[News] Fears of Cultural Extinction on Louisiana's Gulf Coast
news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 15 11:25:10 EDT 2010
Louisianas coastal communities fear they may
never recover from BPs drilling disaster
By Jordan Flaherty
As BPs deepwater well continues to discharge oil
into the Gulf, the economic and public health
effects are already being felt across coastal
communities. But its likely this is only the
beginning. From the bayous of southern Louisiana
to the city of New Orleans, many fear this
disaster represents not only environmental
devastation but also cultural extinction for
peoples who have made their lives here for generations.
This is not the first time that Louisianans have
lost their communities or their lives from the
actions of corporations. The land loss caused by
oil companies has already displaced many who
lived by the coast, and the pollution from
treatment plants has poisoned communities across
the state especially in cancer alley, the
corridor of industrial facilities along the
Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.
The cultural losses as a consequence of the BP
disaster are going to be astronomical, says
Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR)
co-director Nathalie Walker. There is no other
culture like Louisianas coastal culture and we
can only hope they wont be entirely erased.
Walker and co-director Monique Harden have made
it their mission to fight the environmental
consequences of Louisianas corporate polluters.
They say this disaster represents an unparalleled
catastrophe for the lives of people across the
region, but they also see in it a continuation of
an old pattern of oil and chemical corporations
displacing people of color from their homes.
Harden and Walker point out that at least five
Louisiana towns all majority African American
have been eradicated due to corporate pollution
in recent decades. The most recent is the
Southwest Louisiana town of Mossville, founded by
African Americans in the 1790s. Located near Lake
Charles, Mossville is only 5 square miles and
holds 375 households. Beginning in the 1930s, the
state of Louisiana began authorizing industrial
facilities to manufacture, process, store, and
discharge toxic and hazardous substances within
Mossville. Fourteen facilities are now located in
the small town, and 91 percent of residents have
reported at least one health problem related to
exposure to chemicals produced by the local industry.
The southern Louisiana towns of Diamond,
Morrisonville, Sunrise, and Revilletown all
founded by formerly enslaved African Americans -
met similar fates. After years of
chemical-related poisoning, the remaining
residents have been relocated, and the
corporations that drove them out now own their
land. In most cases, only a cemetery remains, and
former residents must pass through plant security
to visit their relatives graves.
The town of Diamond, founded by the descendants
of the participants of the 1811 Rebellion to End
Slavery, the largest slave uprising in US
history, was relocated by Shell in 2002, after
residents had faced decades of toxic exposure.
Morrisonville, established by free Africans in
1790, was bought out by Dow in 1989. Residents of
Sunrise, inaugurated near Baton Rouge by former
slaves in 1874, were paid to move as the result
of a lawsuit against the Placid Refining Company.
In the mid-1990s, Chemical producer Georgia Gulf
Corporation poisoned and then acquired
Revilletown, a town that recently freed Black
families had started in the years after the civil war.
We make the mistake of thinking this is
something new, says Harden. She adds that the
historic treatment of these communities, as well
as the lack of recovery that New Orleanians have
seen since Katrina, makes her doubt the federal
government will do what is necessary for Gulf
recovery. Since Obama got into office, she
says, I have yet to see any action that reverses what Bush did after Katrina.
Harden says Louisiana and the US must
fundamentally transform our governments
relationships with corporations. Weve got to
change the way we allow businesses to be in
charge of our health and safety in this country,
she adds. As an example, Harden points to more
stringent regulations in other countries, such as
Norway, which requires companies to drill relief
wells at the same time as any deepwater well.
Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe is a small band of
French speaking Native Americans along Bayou
Pointe-au-Chien, south of Houma, on Louisianas
Gulf Coast. Their ancestors settled here three
hundred years ago, and current residents describe
the ongoing oil geyser as just the latest step in
a long history of displacement and
disenfranchisement. The oil companies never
respected our elders, explains community leader
Theresa Dardar. And they never did respect our land.
In the early part of this century, the oil
companies took advantage of the fact that people
living on the coast were isolated by language and
distance, and laid claim to their land. Over the
past several decades, these companies have
devastated these idyllic communities, creating
about 10,000 miles of canals through forests,
marshes, and homes. They come in, they cut a
little, and it keeps getting wider and wider,
says Donald Dardar, Theresas husband and part of
the tribes leadership. They didnt care where they cut.
