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Robert F. Kennedy, Jr: 'I'll See You at Standing Rock'

Insights + Opinion

In 1966, my father held Senate hearings to investigate violent attacks by growers against pickers in the produce fields surrounding Delano, California. A young United Farmworkers organizer, Cesar Chavez, was orchestrating peaceful protests by Filipino and Chicano farmworkers against meager pay and brutal working conditions. My father only reluctantly attended the hearings. While he was sympathetic with the farmworkers' plight, he already had a full plate of issues ranging from the Vietnam War, rioting cities to starvation in the Delta and education on Indian reservations. He didn't think he had bandwidth for another cause.

"Why do I need to fly all the way to California," he complained to his aid, Peter Edelman, on the airplane out. But then something made him mad; A Kern county sheriff explained to the committee that he had imprisoned the peaceful protestors "for their own protection" to safeguard them from violent growers and their hired thugs.

The prospect of law enforcement officials deploying the states police power on behalf of lawbreaking corporations against law abiding citizens whose only crime was their poverty and powerlessness made him steam. My father despised bullies and believed in rule of law. He gaveled the morning session to a close. "May I suggest that during the luncheon period of time that the sheriff and the district attorney read the Constitution of the United States?" That afternoon, he joined the farmworkers on their picket line. Chavez became his closest political and moral ally.

On Sunday, the U.S. Army Corps issued a declaration to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe that might have been penned by the Kern county sheriff. The Corps Colonel John Henderson told Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II that the agency was evicting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) protesters from their camp for their own protection.

The tribes and their supporters will be moved to a "free speech" zone a great distance from the pipeline. Henderson's threats would be troubling if addressed to any group of American citizens, but coming from the U.S. Army Corps to the Sioux Nation, it is positively chilling. One wonders whether Colonel Henderson is even peripherally aware of the Corp's central role in the Indian genocide, the most shameful stain on America's national experience, our high ideals and character.

Standing with my son Conor Kennedy and the water protectors.

Anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes has observed that Genocide is a continuum that runs for years, decades or centuries. It begins with marginalization and dehumanization of an identifiable minority, the theft of their lands and property, their slaughter and decimation, and the gradual squeezing of remnant populations. The central organizing principle of the continuum is a narrative that turns "others into non-persons or monsters," that normalizes atrocities and rationalizes the "every day practice of violence."

Colonel Henderson's letter manages to be both, patronizing and menacing. In that sense, it captures perfectly the tone and content of a hundred letters received by Indians from U.S. Corp colonels and generals over four centuries, all of them repeating genocide's persistent refrain: "For your own good, move off the land, or else."

Similar letters to the Sioux preceded the evictions that reliably followed their various treaties with the American government in 1825, 1837, 1851 and 1868. Those missives were the milestones that officially declared, justified or ratified the long parade of treaty violations by the U.S. government, enforced by the Army Corps, each of them shrinking the Sioux's rightful treaty lands.

It's worth remembering that the lands and waterways now coveted by Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, are the same lands our government and the U.S. Army Corps deeded the Sioux in the treaties of 1825 and 1851. Those treaties and the Fort Laramie treaty of 1868 each promised the tribe that these deeded lands would remain the Sioux's "so long as the grass is green, the eagles fly and the rivers flow," or phrases of similar construction.

Eight years after we signed that last treaty, the Sioux received their most devastating removal letter from the Army Corps; Trespassing prospectors had discovered gold in the Black Hills, the sacred lands and critical hunting grounds where the Sioux wintered away from the frigid, barren plains that are uninhabitable during the cold months. Obviously white people would now need them back! In direct violation of the treaty, Colonel George Custer rode into the Black Hills to evict the justifiably angry Sioux to make way for the illegal mines. When the Sioux rose up to enforce the treaty, resisting Custer's military attack, Colonel Henderson's predecessors slaughtered their women and children at Wounded Knee.

Now, once again, illegal white mineral interests need the Sioux's land, and, once again, the Army Corps is insisting the Sioux move.

Colonel Henderson's threats are meant to protect DAPL's promoters, Energy Transfer Partners, an outlaw oil company. Construction of the 1,200 mile Dakota Access Pipeline project clearly violates the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires a full environmental impact review for any project that "might have significant environmental impacts" on an area larger than one-half acre. There is no question that the 1,200 mile pipeline meets both criteria.

The pipeline will create more carbon pollution than 27 coal burning power plants, and cross and disrupt 209 waterways, including Lake Oahe, the Sioux's only water source. The Sioux recognize this as the final eviction—without Lake Oahe, their remnant reservation is uninhabitable. The Corp considers a catastrophic water poisoning pipeline failure, so likely, that following protests by Bismarck residents, Henderson agreed to move the pipeline away from its more direct route across the Bismarck water supply and into Indian country.

Henderson's menacing letter on behalf of yet another law-breaking mineral interest has mobilized 300 American tribes who have assembled to protest the illegal construction, the largest gathering of tribes in a century. Indian Country regards DAPL as an existential threat; for the tribes the outlaw enterprise, forced upon them at gunpoint, represents the extension of their 500 year genocide into a new millennium. But Chief Archambault has consistently stated the Indians are not fighting only for Indian rights but for American democracy and for humanity's survival.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

Such a delay could have severe repercussions for Brazil's struggling economy which relies heavily on its commodities trade with the EU. Analysists say that Bolsonaro's fears over such an outcome could be one reason for his recently announced October meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, another key trading partner.

Maggi is worried about another, even more alarming, potential consequence of Bolsonaro's failure to stem illegal deforestation — Brazil could be hit by a boycott by its foreign customers. "I don't buy this idea that the world needs Brazil … We are only a player and, worse still, replaceable." Maggi warns, "As an exporter, I'm telling you: things are getting very difficult. Brazil has been saying for years that it is possible to produce and preserve, but with this [Bolsonaro administration] rhetoric, we are going back to square one … We could find markets closed to us."

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