In this critical review, Elisabeth Robson reacts to the newly released environmental documentary Planet of the Humans. The film explains why technology won’t save us and leads viewers to question the industrial paradigm.
Liberals have been quick to attack the film, mistaking it for a pro-fossil or pro-nuclear fuel argument, and recognizing that critiquing “green” energy undermines the morality of their entire ideological project of “sustainable modern development.” The far-right has attempted to co-opt the message as well. Both are predictable and profoundly mistaken responses. See the end of this review for a few point-by-point rebuttals of these misrepresentations.
Our choice is not between “green” energy and fossil fuels. That is a false binary. We must choose between industrial destruction—including both ‘renewables’ and fossil fuels—and creating a biocentric future. We need revolutionary transformation of society, not superficial changes to the energy sources of empire. Planet of the Humans is not without flaws. No piece of media is. But it contributes critically to a movement too long dominated by cornucopian, anthropogenic industrial energy advocates.
Planet of the Humans: Why Technology Won’t Save Us
By Elisabeth Robson
Green energy is a false solution. That’s a nice way of putting it.
But green energy is the god of the left. And heaven forbid anyone from the left point out any of the pesky problems with this god. We expect that from people on the right; but the left? And now one of the left’s progressive heroes has gone and broken the rules and actually published an entire 1 hour and 40 minutes of documentary trashing this god. Needless to say, the backlash took less than 24 hours to begin.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
The documentary film is Planet of the Humans. The film is narrated and directed by Jeff Gibbs, and executive produced by Michael Moore. It stars renewable energy generation technologies wind and solar, along with biomass, and with, of course, the obligatory supporting role appearance from electric vehicles.
Jeff channels Michael well. He is not afraid to look behind the curtain to see the man, or rather the fossil fuels, running the show, or to ask the uncomfortable questions. “Well, that’s awkward,” I find myself saying several times throughout the film.
We begin, appropriately enough, with a reminder of the first Earth Day, 50 years ago today as I write this now. That first Earth Day inspired the filmmaker to become an environmental journalist, and he went through a phase, as many of us have done, wishing and hoping so hard that green energy will help us kick our addiction to fossil fuels and save the planet, that he actually believed it for a while.
Wind and solar.
He soon discovers the intermittency problem: you can’t generate energy from solar panels when the sun isn’t shining, or from wind turbines when the wind isn’t blowing. Well, yes, that is a well known problem. He then discovers that fossil fuel powered energy plants must be running at the ready to fill in the gaps when the wind dies and it rains or the sun sets for the evening, and of course you can’t just stop and start fossil fuel powered energy plants on a whim. What about batteries he asks? Yes, but… they degrade quickly and require a lot of resources to make. How about the resources to make the wind and solar panels? Right, that’s a problem too.
And the land where wind and solar is installed? Oh, yes, the vast tracts of land torn up for wind and solar is yet another problem. But it’s just desert right? “Just desert”… sure, if you think centuries old cactus and Joshua trees, wildflowers that color the hills red, yellow, and purple after spring rains, and lizard and tortoise and eagle and wolf habitat is “just desert.”
Prayer walk for sacred water in the Mojave desert, home to numerous indigenous nations, a wide array of biodiversity, springs, wildflowers, ungulates, tortoises, lizards, birds, and some of the more remote lands in North America. The Mojave’s most serious threats come from the military, urban sprawl, and industrial solar development. Photo by Max Wilbert.
Gibbs looks at electric vehicles, trotted out by car companies as proof of their green credentials, but of course if wind and solar aren’t powering the grid, then all you’ve done to power the EVs is move the gas from the gas tank to the power plant. Unfortunately, the car company executive put on the spot did not seem to know much about the power grid, only about how much PR she was getting from the press about the EV she’s announcing.