The canals have brought salt water, killing trees
and plants and speeding erosion. According to
Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana loses about a
football field of land every 45 minutes, and
almost half of that land loss is as a result of
these canals. Meanwhile, Pointe-au-Chien and
other tribes have found they have little legal
recourse. At least partly as a result of lobbying
by oil companies, the state and federal
government have refused to officially recognize
them as a tribe, which would offer some protection of their land rights.
So late last month, when oil started washing up
on the shores of nearby Lake Chien and fishing
season was cancelled before it had even begun,
members of Pointe-au-Chien took the news as
another nail in the coffin of the lifestyle they
had been living for generations. On a recent
Sunday, a few residents gathered at the Live Oak
Baptist Church, on the main road that runs
through their community. They described feeling
abandoned and abused by the government and
corporations. They spoke of losing their language
and traditions in addition to their homes.
Sitting on a church pew, Theresa said they had
met with indigenous natives from Alaska who
discussed their experience in the aftermath of
the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. We dont know how
long well be without fishing, said Theresa. It
was 17 years before they could get shrimp. And,
she noted bitterly, this disaster is already much
larger than the Valdez, with no end in sight.
BP has promised payouts to those who lose work
from the oil, but few trust the company to make
good on their promise, and even if they did, they
doubt any settlement could make up for what will
be lost. It doesnt matter how much money they
give you, says Theresa. If we dont have our
shrimp, fish, crabs and oysters.
Its not just a way of life, its our food, she
added. Its the loss of our livelihood and culture.
The anxiety that Theresa expresses is also
increasingly common in New Orleans, a city whose
culture is inextricably linked to the Gulf. How
do you deal with this hemorrhaging in the bottom
of the Gulf that seems endless? asks Monique
Harden of AEHR. That is just scary as hell. Ive
been having nightmares about it.
As the oil continues to flow, people feel both
helpless and apocalyptic; depressed and angered.
Residents who have just rebuilt from the 2005
hurricanes watch the oil wash up on shore with a
building dread. I never thought Id be in a
situation where I wanted another Katrina, says
Harden. But Id rather Katrina than this.
Loss of Land and Culture
Across the street from the church in
Pointe-au-Chien is a bayou, where frustrated
fishers wait on their boats hoping against all
odds that they will be able to use them this
season. Behind the church is more water, and a
couple miles further down the road ends in swamp.
Dead oak trees, rotted by salt water, rise out of
the canals. Telephone poles stick out of the
water, along a path where once the road continued
but now the encroaching waters have taken over.
The miles of swamp and barrier islands that stood
between these homes and the Gulf used to slow
hurricanes, and now the entire region has become
much more vulnerable. Brenda Billiot, another
local resident, gestured at her familys
backyard, about a few dozen yards of grass that
fades into marshes and water. This used to be
land, she says, as far as you could see.
Billiots family is still repairing their home
from the 2005 flooding, including raising it up a
full 19 feet above the ground. She wonders if
that will be enough, if there is anything they
can do to make themselves safe and hold on to their culture.
A brown rabbit hops across her backyard, and
Billiot describes the dolphins and porpoises she
has seen swimming nearby. Walking along the bayou
here, where generations of people have lived off
the land and fought to protect their territory
from corporate theft, you begin to sense the gravity of what will be lost.
Theresa believes that the government and oil
companies are looking for an excuse to
permanently displace the tribe. She believes this
latest disaster, and the upcoming hurricane
season, may spell the end for their language and
culture. I tell people; if we get another
hurricane, take everything you want, because I
dont think theyll let you back in, says
Dardar. Its scary because I dont know where were going to go.
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of
Left Turn Magazine, and a staffer with the
Louisiana Justice Institute. He was the first
writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a
national audience, and his award-winning
reporting from the Gulf Coast has been featured
in a range of outlets including the New York
Times, Mother Jones, and Argentina's Clarin
newspaper. He has produced news segments for
Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now! and
appeared as a guest on CNN Morning, Anderson
Cooper 360, and Keep Hope Alive with the Reverend
Jesse Jackson. Haymarket Books has just released
his new book, FLOODLINES: Community and
Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. He can
be reached at <mailto:neworleans at leftturn.org>neworleans at leftturn.org.
More information about Floodlines can be found at
Floodlines will also be featured on the Community
and Resistance Tour this fall. For more
information on the tour, see
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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