Keystone XL Pipeline: The Effects on the Environment and Indigenous People

Project: Coordinating Advocacy to Protect Native Lands and Rights

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“I urge our allies to stand with Native people, heed our call for systemic change to how we create and utilize energy and the policies that regulate both, support our right to self-determination, and join our movement to protect the territorial integrity and sacredness of Mother Earth.”                    

 –Dallas Goldtooth


Dallas Goldtooth, the Keystone XL Campaign Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, wrote a fantastic article concerning the devastating effects the 1,179 mile long oil pipeline would have on drinking water, tar sand development, carbon emissions, and especially the indigenous people. As an Oceti Sakowin, he cannot remain silent with the possibility of his people’s traditional knowledge and teachings totally being disregarded. WEA’s comments to the State Department on the Environmental Impact Statement for the pipeline, along with the collective effort of indigenous people, helped to delay the approval of the pipeline project.

Sacred Red Corn Planting Takes a Stand Against KXL

Project: Bridging Nations, Building Strength in Native American Southwest

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The Ponca Trail of Tears and the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline are expected to intersect on the land of Mekasi Horinek in South Dakota, of the Lakota nation. Horinek has led an effort to bring back sacred and native plants and, in the process, combat poor health in tribal communities, and take a stand against the Keystone XL. In this way, Horinek, along with his sons, other tribal members and more than 60 volunteers hand planted more than 3.5 acres of corn on a stretch of land in Nebraska.

Together with the sacred red corn, the Alliance also planted Hopi sweet corn (white), and Ponka grey corn (blue) to symbolize the group’s independence and freedom.

You can read more about this story here

Planting Ponca corn on the Tanderup Farm. Photo by Mary Anne Andrei
Planting Ponca corn on the Tanderup Farm. Photo by Mary Anne Andrei


Uniting and Fighting against Keystone XL

Project: Convening Advocates for Protection of Indigenous Lands and People

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The proposed Keystone XL pipeline from TransCanada is having a profound effect on the people who call the middle west of the country home. Training for Resistance is an organization and training event started by Debra White Plume, a long-time organizer and activist against uranium mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Her newest endeavor is bringing together hundreds of First Nations, environmental activists, local ranchers  and small grassroots organizations.

Training for Resistance tour, which is making its way across Greater Sioux nations, territories and reservations to educate and equip people with the necessary tools for resistance. The trainings, which began in March on the Pine Ridge reservation, focus on direct action and teach-ins on tar sands and the Keystone XL, with roots in the Lakota way and tradition

You can read the full article, and learn about the impact it has already had, here

Source: Moccasins on the Ground
Source: Moccasins on the Ground


The Original Tree Huggers: Let Us Not Forget Their Sacrifice

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Blog by: Rucha Chitnis, Former WEA South Asia Program Director.

1730 CE
“Sar santey rukh rahe to bhi sasto jan.”
“If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.” Amrita Devi
khejri (1)Nearly 280 years ago, the sacrifice of a brave woman, Amrita Devi, would have ripple effects in one of India’s most vibrant environmental movements called the Chipko Andolan in the 1970s. Amrita Devi belonged to the Bishnoi community that is known for its great love for conservation. The Bishnoi faith respects the sanctity and sacredness of all forms of life and their tenets include prohibition on killing animals and felling of green trees. Bishnois also worship the Khejri tree, Prosopis cineraria, considered a critical life force in these desert communities.


As the story goes, the King of Jodhpur sent his soldiers to the Bishnois villages to cut green trees to build his new palace. As the soldiers began cutting the Khejri trees with their axes, Amrita Devi, a Bishnoi woman, ran to stop the felling.She hugged a Khejri tree to protect it from the blows and begged them to stop.The soldiers asked her for a bribe to stop the cutting; Amrita Devi was unmoved and told them that it was an insult to her faith to offer a bribe.  The soldiers took to violence and struck her with an axe. When her three daughters witnessed the brutality, they rushed and hugged the trees as well and were also killed by the soldiers.Soon the word spread like fire around the village of Khejarli and others joined in, hugging trees in a nonviolent protest.  The soldiers continued to mercilessly kill people, both young and old, and the massacre led to the sacrifice of nearly 363 Bishnois, who died protecting their beloved sacred tree.
Illustration by Jillian Gilliland
Illustration by Jillian Gilliland

When the king learned about the carnage, he was repentant and forbade any killing of animals and cutting of trees in the Bishnois territories. Even to this day, one can spot the endangered Black Buck, peacocks and other wild life and tree cover where the Bishnois communities live in Rajasthan.  It is no wonder that the Bishnois are considered as among the earliest conservationists in the world.

