced the Army Corps to suspend its permit last fall.
Wednesday’s announcement means the Army Corps will now do a complete analysis of the public health, environmental, climate, environmental justice and cultural impacts of what would be one of the world’s biggest plastic-making plants. Plaintiff groups representing the Black and low-income communities affected by the project — from an already polluted industrial corridor known as Cancer Alley or Death Alley — have long said a proper environmental review would show the project should never be built.
“The Army Corps has finally heard our pleas and understands our pain. With God’s help, Formosa Plastics will soon pull out of our community,” said Sharon Lavigne with RISE St. James, who earlier this year was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work defending her community from petrochemical polluters. “Nobody took it upon themselves to speak for St. James Parish until we started working to stop Formosa Plastics. Now the world is watching this important victory for environmental justice.”
RISE St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf were represented in the litigation over this permit by the Center for Biological Diversity. Local opponents of the project have been aggressively dismissed, arrested and publicly criticized over their work to stop this project, which received huge taxpayer subsidies from the state.
“Today’s announcement is the ultimate David v. Goliath victory,” said Anne Rolfes, executive director of Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We were not scared of Formosa Plastics and its $9 billion project, or the fact that our governor has been cheering for Formosa all along. St. James Parish residents are the ones who have shown leadership and wisdom. What the Corps has done today is common sense. Of course one of the biggest plastics plants in the world should require an environmental impact statement. Our state and federal officials should have demanded it from the outset. I am hopeful that this is the nail in the coffin of Formosa Plastics in St. James Parish. And don’t try to build somewhere else. Pack up and go home.”
The proposed facility would emit 13.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, the equivalent of 3.5 coal-fired power plants. It will also produce 800 tons of toxic air pollutants annually, doubling air emissions in St. James Parish, to produce plastic for single-use packaging and other products. Recent studies have linked exposure to air pollution with higher COVID-19 death rates. It’s one likely factor in the disease’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans.
The lawsuit sought to invalidate Clean Water Act permits issued by the Army Corps in 2019. It asserted that officials violated federal laws in approving the destruction and damage of wetlands, which help protect the region from hurricanes that are intensifying with climate change. The Corps also ignored the water, air, climate, and health impacts of the complex and failed to properly evaluate and protect burial sites of enslaved people discovered on the property.
“This long-overdue review will show the unacceptable harm Formosa Plastics’ massive petrochemical complex would inflict on this community, our waterways, and our climate,” said Julie Teel Simmonds, a senior attorney at the Center. “This terrible project shouldn’t have been rubber-stamped and it should never be built. Climate action and environmental justice mean we have to stop sacrificing communities and a healthy environment just to make throwaway plastic.”
The growing chorus of project opponents includes the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, which called the project “environmental racism” in March and urged U.S. officials to reject the project.
Formosa Plastics’ massive proposed petrochemical complex would include 10 chemical manufacturing plants and numerous support facilities, spanning 2,500 acres, just one mile from an elementary school. By turning fracked gas into the building blocks for a massive amount of single-use packaging and other wasteful plastic products, the project would worsen climate change and the ocean plastic pollution crisis.
Last year Formosa Plastics agreed to pay a record $50 million in cleanup and restoration costs to settle a civil lawsuit after its Point Comfort plant discharged billions of plastic pellets into Texas waterways over many years. That settlement included a commitment to zero future plastic discharges from the Texas plant — a standard that has not been applied to its plant in Louisiana.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
RISE St. James is a faith-based organization working to protect the land, air, water and health of the people of St. James Parish from the petrochemical industry.
The Louisiana Bucket Brigade collaborates with communities adjacent to petrochemical plants, using grassroots action to create an informed, healthy society and hasten the transition from fossil fuels.
Healthy Gulf is a regional nonprofit whose purpose is to collaborate with and serve communities who love the Gulf of Mexico by providing the research, communications, and coalition-building tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf’s natural resources.
After mass graves full of Indigenous children have been found, how can Canada justify ongoing land theft?
Featured image: The site near the former Marieval residential school where a ground search has been underway. Image has been shared by The Federation of Sovereign Nations and Cowessess First Nation. (Photo by Dennis Ward, Twitter)
By Justin Podur
Canada is developing a new image: one of burning churches, toppling statues, and mass graves. There are thousands more unmarked graves, thousands more Indigenous children killed at residential schools, remaining to be unearthed. There can be no denying that this is Canada, and it has to change. But can Canada transform itself for the better? If the revelation of the mass killing of Indigenous children is to lead to any actual soul-searching and any meaningful change, the first order of business is for Canada to stop its all-front war against First Nations. Much of that war is taking place through the legal system.
