The lens of world media has turned ever more closely to a remote region in North Dakota this week, as the protests engulfing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline have even involved Hollywood actress Shailene Woodley. The 24 year-old streamed a video showing her arrest at the site of the protests across social media on Monday the 10th October. From the 200 people protesting that day, 27 were arrested according to the BBC. Woodley is shown in the video accusing officers of arresting her particularly because ‘I’m well known, because I have 40,000 people watching’. Perhaps the actress, best known for the ‘Divergent’ film series, was not well known enough to the police officers arresting her, because this incident has only served to spread awareness of the pipeline and its opposition further.
In the UK it erroneously seems that environmental scandals are rare, or are at least not severe enough to warrant the full glare of media attention. And even in the US environmental justice often slips under the radar. But the recent activities in North Dakota prove an exception to this. Hundreds of Native American people and environmental protesters have gathered at the borders of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in the state over the past months, campaigning against an oil pipeline that is already under construction and that reportedly threatens the cultural heritage of local communities. The case is proving to be a turning point in the treatment of Native American people and in environmental justice.
Protests have echoed around the world in support of the campaign, with a banner even draped across the Palace of Westminster in London. And yet again these campaigns are about oil. But this time it’s not about exploration or even extraction, but the transport of oil and the routes mapped out for the pipelines.
The $3.7bn North Dakota Access Pipeline is to transport fracked crude oil across the state, and is the project of the biggest oil conglomerate in the US, Energy Transfer. That is if the project should ever reach fruition, a premise looking ever more doubtful as the force of the protests increase. The pipeline was proposed in April and approved in July. Members of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation applied for an injunction to stop construction, but this was dismissed by federal government in late August according to the Guardian. A result of this was the recent increased intensity of protests; since the start of construction more and more people have gathered at the site. Now the company behind the pipeline has lodged restraining orders, and protesters have been arrested.
What’s behind the protests?
Tribal leaders have claimed that there has been not been sufficient consultation over the construction of the pipeline and this is significant as it is said to pose a threat to drinking water supplies and sacred sites. However, Kelcy Warren – Chief Executive of Energy Transfer – contests this, citing the ‘tremendous safety factors’, and that the company ‘values and respects cultural diversity’. The pipeline is planned to cross the confluences of major rivers, and there is concern over the potential impacts of oil spills along the transport route.
Iyuskin American Horse of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe stated in a Guardian article that, ‘the pipeline […] threatens to contaminate our primary source of drinking water and damage the bordering Indigenous burial grounds, historic villages and sundance sites that surround the area in all directions. Those sites that were not desecrated when the area was flooded in 1948 by the construction of the Oahe dam are now in danger again.’ The construction of the Oahe dam resulted in the loss of land from two Native American reservations, and tribe members fear that history is repeating itself.
But the prospect of endangering the lives and health of local people coupled with the potential for irreversible environmental damage has proven a forceful argument, leading localised government to call a halt to construction on federal land until further investigation has taken place. Whether or not Energy Transfer takes similar mitigating action remains yet to be seen.
Why is this case significant?
Dave Archambault II of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe sees the case as another example of corporate irresponsibility and indifference to the lives and culture of Native American people. The chairman stated: ‘Energy Transfer Partners has demonstrated time and time again that the bottom line for them is money. The bottom line for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is and will always be protecting our lands, people, water and sacred sites.’ The anti-pipeline protests hinge on the notion that the oil company reputedly did not appropriately discuss the new pipeline with tribal leaders, and ‘without a meaningful study’ of the prospective consequences of an oil pipeline, according to Iyuskin American Horse. This instance represents yet another marginalisation of the interests of Native American people, and a repudiation of both land rights and cultural validity.
As Iyuskin American Horse put it: ‘the government time and time again continues to ravage my people with the same treatment and attitude, only different weapons.’ (Guardian)
The future of the pipeline and the protests
On Tuesday the 20th September, Dave Archambault II represented the case of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, in an address to the UN human rights commission in Geneva. There have been claims that Energy Transfer destroyed Native American artefacts as they bulldozed in preparation for the pipeline, and a group of 1,200 archaeologists, historians and museum directors have stated this in a letter to the White House.
Public support for the cause of the people of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation has only grown as the pipeline’s construction has progressed. Media attention has intensified as the protests seem to have gained sufficient exposure to force the oil company to re-evaluate their plans. Whatever is to come, the actions of Energy Transfer are now assured of being watched by the eyes of the world and judged accordingly.
If anything positive is said to have come out of the conflict, it is that awareness of environmental justice and the rights of indigenous people has never been higher, and public intervention has forced this destructive form of construction to stop in places. Another benefit of the protests is the heightened atmosphere of unity within and without Native American communities – people have come together in support of the cause in defiance of yet another faceless corporate giant.
‘We are peacefully defending our land and our ways of life. We are standing together in prayer, and fighting for what is right. We are making history here.’ (Iyuskin American Horse)