Next, we meet biomass. Compared to wind and solar this is a low(er) tech solution to powering the world, which we might initially think is better–along with Bill McKibben who is shown proudly touting the benefits of chopping up trees into bits and burning them in power plants–but it turns out that no, we can’t cut down all the trees on the planet to power our lifestyles without some, you know, downsides. We see the fossil fuel powered-machines killing beautiful old trees, and the smoke and CO2 rising from the stacks while hearing about how biomass is “carbon neutral,” from people who obviously don’t understand the difference between trees, and a healthy, thriving forest. We meet the community members subjected to biomass plants that are burning, along with trees, old tires and creosote-soaked railroad ties.
And all along the way, Jeff and his sidekick Ozzie Zehner, author of Green Illusions and co-producer of the film, ask the uncomfortable questions of the celebrities of the left: Van Jones, Bill McKibben, various big wigs at the Sierra Club, along with plenty of clips showing Al Gore at his hypocritical finest, touting capitalism and the profit he will be making personally if only we would invest more money in renewable technologies.
The only conclusion the viewer can draw by the end of the film is the inescapable fact, that no one on the left wants to admit: there is no get out of jail free card. There never was, and there never will be. As long as we try to tech, mine, build, and burn our way out of this mess, we will only make the problem worse.
Why technology won’t save us
While the film, Planet of The Humans focuses almost entirely on the problems of wind, solar, and biomass, and the corporate culture of profit surrounding these industries, we also understand that the filmmaker gets it–as in, the big picture. That it’s not just about climate change, air pollution, water pollution, or even corporate greed. It’s that even if we managed to miraculously replace all the grid energy and liquid fuels we use with so-called renewable sources of energy, it wouldn’t solve the fundamental issues at the heart of all these problems: that it is our industrial civilization and the relentless push for endless growth that is killing the planet. The film makers do not raise this point explicitly, but it is there for all to see if only we care to look. Just like these problems with renewables have been there all along, no matter how hard we try to ignore the fact that solar panels and wind turbines require massive amounts of metals mined out of the ground, ground that was once someone’s home, and is now destroyed; and no matter how hard we try to ignore that biomass is just a euphemism for dead trees, trees the same so-called environmentalists who invest in biomass energy plants tell us we must save in order to sequester CO2 and protect biodiversity.
The hypocrisy is stunning, as it always has been. We are all guilty of it to some degree–I know I am–but at least I can say that I’m trying to learn more, to keep an open but critical mind, and to spend the time to look more deeply at these issues. I’ve learned to not just take on faith the words of the corporate-backed and often fossil fuel-supported organizations mentioned in this film who tell me we can solve everything–have our cake and eat it too–if we just have enough green energy.
A reviewer from The Guardian wrote in response to the film:
“Most chillingly of all, Gibbs at one stage of the film appears to suggest that there is no cure for any of this, that, just as humans are mortal, so the species itself is staring its own mortality in the face. But he appears to back away from that view by the end, saying merely that things need to change. But what things and how?
It’s not at all clear.”
Yes, this film makes the case that things need to change. What things? Everything. How? By shutting down the entire industrial machine.
The film never explicitly condemns industrial civilization as the root of our problems. However, as I said above, it is there to see for anyone who is paying attention. I might wish it had been stated explicitly and directly, but this message is hard to miss. The point of the film is that everything about how we live on this planet needs to change, and deluding ourselves about how we can continue life as we know it powered by green energy is not just a waste of time; it is criminal. Only by acknowledging this truth can we put aside the fantasy of green energy and begin to formulate real solutions. And yes, the real solutions mean shutting down the entire industrial machine. Not just fossil fuels, but everything: all the mining, the logging, the industrial fishing, the industrial agriculture… everything. It’s all got to change.
The lesson, and the moral of the story, is that we (humans) will be entirely to blame for our own demise, when it comes, if we continue down the path of using massive amounts of energy–no matter how that energy is generated–to expand our ecocidal footprint on this planet.
I hold my breath as the end of the film approaches. Will this film, like so many others, try to end on an optimistic note? The green god of the left requires optimism to end all his religious services, don’t you know.
