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Water Protectors Take Action to Keep Pipeline Out of Black and Indigenous Communities

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Cherri Foytlin hangs up a sign about the Bayou Bridge pipeline resistance near the site of construction in Plaquemine, Louisana. Jen Marlowe

By Jen Marlowe

Chants of "St. James needs an evacuation route!" came from the dozen-plus activists gathered at Louisiana Radio Network on July 18. The activists were part of the L'Eau Est La Vie ("Water Is Life") camp, in Rayne, Louisiana. They want to stop the construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana from St. Charles to St. James, through the Atchafalaya Basin.


They were at the Radio Network because they want to get the attention of Lousiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was holding his monthly radio call-in show there. They believe that the struggle against the pipeline is inherently connected to the struggles against extractive capitalism and White nationalism, and the movements for Native rights and Black lives.

One of the water protectors' demands is securing an evacuation route for the 5th District of St. James Parish, which is accessible by only one road. The Mississippi River hems the community in on one side, and sugar cane fields the other. Crude oil terminals, petrochemical plants, and oil tanks line the residential stretch. If an industrial accident occurred, the predominantly low-income Black residents would be trapped.

"This is on the intersection of a lot of things," said Cherri Foytlin, who calls the fight "a justice issue, right in the heart of KKK territory." Foytlin originally hails from Oklahoma and is of Diné and Cherokee descent. She's lived in Rayne for 15 years, where she raises six children.

Foytlin recalled the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She remembers finding a dying pelican and burying the bird after it expired. "I came back and took a really hard look at myself and said … 'What are you going to do?'" What she did is walk from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the impacts of the disaster. "I'd walk through one community and they'd be dealing with mountaintop removal," she said. "I go to the next community and they're dealing with uranium mining." It was during the walk that she deeply understood how access to clean air and water connects to poverty and racism, Foytlin said.

Anne White Hat, who is Sicangu Lakota, relocated to New Orleans from Rosebud, South Dakota, eight years ago and has been involved at L'Eau Est La Vie since the camp's opening water ceremony in December. Her native home and her adopted home are located, respectively, close to the Dakota Access and Bayou Bridge pipelines, both owned by Energy Transfer Partners. She believes it is significant that the Bakken crude oil passing through the Dakota Access pipeline will end at the Bayou Bridge pipeline, and she sees strong parallels between the communities impacted in both places. "We're communities of color, at the beginning and at the end [of the pipeline]," White Hat said.

Travis London, a Creole man from neighboring Donaldsonville, has close ties to St. James. His grandfather was born there. London serves on the H.E.L.P. Association of St. James. He also works to prevent gun violence and improve access to health care and education in his community. London views the environmental fight as embedded in all his causes and believes that greater unity in these struggles would benefit them all.

In 2017, London learned about plans to build the Bayou Bridge pipeline. He decided to go check it out. En route, he was stunned by how many petrochemical plants had sprouted up in and around St. James. London researched Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66, the co-owners of the pipeline, and learned about multiple spills. He met Foytlin at a hearing in July 2017 and linked up with L'Eau Est La Vie.

Now, London conducts pipeline-related research, engages in direct action, and attends community meetings. He emceed St. James' Juneteenth celebration, which L'Eau Est La Vie attended. "Everywhere the industry tries to influence, I want to be there," he said, the youngest of his four children scrambling onto his lap. "I've got to try to fight them back with the law, and try to fight them back with direct action, and try to get people together."

The No Bayou Bridge Pipeline campaign has achieved some legal victories. In February, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ordered an injunction to halt construction of the pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin. On April 30, St. James District Judge Alvin Turner Jr. ruled that the Department of Natural Resources had improperly issued a permit for construction and ordered DNR to ensure that Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC create evacuation plans in the event of an emergency. But now, DNR is appealing Turner's decision. And the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Dick's injunction.

Foytlin purchased the land on which L'Eau Est La Vie sits when she learned that the pipeline route was slated to go through it, and officially "launched" L'Eau Est La Vie on June 24, 2017. Truthout reports that the purchase forced the pipeline to reroute.