Canadian politicians have said as much, adopting a motion in June calling for the government to stop fighting residential school survivors in court. A long-standing demand, it has been repeated by Indigenous advocates who have expressed amazement in the face of these horrific revelations that the Canadian government would nonetheless continue to fight Indigenous survivors of systematic child abuse by the state.
To get a sense of the scope of Canada’s legal war on First Nations, I looked at a Canadian legal database containing decisions (case law) pertaining to First Nations. I also looked at the hearing lists of the Federal Court of Canada for ongoing cases. My initial goal was to identify where Canada could easily settle or abandon cases, bringing about a harmonious solution to these conflicts. Two things surprised me.
The first was the volume and diversity of lawsuits Canada is fighting. Canada is fighting First Nations everywhere, on an astoundingly wide range of issues.
The second thing: Canada is losing.
The Attack on Indigenous Children and Women
In his 1984 essay “‘Pioneering’ in the Nuclear Age,” political theorist Eqbal Ahmad argued that the “four fundamental elements… without which an indigenous community cannot survive” were “land, water, leaders and culture.” Canada fights Indigenous people over land, water, fishing rights, mining projects, freedom of movement, and more. The assault on Indigenous nations is also a war against Indigenous children and women.
In the high-profile case of First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada et al. v. Attorney General of Canada, laid out in detail by Cindy Blackstock, “the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada and the Assembly of First Nations filed a complaint under the Canadian Human Rights Act alleging” in 2007 “that the Government of Canada had a longstanding pattern of providing less government funding for child welfare services to First Nations children on reserves than is provided to non-Aboriginal children.” The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) found in favor of the First Nations complainants in 2016.
Note that this isn’t about the history of residential schools. It’s about discrimination against Indigenous kids in the present day. “In fact, the problem might be getting worse,” writes Blackstock, compared to “the height of residential school operations.” As evidence, she refers to a 2005 study of three sample provinces showing a wide gap between the percent of First Nations children in child welfare care (10.23 percent) compared to a much lower rate for non-First Nations children (0.67 percent). In 2006, following the Canadian government’s repeated failures to act on the inequity described in this report (which also included comprehensive suggested reforms that had both moral and economic appeal), Blackstock writes, “the Caring Society and the Assembly of First Nations agreed that legal action was required.” The CHRT was very clear in its 2019 decision that the federal government should compensate each victim the maximum amount, which addressed the victims as follows:
“No amount of compensation can ever recover what you have lost, the scars that are left on your souls or the suffering that you have gone through as a result of racism, colonial practices and discrimination.”
In May 2021, Canada, which has spent millions of dollars fighting this case, tried to overturn the CHRT’s ruling.
Canada’s war on Indigenous children is also a war on Indigenous women. The sterilization of Indigenous women, beginning with Canada’s eugenics program around 1900, is another act of genocide, as scholar Karen Stote has argued. Indigenous women who had tubal ligation without their consent as part of this eugenics program have brought a class-action suit against the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, both of which had Sexual Sterilization Acts in their provincial laws from the 1920s in Alberta and 1930s in British Columbia until the early 1970s, and Saskatchewan, where sexual sterilization legislation was proposed but failed by one vote in 1930. A Senate committee found a case of forced sterilization of an Indigenous woman as recently as 2019.
The Legal-Financial War on First Nations Organizations
As Bob Joseph outlines in his 2018 book 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, Canada first gave itself the right to decide Indian status in the Gradual Civilization Act of 1857, which created a process by which Indigenous people could give up their Indian status and so become “enfranchised”—which they would have to do if they wanted to attend higher education or become professionals. The apartheid system was updated through the Indian Act of 1876, from which sprang many evils including both the residential schools and the assertion of Canadian control over the way First Nations govern themselves. In 1927, when Indigenous veterans of World War I began to hold meetings with one another to discuss their situation, Canada passed laws forbidding Indigenous people from political organization and from raising funds to hire legal counsel (and from playing billiards, among other things). The Indian Act—which is still in effect today with amendments, despite multiple attempts to repeal it—outlawed traditional governance structures and gave Canada the power to intervene to remove and install Indigenous governance authorities at will—which Canada did continuously, from Six Nations in 1924 to Barriere Lake in 1995. As a result, at any given moment, many First Nations are still embroiled in lawsuits over control of their own governments.