No. This film, unlike so many others, manages to avoid the tragedy of ending with delusional optimism. We see instead the tragedy of rainforests decimated, rainforests that orangutans call home. The tragedy of lives lost to human greed and cruelty; the desperation, sadness, and confusion written all over the faces of those beautiful beings who remind us so much of ourselves.
It is the perfect, heart-wrenching ending to this film: we understand, without any words being spoken, that green energy, along with the many other horrors of our industrial civilization, is killing us and all life on this beautiful planet we call home.
To join the resistance and help end industrial civilization, check out https://deepgreenresistance.org/.
Commons Criticisms of the Film and Responses
False Critique #1: The film uses inaccurate information, for example about CSP (Concentrated Solar Power)
Critic: “It is stated correctly in the movie that the Ivanpah concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in California requires a natural gas power source to start it up every morning. Other CSP plants do not, however. And newer CSP designs, like the one operating at Crescent Dunes solar plant in Nevada since 2009, use molten salt to store enough of the sun’s heat to keep the generators running all night long.”
Robson: Most CSPs here in the USA have been an utter failure, including Crescent Dunes, which seems to be shut down now. The plant never managed to achieve its expected monthly output, and was entirely shut down for 8 months of its short life because of a leak in the molten salt thermal storage tank.
In addition, CSP plants are incredibly destructive to the land where they are installed. Typically the land is cleared of all life, like you see in the movie… which means habitat and homes lost for countless beings who lived on that land previously. When wildlife people try to relocate the desert tortoises that often live in these locations, not many survive. They fence off the land so the tortoises can’t get back in. And birds that fly through the hottest part of the light as it’s collected can sometimes burn to death.
I wonder if all that infrastructure is still sitting there, trashing up the desert? Certainly the soil and life they destroyed putting it up will take a very very long time to recover even if the infrastructure is eventually removed.
And none of this changes the fact that it requires metals and materials and fuel to build and maintain these things, that they are very low density sources of energy, and incredibly inefficient, consist of toxic waste at the end of their life spans, are designed to power the grid and our lifestyles that depend on the grid, which is unsustainable over the long term.
Laura Cunningham, Wildlife Biologist (comment from Facebook): Ten years ago I fought to save Ivanpah Valley and stop that monstrous solar power tower. This movie is accurate–the Sierra Club supported building the utility-scale solar project on the wildflower fields, translocating the desert tortoises, and ignoring my Chemehuevi elder friends who said every plant in the desert there is medicinal or edible. Ivanpah means “White clay water” in Paiute-Chemehuevi. I watched them bulldoze an ancient trail and archaeology. More giant solar projects are planned in the desert this year, this needs to stop.
False Critique #2: The film unfairly attacks certain figures
Critic: “It is hugely disingenuous, and frankly misleading, to hide in the credits at the end of a movie the fact that two of the leading organizations being damned in the movie for their support of biomass as a “green” energy source (350.org and Sierra Club) do not, in fact, support biomass any more. Bill McKibben deserves an apology for being misrepresented in this film …”
Robson: I feel the film maker gave Bill McKibben ample opportunity to refute his prior support of biomass *on film*. The film shows proof that Bill once did support it, whole-heartedly. Since the film came out McKibben has written this to say that while he used to support biomass, he no longer does: https://350.org/response-planet-of-the-humans-documentary/
Sierra Club has a page on biomass, where they state: “We believe that biomass projects can be sustainable, but that many biomass projects are not.”
Both 350.org and Sierra Club, and Bill McKibben personally, do whole-heartedly support “renewables,” including wind and solar.
350.org‘s main mission is “A fast & just transition to 100% renewable energy for all”, and their primary focus is climate change. The number one item on Sierra Club’s “issues” page is “Climate & Energy”, and speaking for the Sierra Club, ED Michael Brune said: “The booming clean energy economy is helping people create a better future for themselves and their families while, at the same time, helping to tackle the climate crisis that threatens our collective future. Workers see new job opportunities, communities see thriving local economies, and the American people see the inevitable transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.”