Now the camp serves as the base for a continuously rotating group of a few dozen water protectors. Those in camp are asked to follow the lead of local indigenous women, like Foytlin, and other people of color. Some of the water protectors from the L'Eau Est La Vie sleep in encampments in the swamp and directly block pipeline workers' construction access from kayaks in the bayou, among other actions. Others sleep in tents pitched in a grassy field in the camp, where they cook meals, care for children, orient new arrivals, and plan actions together.

"Right now, we're fighting the pipeline because we're trying to protect our land and protect folks, but this will be over, and [the camp] is our opportunity," Foytlin shared. She imagines community gardens, a space for organizers to rejuvenate, outdoor classrooms for children to rediscover indigenous ways of being in the world. And she envisions the camp serving as a humanitarian staging ground in an era of increasingly debilitating storms.

The fence outside L'Eau Est La Vie camp. Jen Marlowe

Monique Verdin sits on the L'Eau Est La Vie camp council and the tribal council for the United Houma Nation. She works on divestment for the No Bayou Bridge Pipeline campaign. Like other divestment campaigns, this campaign calls on people to move their money from Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, U.S. Bank, Citibank, and other banks funding the pipeline as a way to pressure them to divest their shares in the companies building the lines.

"We've seen the promise of progress, and we've also seen the side effects of what comes with those promises," Verdin said. For the people in St. James, she said, those effects include living next to toxic waste facilities,poor air quality, disappearing land, and, in the case of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, possibly irreparable damage to the wetlands of Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the U.S.

London agreed that there's a contrast between industry promises and reality. He called it "the illusion of community growth" held out by industry. Real growth, he said, would be indicated by college kids returning to give back to their communities, a reduction of domestic violence, and an expansion of small businesses.

Harassment and intimidation of water protectors is routine, Verdin and Foytlin said. Drivers shout, "White power!" as they pass camp, said Foytlin. She also remembers four occasions when women from camp were stopped by people in unmarked cars with flashing lights. L'Eau Est La Vie tweeted that an ETP contractor assaulted an activist with the butt of his shotgun.

Verdin can identify what she called "shining victories" of L'Eau Est La Vie camp. Acquiring the camp and forcing the pipeline to reroute is one. She also sees the rulings of Louisiana judges Turner and Dick as unprecedented despite higher courts challenging those rulings.

On a deeper level, Verdin sees presenting this model of resistance a success in itself. "People in south Louisiana have been so beat down and told: 'You have oil and gas or you have nothing.'" The current system is built from a plantation economy; before oil and gas, there was cotton and sugar cane. Many of today's plant workers are descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. Verdin's hope is that the pipeline resistance will remind people "that we deserve better and we don't have to just take it. That we can challenge them."

White Hat sees power in the connections between her stance for justice and those fought by her people years ago. At a recent action locking down to machines on the pipeline easement, White Hat sang songs to the spirits of the bayou. This type of spiritual expression was not permitted, she noted, until the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. If White Hat's relatives hadn't stood and fought for their right to pray, she may not have been able to sing on the easement without fear of arrest. "I did end up going to jail anyway, but it wasn't for praying," White Hat added with a chuckle.

Felicia Teter, who was arrested outside the governor's radio show at a L'Eau Est La Vie action on July 18, still sees problems. Despite the aspirations of the camp, she said, those with privilege—especially those who are White and male—speak more during camp meetings or fail to follow the lead of people of color. "You don't shed your Whiteness just because you show up at a camp. You don't shed your maleness. … But still, it's really frustrating." Teter hopes this will be a camp conversation soon.

Verdin and London both feel that local community support must increase, but don't see how until folks are offered real alternatives for employment outside of oil and gas jobs. "Give them a small business, give them a college degree, give them a high school diploma, and I bet they pull out of the plant," London said.

Foytlin is frustrated with movement allies using L'Eau Est La Vie actions to promote their own messages, which detract from the specific goals of the actions. She points to the action outside the governor's radio show. One environmental organization brought a banner declaring independence from fossil fuel. "That wasn't the message for this action. This action was to talk about St. James," Foytlin said.

Despite the challenges, and the very real possibility that the pipeline will be completed soon (ETP's website states that the pipeline is to be completed by the end of 2018), an air of optimism and hope prevails. Foytlin finds inspiration in people putting their bodies on the line for this cause. "That's sacrifice. That's beautiful, that's amazing, and it's bringing more and more people together."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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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.

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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."

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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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