Canada controls the resources available to First Nations, including drinking water. In another national embarrassment, Canada has found itself able to provision drinking water to diamond mines but not First Nations. This battle too has entered the courts, with a class-action suit by Tataskweyak Cree Nation, Curve Lake First Nation, and Neskantaga First Nation demanding that Canada not only compensate their nations, but also work with them to build the necessary water systems.
Canada dribbles out humiliating application processes by which Indigenous people can try to exercise their human right to housing. When combined with the housing crisis on reserves, these application processes have attracted swindlers like consultant Jerry Paulin, who sued Cat Lake First Nation for $1.2 million, claiming that his efforts were the reason the First Nation received federal funds for urgent housing repairs.
Canada uses the threat of withdrawal of these funds to impose stringent financial “transparency” conditions on First Nations—the subject of legal struggle, in which Cold Lake First Nations has argued that the financial transparency provisions violate their rights. Canada has used financial transparency claims to put First Nations finances under third-party management, withholding and misusing the funds in a not-very-transparent way, as the Algonquins of Barriere Lake charged in another lawsuit. An insistence on transparency is astounding for a country that buried massive numbers of Indigenous children in unmarked graves.
Win or lose, the lawsuits themselves impose high costs on First Nations whose finances are, for the most part, controlled by Canada. The result is situations like the one where the Beaver Lake Cree are suing Canada for costs because they ran out of money suing Canada for their land. When First Nations are winning in court, Canada tries to bankrupt them before they get there.
Land and Resources Are the Core of the Struggle
The core issue between Canada and First Nations is land. Most battles are over the land on which the state of Canada sits, all of which was stolen and much of which was swindled through legal processes that couldn’t hold up to scrutiny and are now unraveling. “[I]n simple acreage,” the late Indigenous leader Arthur Manuel wrote in the 2017 book The Reconciliation Manifesto, this was “the biggest land theft in the history of mankind,” reducing Indigenous people from holding 100 percent of the landmass to 0.2 percent. One of the most economically important pieces of land is the Haldimand tract in southern Ontario, which generates billions of dollars in revenue that belongs, by right, to the Six Nations, as Phil Monture has extensively documented. Six Nations submitted ever-more detailed land claims, until Canada simply stopped accepting them. But in July, their sustained resistance led to the cancellation of a planned suburban development (read: settlement) on Six Nations land.
Many of the First Nations court battles are defensive. Namgis, Ahousaht, Dzawada’enuxw, and Gwa’sala-’Nakwaxda’xw First Nations have tried to defend their wild fisheries against encroachment and pollution by settler fish farms. West Moberly, Long Plain, Peguis, Roseau River Anishinabe, Aroland, Ginoogaming, Squamish, Coldwater, Tsleil-Waututh, Aitchelitz, Skowkale, and Shxwha:y Village First Nations challenged dams and pipelines. Canada has a history of “pouring big money” into these court battles to the tune of tens of millions—small money compared to its tens of billions subsidizing and taking over financially unviable pipelines running through Indigenous lands—including that of the Wet’suwet’en, whose resistance sparked mass protests across Canada in 2020. The duty to consult First Nations on such projects is itself the outcome of a legal struggle, won in the 2004 decision in Haida Nation v. British Columbia.
First Nations who were swindled or coerced out of their lands (or water, as with Iskatewizaagegan No. 39 Independent First Nation’s case against Winnipeg and Ontario for illegally taking their water from Shoal Lake for use by the city of Winnipeg starting in 1913) fight for their land back, for compensation, or both. The Specific Claims Tribunal has 132 ongoing cases. In Saskatchewan in May, the tribunal awarded Mosquito Grizzly Bear’s Head Lean Man First Nation $141 million and recognition that they never surrendered their land as Canada had claimed they had in 1905. In June, Heiltsuk First Nation won a part of their land back.
First Nations also fight for their fishing rights in courts and out on the water, as settler fishers have physically attacked and tried to intimidate Mi’kmaw fishers on Canada’s east coast. In June, on the west coast, after the British Columbia Court of Appeals found against Canada, the federal government announced it wouldn’t appeal, dropping a 15-year litigation that restricted Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations fishing quotas.