Fast Forward to 1970s

“Soil is ours. Water is ours. Ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them. It’s we who must protect them.” A song from the Chipko Movement in India

The Chipko Movement is a great example of a Gandhian movement that was based on nonviolent principles of satyagraha. Chipko means to hug, and this movement is synonymous with the enduring images of rural women hugging their community trees to stop rampant deforestation.In the Garhwal Himalayan region of Uttarakhand in the 70s, there was rapid environmental degradation due to commercial logging. It became clear, especially to women, that logging was destroying their forests and threatening their access to key forest resources needed for their daily sustenance.

Archival photo of the Chipko Movement, where women battled guns and threats to protect their forests.
Archival photo of the Chipko Movement, where women battled guns and threats to protect their forests.

Soon villagers began organizing themselves in small groups to organize against logging.A pioneering Gandhian grassroots activist, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, mobilized communities to stop the destruction of the forests. He was joined by hundreds of women, who were on the front lines of the resistance—marching and rallying to protect their community forests and formed human chains to hug towering old growth trees. This kind of environmentalism was inherently linked to their survival; the women recognized that their livelihoods and wellbeing were intertwined with ecological protection
“This movement of the poor women was not a conservation movement per se, but a movement to demand the rights of local communities over their local resources. The women wanted the first right over the trees, which they said were the basis for their daily survival. Their movement explained to the people of India, that not poverty, but extractive and exploitative economies were the biggest polluter,” writes Sunita Narain, director of Center for Science and Environmental in New Delhi. The impact of the Chipko movement had spread far and wide beyond the state of Uttarakhand and led to the government issuing a ban on felling of trees for 15 years until the green cover depleted by deforestation was restored. And the legacy of tree hugging continues to this day, as do the challenges for people’s access to community forests and threats from ongoing forest degradation.


“Forest is Our Mother. Our life sustains on her.
Our spirituality is tied to the trees.”
An adivasi woman from Jharkhand Save the Forest Movement
Adivasi women play a crucial role in Jharkhand's Save the Forest Movement
Adivasi women play a crucial role in Jharkhand’s Save the Forest Movement
A few months ago, I had the privilege of meeting a group of adivasi (indigenous) women in the state of Jharkhand, who are mobilizing their communities to protect their forests, as well as educating others on their rights over natural resources.Jharkhand, meaning the land of forests, has seen some of the most vibrant people’s movements to protect forests and lands from mining and other extractive  activities.An adivasi woman, Suryamani Bhagat, has been on the forefront of the Jungle Bachao Andolan, Save the Forest Movement, in her state.


During a conversation with Suryamani and other adivasi women from the movement, I learned how they are deeply connected to the forest. “Forest is our Mother. Our life sustains on her and our spirituality is tied to the trees,” said Suman Munda, a young tribal woman and forest activist.Over the past many years, adivasi women and men have joined hands to reclaim their rights over their community forests; the have created forest watch committees to ensure there is no illegal cutting of the trees, and they are raising awareness on the Forest Rights Act passed in 2006 to enable forest dwelling communities to access resources that have been denied to them as a result of the continuation of oppressive colonial forest laws.


“At first there were many injustices against adivasis. People used to think forests belonged to the forest department and some adivasis were jailed and beaten for using the forest produce. We realized that we needed to organize and assert our rights and protect our jungles,” she says.Suryamani also shared that the forest department would promote monoculture plantations of Eucalyptus and Acacia varieties in their rich, diverse jungles that had little to no value for adivasis, who relied on indigenous trees like Sal, Mahua and Amla for their foods, medicines and rituals.
Suryamani, second from left, is one of the eloquent and passionate leaders of Save the Forest Movement
Suryamani, second from left, is one of the eloquent and passionate leaders of Save the Forest Movement

In India, mining, hydroelectric and nuclear power projects, industries, among others, are displacing thousands of farmers, fisher folks, pastoralists, artisans and indigenous people from their homelands.
Historian, Ramachandra Guha notes how the environmental movement in India arose out of the imperative of human survival. “This was environmentalism of the poor,” he wrote. This“empty-belly environmentalism,” where women and girls in India, undoubtedly the poorest, who are most acutely affected by hunger because of the multi-faceted discrimination they face, find themselves on the frontlines of many people’s movements against land and other resource grabs, not out of choice but from the sheer will to protect their livelihoods and dignity, their identity and culture.

From the brave sacrifice of one Bishnoi woman to the long movement building of women of the Chipko Movement to the ongoing struggles of adivasi women in the Save the Forest Movement in Jharkhand—they all exemplify why it is crucial for women to have equal access and control over natural resources. Environmental movements globally can learn from these bold uprisings of women and make greater commitments to build more diverse and inclusive movements to ensure that indigenous women and women of color are active participants in these struggles and are able to share their vital experiences and perspectives on environmental protection.