It is good that 350.org and Sierra Club and Bill McKibben have improved their stances on biomass; and certainly these organizations do some good work. But their support for “clean energy” will perpetuate our unsustainable lifestyles, and, as the film points out, is likely tied to corporate investment in these and related technologies, as well as the mining, extraction, refining, batteries, grids, etc. technologies that go with them.
Also, a personal note: I think using the word “biomass” to refer to trees, or plants, or whatever life form it refers to, is a horrific way to look at the natural world. It’s like using the word “resources” instead of trees, water, fish, etc. It turns real living beings into objects, and is a huge part of the problem.
False Critique #3: The film endorses problematic ideas of population control
Critic: “Like many environmental documentaries, “Planet of Humans” endorses debunked Malthusian ideas that the world is running out of energy. ‘We have to have our ability to consume reigned in,’ says a well-coiffed environmental leader. ‘Without some major die-off of the human population there is no turning back,’ says a scientist.”
I do not recall anyone in the movie advocating for one-child policies, or any other draconian population policies. I personally felt like the population issue was a relatively minor point in the film compared to the points about solar, wind, and biomass. [Population is discussed for a few minutes during the 100 minute film].
It is very clear that 8 billion humans would not exist without massive amounts of fossil fuels. I don’t think many would argue with that at this point (and if you have a cogent argument, I’d like to see it). In addition, several studies have recently shown that we humans have transformed a large proportion of the Earth in modern times. We have reduced wilderness areas to almost nothing, and wildlife to almost nothing.
So yeah, population is a problem. I thought the film did a fairly good job of raising it as an issue without being particularly “Malthusian” about it (in the pejorative sense that word is used today).
Elisabeth Robson is a radical feminist and a part of DGR.
February 7th updates from Unist’ot’enCamp and Gidimten:
The RCMP raid continues today as militarized, heavily-armed police backed up with K9 dogs, heavy equipment, and helicopters move further into Unist’ot’en territory. As we write this federal police are currently raiding the Gidimt’en checkpoint at 44km.
6:15pm: We are hearing that 30 RCMP are surrounding #Wetsuwetsuweten Hereditary Chiefs and supporters at 27KM who have blocked the road. Among them, Dini’ze Smogelgem, Dini’ze Dsta’hyl, and Tsake’ze Sleydo’.
Everything is quiet at @Gidimten checkpoint. Those in the cabin no longer see or hear police. It seems like the majority of the force has headed out and at least 15 RCMP have headed to 27km. The tower is still standing. The road is still blocked.
Denzel Sutherland-Wilson from the Gitxsan nation was arrested and removed from @Gidimten tower earlier today. Only those in Chief Woos’ cabin remain. The Gitxsan are the oldest allies of the #Wetsuweten.
3:15pm: Anne Spice has been taken down from the tower. One person remains on top of the tower. Legal observers, @GitxsanJt, and a documentary filmmaker are still on site but far away.
2:30pm: RCMP are now using ladders to move up the wooden tower overlooking the territory. RCMP have said that the people on the tower are already under arrest and they are just trying to get them down. RCMP won’t specify what the charges are or why the people in the tower are under arrest.
2pm: The US-Canada border crossing in Mohawk territory was shut down by protests.
12:55pm: The metal gate at @Gidimten is down. Legal observer is trying to get RCMP badge numbers and police names but RCMP won’t respond. Some RCMP are wearing masks to cover their faces.
12:45pm: RCMP are trying to limit the visibility of the tactical team to media by surrounding a bus containing media. RCMP “have one person stationed on the other side of the flipped van. They’re the one doing the lethal overwatch. They’ve got a gun pointed at us, underneath the warrior flag,” we’ve just heard.
12:30pm: Those at @Gidimten just said the teams dropped off by the helicopters included K9 units – so they are surrounded by snipers and police dogs.
