Solidarity with Standing Rock

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The Dakota Access pipeline needs to be stopped — and the broken system that allowed it to get this far must be fixed.

Sacred Stone Camp near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Many have gathered since April 2016. (Photo: Nima Taradji/Polaris)

Some environmental victories come in the form of a single, decisive moment: the president’s signing of an executive order, for example, or the long-awaited announcement of a jury verdict or Supreme Court decision.

Other victories are more incremental: less the result of a moment than a movement, one that has grown and strengthened over time. Right now, in North Dakota, we’re witnessing the blossoming of one such movement. We’re also witnessing, once again, just how effective individuals can be when they band together and collectively speak truth to power.

On Friday afternoon, members of this movement scored a major triumph — just minutes after processing the news of a devastating legal setback. This remarkable turn of events is testament to the faith and fortitude of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as the thousands of others who have joined their cause over the past several months. While their ultimate victory is yet to be won, there can be no doubt that these individuals have already made history by demanding justice and standing up for their rights.

The Dakota Access pipeline, if completed, would carry half a million barrels of crude oil daily through four states — more than 1,100 miles — on a journey that would ultimately take it to refineries located along the Gulf of Mexico. The companies building the pipeline, led by a company called Energy Transfer Partners, have indicated that they’re willing to spend upwards of $3.8 billion to bring their investment to fruition.

“A marginalized community has spoken out in its own self-defense, and instead of being ignored, it has been heard. And the chorus of supporters demanding justice isn’t fading; it’s actually getting louder.”

They’re also willing, it would seem, to desecrate or outright destroy any number of sites held sacred by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe: symbolic cairns, stone prayer rings, even burial grounds. In addition, the current proposed route for the pipeline would pass under North Dakota’s Lake Oahe just half a mile upstream of the Standing Rock Sioux’s reservation. The tribe has long relied on Lake Oahe as its primary source of drinking water. It also uses the lake for irrigation, fishing, and recreation.

In July, tribe members attempted to halt construction of the pipeline by filing a complaint in federal court, charging that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had not followed proper procedures for public review when fast-tracking its approval. Over Labor Day weekend, however — as both supporters and opponents of the pipeline anxiously awaited a federal judge’s ruling on the matter — Energy Transfer Partners saw fit to begin bulldozing land in preparation for the pipeline’s construction.

This unconscionable and provocative act was greeted, understandably, with a demonstration of opposition by the Standing Rock Sioux — whose cause by this point had been joined by members of more than 200 other Native American tribes as well as by hundreds of nonnative allies. Past demonstrations had been peaceful affairs. The one that took place two Sundays ago, however, was different: In a scene that recalled some of the ugliest images from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the private security firm hired to keep demonstrators at bay chose to use pepper spray and guard dogs. According to one eyewitness, children and tribal elders were among those who suffered dog bites.

Amid this context of violence and uncertainty came the judge’s ruling on Friday afternoon: The Standing Rock Sioux’s motion for injunctive relief was denied. The Army Corps had followed proper procedures in granting its permits, the court concluded; construction on the pipeline could continue.

But then, just as this first shock wave was making its way through the demonstrators’ encampment on the shores of Lake Oahe, a second shock wave hit: the U.S. Department of Justice — with support from both the Department of the Interior and the Department of the Army — announced that it was calling for an immediate and indefinite pause in construction on the lands adjacent to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. Furthermore, according to the announcement, any pause should extend until after “serious discussion” had taken place between the federal government and Native American tribes “on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.”

My organization believes that the Obama administration made the right call in asking the Justice Department to intervene. Such reform is as necessary as it is overdue. The permitting system that allowed Dakota Access to be fast-tracked is broken — riddled with loopholes that have been wantonly exploited by builders and widened further by the Army Corps of Engineers’ complicity.

Thanks to an Army Corps action known as Nationwide Permit 12, massive projects like Dakota Access are often broken down into hundreds of individual micro-projects to avoid the requirement for meaningful public review under the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA, passed by Congress in 1969, requires that major actions with the potential to impose environmental hazard or harm be subject to public review. When companies like Energy Transfer Partners take advantage of Nationwide Permit 12, their intention is typically to bypass the very transparency that NEPA was designed to ensure.

This isn’t the first time that the oil and gas industry has abused this regulatory loophole. But it needs to be the last. Either the Army Corps of Engineers needs to stop allowing such abuse, or it needs to scrap the provision altogether.

The Natural Resources Defense Council stands with the Standing Rock Sioux and fully supports their right to preserve their heritage, their water, and their sovereignty. And we believe that the movement they have spawned will redound to the benefit of all Americans who seek greater transparency and increased public input for oil and gas infrastructure projects that lead to the destruction of our land, air, water, and climate.