Decolonization Just Might Be Inevitable
Why does Canada keep fighting (and losing) even as its legitimacy as a state built on theft and genocide crumbles? It’s not merely the habits of centuries. It’s also the absence of any project besides the displacement of First Nations and the plunder of the land. Canada could take the first step to ending all this by declaring a unilateral ceasefire in the legal war. Too few Canadians understand that this would actually be a very good thing. First Nations lived sustainably for thousands of years in these extraordinary northern ecosystems. Then the European empires arrived, bringing smallpox and tuberculosis among other scourges. Local extinctions of beaver and buffalo quickly followed, as well as the total extinction of the passenger pigeon. Today’s settler state has poisoned pristine lakes with mine tailings, denuded the country’s spectacular forests, and gifted the atmosphere some of the world’s highest per capita carbon emissions (seventh in the world in 2018—more than Saudi Arabia, which was 10th, and the U.S., which was 11th). Indigenous visionaries have better ideas, such as those presented by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Arthur Manuel, or for that matter the Red Deal and the People’s Agreement of Cochabamba.
Under Indigenous sovereignty, Canadians could truly be guests of the First Nations, capable of fulfilling their obligations to their hosts and their hosts’ lands, rather than the pawns of the settler state’s war against those from whom the land was stolen.
This article was produced by Globetrotter. Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and a writing fellow at Globetrotter. You can find him on his website at podur.org and on Twitter @justinpodur. He teaches at York University in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change.
Editor’s note: Testing nuclear bombs in “French Polynesia” is yet another example of the insane western mindset of colonialism, racism and entitlement.
France conducted 193 nuclear tests in the South Pacific
This article originally appeared in Global Voices.
Featured image: This is the third picture of a series of the Licorne thermonuclear test in French Polynesia, a scan of a (digitally restored) hard copy of a picture taken by the French army. Photo and caption by Flickr user Pierre J. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Written by Mong Palatino
More than 1,000 people gathered in the Tahiti capital of Papeete to condemn the failure of the French government to take full accountability for its nuclear testing program in the South Pacific.
France conducted 193 nuclear tests from 1966–1996 in Mā’ohi Nui (French Polynesia). France’s 41st nuclear experiment in the Pacific led to catastrophe on July 17, 1974, when France tested a nuclear bomb codenamed “Centaure.” Because of weather conditions that day, the test caused an atmospheric radioactive fallout which affected all of French Polynesia. Inhabitants of Tahiti and the surrounding islands of the Windward group were reportedly subjected to significant amounts of ionizing radiation 42 hours after the test, which can cause significant long-term health problems.
The July 17, 2021 protest was organized under the banner of #MaohiLivesMatter to highlight the target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”continuing fight for nuclear justice. Campaigners said that despite the statement of former French President François Hollande in 2016 recognizing the negative environmental and health impact of the nuclear tests, the French government has done little to provide compensation or rehabilitation to French Polynesia.
After analyzing 2,000 pages of declassified French military documents about the nuclear tests, in March 2021 a group of researchers and investigative journalists from INTERPRT and Disclose released their findings on the health implications of the experiments.
According to our calculations, based on a scientific reassessment of the doses received, approximately 110,000 people were infected, almost the entire Polynesian population at the time.
The report has revived public awareness in France about the impact of their nuclear testing program. The French government held a roundtable discussion about the issue in Paris in early July. Though some criticized the French government for their alleged lack of transparency around the clean-up efforts in French Polynesia, officials denied these claims.
Protesters in Tahiti insisted that the French government should do more to address the demands of French Polynesian residents. Some noted that if French President Emmanuel Macron was able to seek forgiveness for the role of France in enabling the Rwanda genocide in 1994, he should at least make a similar apology for the harmful legacy of the nuclear tests in the Pacific.
The #MaohiLivesMatter protest has inspired solidarity in the Pacific.
Community leaders of West Papua expressed their support for the protest:
Youth activists from Pacific island nations also took part in the protest:
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear weapons (ICAN) Australia issued this statement of support:
As you gather in Maohi Nui on the 17th July we offer our deep respects to your leaders and community members who have long spoken out against the harms imposed by these weapons. We have heard your calls for nuclear justice. We continue to listen closely when you speak of the lived experience of the testing years and the on–going harms.
French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to tackle the legacy of nuclear testing during his visit to Tahiti this month.