6:30 am: RCMP militarized convoy engines are running and lining up in Houston now. Their extremist force is hardly a peaceful action against our unarmed, peaceful protestors. Shame!!! – Gidimt’en Checkpoint
February 6th updates:
6:45 pm: All six people who were arrested in Gidimt’en territories this morning are being released with no charges. Three are out already.
4:44pm: Chiefs & supporters blocked the road at 27km, forcing RCMP to let Wet’suwet’en chiefs in. Clearing work has stopped at 44km. Dsta’hyl (Likht’samisyu) said the #Wetsuweten will enforce the eviction of Coastal Gaslink, with any means at their disposal.
4pm: Solidarity actions are taking place across Canada. A blockade has shut down the Port of Vancouver. Various politicians offices have been occupied. Indigenous youth are locked down at the B.C. Legislature.
2:40pm Pacific Time: People at the Gidimt’en Access Point (44 km; the site of the armed police raid in January 2019) are now confirming that they see heavy machinery approaching.
Militarized, heavily armed police units known as “tactical enforcement teams,” supported by K9 dogs and infrared camera-equipped drones, have this morning raided the Wet’suwet’en First Nation territory in central British Columbia, Canada to remove indigenous occupation aimed at preventing construction of a fracked-gas pipeline.
Between four and six people have been arrested at the blockade setup at 39KM on the Morice River Road, 27 km from the main Unist’ot’en Camp. Journalists on-site were threatened with arrest, prevented from photographing the events (including police smashing the window on a truck), and forcefully removed from the area. This is the second militarized raid on the peaceful indigenous resistance camp. The previous raid, in January 2019, was later revealed to have included “lethal overwatch”—authorization to shoot to kill. In both raids, police carried sniper and assault rifles.
The police raid Wet’suwet’en checkpoint shows they are acting as private contractors for the gas company, facilitating the plunder of stolen indigenous land and destruction of the planet for private profit.
Coastal GasLink/TC Energy is pushing through a 670-kilometer fracked gas pipeline that would carry fracked gas from Dawson Creek, B.C. to the coastal town of Kitimat, where LNG Canada’s processing plant would be located. LNG Canada is the single largest private investment in Canadian history.
Each clan within the Wet’suwet’en Nation has full jurisdiction under their law to control access to their territory. Under ‘Anuc niwh’it’en (Wet’suwet’en law) all five clans of the Wet’suwet’en have unanimously opposed all pipeline proposals and have not provided free, prior, and informed consent to Coastal Gaslink/ TransCanada to do work on Wet’suwet’en lands.
This is a developing story and we will share more information as it comes.
How to Support
Call to Action — Blockade the Colonial Institutions
Indigenous youth in solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en Nation are calling for organized, rolling occupations of MLA and MP offices, and of financial institutions tied to Coastal Gaslink pipeline corporation.
To participate, email email@example.com
Timeline of This Morning’s Events — Police raid Wet’suwet’en Checkpoint near Unist’ot’en camp
via Unist’ot’en Camp
- 7:48 am: RCMP are transporting the 4 arrested supporters to Houston. BC. Everyone at 39KM was arrested except media. Media that were at 39km are being driven out in a police van.
- 7:22am: 36 vehicles, 1 ambulance and heavy machinery went up from 4 KM. At least 2 bulldozers and excavator.
- 6:59 am: We have reports RCMP have headed up from town in an approximately 20+ vehicle convoy. #Wetsuweten #WetsuwetenStrong
- 6:43am: We have reports that RCMP are now blocking the forest service road at 4KM.
- 6:22am: We have lost all communication with the Gidimt’en watch post at 39KM after RCMP smashed the window of the radio vehicle. It’s still pitch black out.
- 6am: We have just heard that RCMP denied access to a reporter headed out to the camps this morning. Media exclusion zone is in full effect.
- 5:56am – The person on radio at 39km reports RCMP have broken in the windows of their vehicle.
- 5:43am – We estimate more than a dozen cops on site, with six cops surrounding the person communicating updates over radio.
