Standing Against the Banks: DAPL Divestment and Water Protectors' Fight for Justice, Indigenous Rights, Water and Life
By Michelle Cook and Osprey Orielle Lake
Despite shifts in the terrain of struggle, the courageous and determined Water Protectors of the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) continue to stand strong, gain momentum and mobilize in diverse and effective ways in their work to protect Indigenous rights, water and life in North Dakota and beyond.
From powerful Indigenous and frontline leadership at the 200,000 strong People's Climate March in Washington DC, to ceaseless advocacy and actions in courtrooms, in the streets, in the halls of government, and in the offices of financial institutions that support exploitation and extraction—the DAPL resistance continues, while also joining together with other communities to face mounting pipeline struggles including Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain, Enbridge's Line 3, TransCanada's Energy East, Sonoco Logistic's Bayou Bridge, the resurrection of TransCanada's Keystone XL and efforts to stop fossil fuel extraction at the source.
Over the past months, Water Protectors from various Indigenous nations across the U.S. have made waves while traveling to seven European countries for The Stand Up for Standing Rock Tour; have opened the L'eau Est La Vie (Water is Life) Camp in South Louisiana to stop the Bayou Bridge pipeline (the southern end of DAPL); and have helped organize, through the International Indigenous Youth Council, an 80 mile run across Northern New Mexico in opposition to growing fracking in the Chaco Canyon region; amongst many other diverse and powerful actions.
Indigenous organizations including Honor the Earth and the Indigenous Environmental Network, who have successfully fought fossil fuel developments projects for years, continue to advocate, take action, and help open platforms for the voices of the NoDAPL and other pipeline resistance movements to be heard.
The Indigenous-led Mazaska Talks coalition has also been formed, joining the 121 First Nations and Tribes of the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion in demanding banks divest from the companies building Dakota Access and proposed tar sands pipelines.
Many other allied groups are organizing around fossil fuel divestment and actions are underway, with Defund DAPL reporting that, thus far, more than $82 million dollars by individuals and more than $4 trillion dollars by cities and tribes have been removed from the financial institutions connected to DAPL.
On June 14, there was a critical victory when, as part of the lengthy legal battle being led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, a U.S. federal court from the District of Columbia agreed that the Army Corp of Engineers failed to consider the National Environmental Protection Act and off reservation treaty rights in DAPL's permitting process.
Standing Rock, late November 2016Osprey Orielle Lake / Women's Earth & Climate Action Network
In May 2017, leaked information from The Intercept helped expose counter-terrorism tactics used by DAPL's private security firm Tiger Swan to aggressively suppress Indigenous peoples and their allies in Standing Rock, North Dakota as they exercised their human rights.
Significantly, all of this momentum has taken place in the face of a climate change denying Trump administration determined to drive forward pipelines such as DAPL through an expansion of a government that caters to fossil fuel corporations, and the banks and financial institutions that support them.
As part of the multifaceted pipeline resistance and divestment effort, earlier this year an Indigenous Women's Divestment Delegation traveled to Norway and Switzerland to meet face to face with bank representatives from financial institutions invested in DAPL and parent company, Energy Transfer Partners. Facilitated by the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network, the delegation was initiated by grassroots Indigenous women who were harmed by and/or observed human rights and Indigenous rights abuses in North Dakota, and through the subsequent and continued persecution of Water Protectors.
In Norway, the advocacy of the Indigenous Women's Divestment Delegation helped push DNB bank to sell their $331 million dollar credit line to DAPL, following strong advocacy efforts from many groups, and an independent investigation in which DNB affirmed the violation of Indigenous rights and failure to properly consult the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Members of the Indigenous Women's Divestment Delegation outside of Credit Suisse Bank in Switzerland before their April 2017 meeting with the bank in Switzerland before their April 2017 meeting with the bank.
In collaboration with Norwegian Sami people, members of the Delegation are continuing advocacy efforts calling for the Norwegian Government Pension Fund Global—one of the few Norwegian financial institutions still heavily invested in companies like Energy Transfer Partner, Sunoco Logistics, Marathon Petroleum, Enbridge and Phillips 66—to immediately exclude Energy Transfer Family of Partnerships, DAPL, and other DAPL related companies from their investment universe.
As follow up to intensive meetings with Credit Suisse bank representatives in Switzerland, a detailed letter has recently been sent to the bank clarifying exactly why they must immediately divest from DAPL related companies; offering an in-depth analysis of the rights violations that occurred at Standing Rock; and demanding from Credit Suisse corporate responsibility and accountability to its human rights policy.
The letter also analyzes and provides examples of the U.S. legal system's failure to protect, secure and guarantee human rights such as self-determination and Free, Prior and Informed Consent to Indigenous peoples, ultimately providing a stark picture of how resource wars against Indian people in their traditional homelands and territories continue in the U.S. to this day.
As the letter to Credit Suisse points out, the financial institution's continued banking relationship with Energy Transfer Partners, and the stated "provision of loans, the issuing of securities (notes) and advisory mandates" violates the bank's current policies and guidelines in regard to human rights and indigenous rights relating to:
- Not financing or advising oil and gas companies against which credible evidence exists of involvement in such grave human rights abuses as forced labor, employment of children, or the use of violence against local communities and indigenous groups
- Public involvement, consultation, and disclosure
- Water contamination and use
- Prevention, preparedness, and response for oil spills, gas leaks, or both
- Worker and community health and safety
- Violations of local laws
The letter concludes as follows:
"Credit Suisse has stated that, 'Credit Suisse takes concerns about the DAPL seriously and will consider them in the further development of internal guidelines.' However, if Credit Suisse took human rights and indigenous rights abuses seriously they would have already complied with, and implemented their current human rights policy and publicly withdraw its credit facilities and end its banking relationship with the Energy Transfer Family of Partnerships. Credit Suisse needs to show that its commitment to sustainability and human rights is more than mere lip service, obscuring complicity and contribution to human rights, environmental rights, and indigenous rights abuses in the United States."
Divestment advocates worldwide are turning to financial institutions like Credit Suisse and calling for accountability such as the letter demands. In this vein, the Indigenous Women's Divestment Delegation to Norway and Switzerland helps expose the complex interplay and interdependency between states, corporations and banks in the harmful extraction and exploitation of natural resources of Indigenous peoples' territories and lands.
Indigenous women and their allies are illuminating the deleterious but key role banks play in maintaining the unjust design of a fossil fuel economy detrimental to their survival, and are working to stop the pipelines at the financial source. Their quest for justice and accountability from banks for human rights violations is imperative not only to Indigenous peoples and Nations, but to American citizens and global civil society.
The aim is not only divestment, but also economic paradigm shifts that include investments in renewable energy technology, sustainability, and just, transparent, and accountable banking institutions; economic systems that are not detrimental to Indigenous peoples rights or the environment.
Through the ongoing efforts of Water Protectors, the Standing Rock movement continues to shine a fierce light on the historic and contemporary indigenous rights and human rights violations occurring at the hands of state and corporate actors, and has made it clear once again that the transition to a just and dignified future must be one that upholds human rights, sustainable renewable energy, climate justice, and respect for indigenous peoples self-determination. The torch and spirit of the movement for water, life and rights will continue as people's movements around the world seek justice, truth, accountability and transformation.
Michelle Cook is a Dineh (Navajo) human rights lawyer and a current SJD candidate at the University of Arizona's Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program.
Osprey Orielle Lake is the Founder and Executive Director of the Women's Earth and Climate Action Network (WECAN) International.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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