As I was said goodbye to Suryamani in her village in Jharkhand, I asked her what changes she had noticed in the forests since the Save the Jungle Movement began. “Our forests are regenerating, she said.  “The birds and animals are returning, and we also spotted a leopard.” I also wondered what the mainstream urban community could learn from the mobilizations of adivasi communities in Jharkhand. “Our life is bound with Nature. You can learn from that,” she said.

The Indigenous Mahua tree is considered as a boon to adivasi communities
The Indigenous Mahua tree is considered as a boon to adivasi communities

Tribal Community Members and Academic Researchers Gather for a Weekend of Listening and Collaboration

Project: Coordinating Advocacy to Protect Native Lands and Rights

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By: Kahea Pacheco, North America Program Team Member
“How do we sustain?  How do we become as adaptable as possible?  How do we work smart?  Thatis what this weekend is all about.” –Tribal Community Session
The pressing need to sustain, adapt, and work smart was the impetus for a gathering on October 20-21, 2012, when tribal community members and researchers gathered at the University of California, Irvine for the Southern California Tribal Listening and Strategy Session on Environmental Issues.
This convening, a collaboration between the United Coalition to Protect Panhe, Women’s Earth Alliance, and UC Irvine’s Environment Institute, American Indian Resource Program and Office of Civil and Community Engagement, aimed to build the capacity of Indigenous leaders, students, advocates and tribal communities, as well as Indigenous and non-Indigenous academic and nonprofit researchers, local planners, and land and water use professionals to engage more effectively and efficiently with one another to protect Indigenous lands, waters, and natural and cultural resources.
During these two days, tribal community participants were trained on how to conceptualize environmental and cultural resource protection challenges as research projects, and then to design such research projects to meet community needs.  Participating researchers were also introduced to the concept and emerging methods of community-engaged sustainability scholarship.  Once these trainings were complete, participants gathered together to explore possible partnerships between the research needs of community members, and the capacities of attending researchers.
The weekend started with ceremony, with recognition and thanks given to the Acjachemen people, upon whose traditional lands we gathered, and with prayers for the learnings and meaningful conversations we hoped to share over the next two days.  These conversations began immediately as tribal members were brought together to discuss the environmental challenges and needs their communities faced.  These included the desecration of sacred and ancestral lands, the pollution of estuaries and waterways, the power imbalance between what is healthy for people and the environment and what is profitable for developers, as well as the spiritual impacts of being disconnected from the earth and the loss of traditional knowledge when it is not passed down to youth.
“We as a people are trying to protect whatever’s left of our sacred sites, trying to conserve them.  This is a commonality between us all—we see our communities reflected in one another.” –Tribal Community Session
There was also space for tribal community members to brainstorm and envision what it would mean to have healthy, sustainable communities, and share personal experiences with research conducted in their communities, much of which often led to the continued invisibilization and disempowerment of tribal peoples.  Resting on this knowledge and history as a foundation for forward movement, Miho Kim, Executive Director of the Oakland-based Data Center, supported participants as they took steps to frame their current community needs as possible research projects.
“If Native peoples were to take control of their own learning about who they are and what their practices are, what do we think we would learn?  What would we learn if we drove the inquiry?” –Tribal Community Session
Meanwhile, educator and activist Nadinne Cruz led participants in the research track to explore concepts of research justice, and the crucial practice of recognizing and subverting traditional power dynamics between researchers and communities within academic research.  Participants also practiced listening skills, with UC Irvine Sustainability Researcher and environmental human rights attorney Abigail Reyes, who is also a member of the WEA Advocacy Network.
Finally, on the last day of the Listening Sessions, tribal community members gathered with the researchers in attendance to share their needs and lay the groundwork for equitable community-engaged sustainability research projects.  These conversations occurred within the full group, as tribal members expressed their concerns with as well as their needs for research, and on a smaller scale, during one-on-one discussions focused on true collaboration and Indigenous-led projects.
It is our hope that the groundwork laid during this Listening and Strategy Session will lead to many long-term, strategic, regional, inter-tribal partnerships, which will secure a more just and sustainable future for Southern California tribal peoples for many, many generations to come.
WEA would like to thank our 2012 Advocacy Fellow Angela Mooney D’Arcy (Acjachemen), who initiated and developed this Listening Session to address WEA’s goal of engaging more effectively with California grassroots Indigenous people.  We would also like to thank Abigail Reyes, from UC Irvine’s Environment Institute, for her leadership in implementing this convening.