- 5:30am – We’re hearing reports from the front line that some RCMP had their guns out – not pointed at people – but guns in hand.
- We’re told that even with more than a dozen vehicles out on the territory, the Houston community hall is still full of cops waiting to invade our lands.
- 5:05am – We’ve heard 13 RCMP vehicles headed up the road earlier this morning. Up to 4 arrests have been made now, and RCMP are taking down tents. Our understanding is these tents were NOT blocking the road and are not part of the injunction area.
- 4:55am – It’s not yet 5am – still totally dark out – and we’ve just heard RCMP made their first arrest at the #Wetsuweten monitoring post at 39KM. Cops are surrounding people there and beginning to clear the road to the Gidimt’en checkpoint.
Deep Green Resistance delegation to Unist’ot’en Camp – 2012
On Monday, January 7th, Canadian federal police raided the Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidumt’en Territory on unceded indigenous land in what is commonly known as British Columbia, Canada.
The Access Point is the forward position of a pipeline occupation held primarily by the Unist’ot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. The Unist’ot’en have been occupying this part of their territory for nine years to block numerous oil and gas pipelines from destroying their territory.
On Wednesday afternoon, the RCMP lifted the roadblock and exclusion zone that had been in place since Monday morning. Several RCMP negotiators, as well as hereditary chiefs, passed through the barrier on the bridge over the Wedzin Kwah and are currently engaged in negotiations inside the healing center.
The latest reports confirm that the Unist’ot’en will comply with the injunction and allow some Coastal Gaslink employees onto the territory. It remains to be seen what form the struggle will take.
Fourteen land defenders were arrested on Monday including spokesperson Molly Wickham. She describes what happened in this video. All of the arrestees have been released as of 3pm Wednesday. You can donate to the legal support fund here.
Molly Wickham, Gitdimt’en spokesperson provides a detailed account of the police raid and arrests.
Media may use clips from this video ensuring context is maintained. Thank you all for your ongoing coverage.
Posted by Wet’suwet’en Access Point on Gidumt’en Territory on Tuesday, January 8, 2019
The RCMP attack is also described in this StarMetro Vancouver article:
After a lengthy, increasingly heated back-and-forth between the demonstrators and police, officers began cutting the barbed wire and started up a chainsaw. Camp members began to scream in protest; two young men had chained themselves to the fence below the view of the officers, encasing their arms in a kind of pipe that meant opening the gate risked breaking both of their arms… [the] checkpoint camp was abandoned behind a massive fallen tree and a barrier of flame on Monday afternoon as dozens of RCMP officers finally pushed past the barricade set up to bar entry to the traditional territories of the Wet’suwet’en people.
The Gidumt’en and Unist’ot’en are two of five clans that make up the Wet’suwet’en Nation. The traditional leadership of all five clans oppose the pipeline. However, the elected band council (a colonial leadership structure set up by the Canadian state) voted in favor of the pipeline.
More than 60 solidarity events took place across Canada and the world this week. Using the hashtag #ShutdownCanada, blockades have stopped major intersections, financial districts, bridges, and ports in Vancouver, Ottowa, Toronto, Victoria, Montreal, and elsewhere.
This situation has a long background and highly significant legal significance. Kai Nagata describes the situation:
Many Canadians have heard of the 1997 Delgamuukw decision by the Supreme Court of Canada, which recognized that Aboriginal title still exists in places where Indigenous nations have never signed a treaty with the Crown. In fact, the court was talking about the land where tonight’s raid is taking place.
Delgamuukw is a chief’s name in the neighbouring Gitxsan Nation, passed down through the generations. Delgamuukw was one of dozens of plaintiffs in the case, comprising hereditary chiefs from both the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en Nations.
Together those leaders achieved an extraordinary milestone in forcing the Canadian courts to affirm the legitimacy of their oral histories, traditional laws and continuing governance of their lands. But it wasn’t until the Tsilhqot’in decision in 2014 that the Supreme Court went a step further, recognizing Aboriginal title over a specific piece of land.
