In early August 2,000 to 2,500 climate justice activists in the San Francisco Bay Area marched in solidarity against oil industry mega-giant Chevron on the first anniversary of a massive explosion at its Richmond refinery that sent 15,000 people to area doctors and hospitals, thanks to a toxic cloud that blanketed the region. It also comes on the heels of a lawsuit filing by city officials against Chevron for economic damage caused by the fallout. The action was part of a larger campaign called "Summer Heat," a series of coordinated actions across the country designed to increase public awareness (and criticism) for the fossil fuel industry and its role in climate change.
Summer Heat’s strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience capitalizes on the media attention generated when massive numbers of people are arrested. And it works, too—the Richmond protest resulted in 210 planned arrests and the story being picked up by numerous news outlets in the US and beyond. The tactic of nonviolent civil disobedience as a method to attain justice is the bailiwick of progressive politics and is extensively used by climate justice activists which include indigenous peoples, increasingly working cooperatively with non-Native activist groups. As non-Native people see themselves victimized by the neocolonial forces of globalization in much the same way Native people have been for centuries, the need to join forces against the world’s “corporatocracies” are painfully obvious.
The Summer Heat campaign is an excellent example. Summer Heat is the brainchild of renowned progressive/environmental activists Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and others, in concert with Winona LaDuke. LaDuke is, of course, famous for teaming up with non-Native progressive activists, especially around environmental issues and she’s been at it a long time. But as the snowball of environmental/climate justice activism steadily gains momentum indigenous peoples worldwide are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront. Indigenous peoples are, after all, disproportionately affected by the planet’s warming temperatures.
The Richmond action was organized by a collaboration of concerned groups including a Bay Area based #Idle No More affinity group. As is common in Bay Area protest actions, the march was led by the Native contingent who offered an opening prayer and was emceed by Pennie Opal Plant (Yaqui/Cherokee/Choctaw/Algonquin), one of the key organizers. Beyond the Bay Area, indigenous leadership in environmental and climate change activism looms large in alternative media. For example, the environmental blog Climate-Connections.org regularly posts stories related to indigenous environmental activism around the globe. A recent blog entry reposted an article from the International Cry magazine, a popular news source for international indigenous issues, about a blockade against an iron mining operation set up by the Saami in their traditional territory in Sweden, which they say is detrimental to their reindeer herds and thus their culture and lives.
The Saami blockade is a reminder of the blockades in Canada and the US in Indian territories over the past couple of years in order to thwart the Keystone XL and Enbridge pipelines and tar sands oil production. Most of these actions don’t make it into mainstream news and the only way to hear about them is by paying attention to media outlets like the ones just mentioned. One happened recently in Idaho where Nez Perce and #Idle No More joined forces with other activist groups to close down Highway 12 to stop a mega-load of tar sands equipment. And in Utah Native and non-Native protesters partnered to disrupt road construction at a proposed tar sands mine in the southeastern region of the state. US Oil Sands is the first proposed tar sands project in the country; the action was effective enough to cause the company’s stock price to fall by 50 percent the next business day.
So commonplace are actions like these now that corporate strategists consider grassroots activists enough of a threat to devise divide and conquer strategies to suppress them. In a leaked document groups like Indigenous Environmental Network, Greenpeace and Rainforest Action Network are considered “radicals” to be isolated and discredited through various tactics.
The activism of anti-tar sands groups is just the tip of the iceberg of indigenous climate justice organizing worldwide and says nothing about the struggles in Latin America to combat oil and gas extraction, or battling REDD+ projects in Asia, or protecting the delicate balance of life in the Arctic. What makes today’s indigenous environmental activism different from the past is their invocation of “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Indigenous peoples know that FPIC is by no means a guaranteed mechanism for protection, but it is one more tool available to them in their struggles to protect endangered places and lives.
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville) is a research associate at the Center for World Indigenous Studies and freelance writer.