If the Wet’suwet’en chiefs went back to court all these years later, many legal scholars say the strength of their claim to their territories would eventually force the Canadian government to relinquish thousands of square kilometres within the Bulkley and Skeena watersheds – and stop calling it “Crown land”.
That’s why the TransCanada pipeline company acted quickly, to secure an injunction against Wet’suwet’en members blocking construction before the legal ground could shift under their Coastal Gaslink project.
The 670-kilometre pipeline project would link the fracking fields of Northeastern B.C. with a huge liquid gas export terminal proposed for Kitimat. Called LNG Canada, this project is made up of oil and gas companies from China, Japan, Korea and Malaysia, along with Royal Dutch Shell.
The BC Liberal, BC NDP and federal governments all courted the LNG Canada project, offering tax breaks, cheap electricity, tariff exemptions and other incentives to convince the consortium to build in B.C. Both Christy Clark and Premier John Horgan celebrated LNG Canada’s final investment decision last fall, calling it a big win for the province.
However, without a four foot diameter (122cm) pipeline feeding fracked gas to the marine terminal, the LNG Canada project is a non-starter.
That brings us back to the Morice River, or Wedzin Kwa in the Wet’suwet’en language. This is where the rubber hits the road for “reconciliation”. Politicians are fond of using the word, but seemingly uncomfortable with its implications.
Politicians also talk a lot about the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, and how to enshrine it in B.C. law. Article 10 of UNDRIP states that “Indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories.” It is hard to see how tonight’s arrests are consistent with this basic right.
Pro-pipeline pundits are already working hard to spin this raid as the “rule of law” being asserted over the objections of “protestors”. They point to benefit agreements signed between TransCanada and many band governments along the pipeline route.
But under the Indian Act, elected councillors only have jurisdiction over reserve lands – the tiny parcels set aside for First Nations communities that are administered much like municipalities. That’s not where this pipeline would go.
What is at stake in the larger battle over Indigenous rights and title are the vast territories claimed by the Crown but never paid for, conquered or acquired by treaty. In Wet’suwet’en territory, those lands, lakes and rivers are stewarded by the hereditary chiefs under a governance system that predates the founding of Canada.
Featured image: The Aguaprieta pipeline crosses the Yaqui River (Río Yaqui), the water source for the Yaqui, an indigenous tribe residing in the Yaqui Valley in Sonora, Mexico. Photo: Tomas Castelazo (CC). As far as one Yaqui community is concerned, the pipeline will never be completed.
by Gabriella Rutherford / Intercontinental Cry
In 2013, Enrique Peña Nieto’s government deregulated Mexico’s energy sector, opening it up to foreign investors for the first time 75 years. In what he called an “historic opportunity”, the Mexican President proclaimed “This profound reform can lift the standards of living for all Mexicans.”
But not everyone stands to see their quality of life materially improve from the deregulated sector. Such is the case for the Yaquí Peoples in Sonora state, Mexico, whose territory is currently home to an 84-kilometre stretch of natural gas pipeline.
The Aguaprieta (Agua Prieta) pipeline starts out in Arizona and stretches down 833km to Agua Prieta, in the northeastern corner of the Mexican state of Sonora—cutting through Yaqui territory along the way.
Once completed, the pipeline would also cross Yaqui River (Río Yaqui), the Yaqui’s main source of water.
More than a few Yaqui are adamant that they will see no benefits from the project. “The gas pipeline doesn’t help us, it only benefits businessmen, factory owners, but not the Yaqui” said Francisca Vásquez Molina, a Yaquí from the Loma de Bacúm community.
As with Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, the Aguaprieta project comes with its own share of risks.
In addition to the considerable environmental impact that stems from the pipeline’s construction, the high methane content of natural gas could bring on disaster. Rodrigo Gonzalez, natural resources and environmental impact expert, maintains that in the event of a gas explosion all human, plant and animal life within a one-kilometre radius surrounding the explosion would be lost. Anyone within the second kilometre would risk second and third-degree burns.
In the community of Loma de Bacúm, the gas pipeline is just 700 m from houses. In nearby Estación Oroz, it is 591m from a primary school.
Gonzalez has pointed out that another viable route for the pipeline was initially considered by the company that could have avoided Yaqui territory altogether. He suggests this route was ultimately rejected to save costs. “At the beginning of the project, two routes were mooted. That which didn’t cross indigenous territory cost 400 million pesos whilst that which puts Yaquí lives at risk costs 100 million pesos.”
IEnova, the company behind the pipeline, has repeatedly made assurances that all due safety procedures have been followed in construction and that the risk of accidents is minimal but this has not been enough to assuage the fear or anger of everyone opposing the gas pipeline.
In a public statement last year, the group Solidaridad Tribu Yaquí said, “This is a people that say no to a megaproject of death, dispossession and destruction[…]These rich men don’t care about the life of one, two, or three people, much less if they are indigenous… [they] don’t care if the Yaqui culture is exterminated. What is important to these rich men is to conclude the work and pocket all the profits to be brought about by the appropriation of the Yaqui territory.”
Not all Yaquí communities are united in rejecting the gas pipeline, however. Indeed, of the eight Yaquí communities consulted, only the Loma de Bacúm community refused to give their consent to the project. The other seven communities chose to accept the compensation offered. This decision has sadly resulted in tensions between Loma de Bacúm and the other communities. Things reached a critical point in October 2016 where one Yaquí member died and thirty injured in a confrontation involving different Yaquí communities.
Seemingly alone in their struggle, the Loma de Bacúm Yaquí have consistently resisted the Aguaprieta pipeline. In April 2016, they successfully fought to be granted a moratorium on its construction. When, in 2017, it became clear that IEnova, would carry on regardless and that neither federal nor state or authorities could be counted on for support, the Loma de Bacúm community resorted to more drastic measures. On May 21, community members removed cables which had been laid down in the preliminary stages of the gas pipeline construction. Then, after another court ruling that IEnova should remove all infrastructure within 24 hours fell on deaf ears, on August 22 the community went ahead and cut a 25-foot section out of the live gas pipeline, despite the grave risks they ran in doing so. As a result of the community’s actions in August, IEnova was forced to cut off the gas flow in the area and it has remained out of service ever since.
The community has been accused of sabotage and vandalism to IEnova property but the community maintains that IEnova, a company owned by US-based Sempra Energy, is trespassing on their land and holds them responsible for all damage brought on by the construction of a pipeline to which they never consented.
In a video shared on Facebook, one community member explained “If you want to have us killed, there’s no problem. We’re not scared of that… We’re not scared of this company nor this project…All that the Yaquí tribe is asking for is that the law is upheld and that federal and state government respect it. If you want to have us killed, go ahead there’s no problem but we’ll defend our land and that is our right.”
In September 2017, a judge once again found in favour of the Yaquí community ruling that IEnova did not have the right to enter Yaquí territory to repair the gas pipeline. Whether this latest ruling will carry more weight with both local and state authorities than the previous ones remains to be seen.
For the time-being, the stand-off looks set to continue. Loma de Bacúm has made it clear it will not back down until the pipeline is removed or rerouted. “If they want to build a pipeline. that’s fine”, said community spokesperson Guadalupe Flores, “but it will not pass through here.” At the same time, IEnova refuses to accept that one small community can curtail their plan to use Yaquí territory in order to provide electricity to the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE), the country’s largest electric utility. Nor does it seem willing to brazenly defy the court’s latest ruling, at least for the time-being.
The struggle in Loma de Bacúm echoes loudly among all Indigenous Peoples who are grappling to make sure the resource sector cannot run roughshod over human rights and environmental concerns; but it is perhaps loudest in Mexico. Since the new energy policy went into effect, four other pipeline projects have been suspended. Looking ahead, a “shale offensive” is now set to begin later this year should the PRI retain power in July, leading to a proliferation of similar conflicts.