In English, the Lakota phrase Mni wiconi translates into “Water is life.” The stark simplicity of that eternal truth, combined with justified outrage at the imminent desecration of their heritage, is what has compelled so many members of the Standing Rock Sioux to speak out. And as they would be the first to acknowledge, their struggle is also our struggle. The grace and strength they have exhibited as they fight for their culture — and for clean water — stand as a model for all communities whose resources are imperiled by an oil and gas industry that consistently puts profits before people.

Their struggle is far from over. But regardless of its ultimate outcome, the Standing Rock Sioux won something valuable on Friday — and thanks to their unyielding efforts, so have we all. A marginalized community has spoken out in its own self-defense, and instead of being ignored, it has been heard. And the chorus of supporters demanding justice isn’t fading; it’s actually getting louder. A movement is building, undeniably, toward a moment.

Contribute to the Camp of the Sacred Stones’ legal defense fund.

Rhea Suh is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Noam Chomsky: How Obama Has Ushered in ‘a New Era of International Terrorism’

Chomsky and Emran Feroz talk Obama’s political legacy in the Middle East, the deal with Iran and the refugee crisis.

Noam Chomsky.
Photo Credit: screenshot via Democracy Now!

The following is a recent interview with Noam Chomsky on the Middle East and the Obama Administration’s policies towards Syria, Egypt and Iran, and the rise of right-wing extremism and nationalism in Europe.

Emran Feroz: Barack Obama’s presidency is coming to an end. With reference to the political situation in the Middle East, what remains of his historical speech in Cairo and what of his Middle East policy in general?

Noam Chomsky: At the time I felt that the speech was pretty vacuous. I didn’t expect anything from it, so I wasn’t disappointed. One positive aspect of his policy is that there have been no major acts of aggression like the vicious invasion of Iraq, which in my opinion was the worst crime this century. And I suppose you could describe the negotiation of the agreement with Iran as positive too. But it could have been done much earlier. Still, better an agreement with Iran than no agreement.

Obama’s major legacy in the Middle East is the US drone campaign, which is ushering in a new era of international terrorism. I predict that its impact will be wide reaching. Drone technology will not only expand, it will also become a useful tool for all kinds of different terrorist groups in the near future. In the case of the Arab Spring, Obama – and his allies – supported the established dictators as long as it was possible. Moreover, they also tried to shore up the old systems even after the revolutions had started.

EF: We are still witnessing these brutal dictatorships, in Egypt particularly, but also in Syria. Has the Arab Spring been a total failure?

NC: That’s hard to say. Some progress has been made, but there is still much to be done. There have been significant changes which could have formed the basis for something. In Egypt, for example, the labour movement, which is an important and leading part of the Arab Spring, did make some substantial gains. I don’t think the Sisi dictatorship is capable of dealing with Egypt’s mammoth problems. I suspect this is just another stage of many as the country edges towards democratisation and freedom. Syria is a different story. The country appears bent on self-destruction. Anything that might be done to mitigate the situation simply leads to another disaster.

EF: To what extent is the US administration responsible for Syria’s implosion?

NC: It’s hard to say. The Assad regime is absolutely monstrous and responsible for a large majority of the atrocities. IS is another monstrosity. The al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front is not much better than IS, while some of the other major groups are closely linked to it. The Kurdish groups have succeeded in defending their own territory and establishing a more or less decent system within. And then there are various other groups – local militias and parts of the original reform movement and some other more democratic elements.

To what extent they still exert any influence is debatable. The veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk claims they no longer exist. Others say they are a substantial force. It’s a patchwork of many different groups. At the moment, there are some small signs of progress that might possibly lead to a ceasefire or some kind of negotiated agreement. We can be sure that this will be pretty ugly. But it’s still better than suicide.

EF: You already mentioned the deal with Iran. Many people say it’s one of the biggest successes of the Obama administration, while others say it will lead to the nuclearisation of the Arab Sunni states. Why do you think it is a success?

NC: I think the deal was a success, but I also think there is a problem with how the issue has been presented. It would have been a major step had those involved accepted Iranian, Arab and, in fact, global opinion and moved towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free-zone in the region. Indeed that is what Obama promised. The deal is a small step in the right direction. We – and that includes the US intelligence agencies – don’t know whether Iran was planning to develop nuclear weapons. I think we can be fairly confident that it was planning to develop nuclear capability. On the other hand, any nation with nuclear power or technology can be said to possess this capability. Considering, however, the restrictive conditions in which it was reached, the agreement was a step forward.

EF: On the subject of success, to what extent can we say there’s been any in Israel and Palestine?

NC: We’ve seen zero success there. If we put aside words and look at actions, the Obama administration has been the most supportive administration of Israeli expansion so far. While the rest of the world condemns the illegal settlements, the US is still supporting the Israeli government in this point. There is still military, diplomatic, economic and even ideological support for continuing the settlement programme. Obama’s most remarkable move, one of the few that actually received some public attention, was his veto of the UN security council resolution in February 2011 which literally endorsed official US policy. The resolution called for limiting settlement expansion while the Obama veto claimed it was a drawback to peace. In fact, we’re currently seeing negotiations with Netanyahu over increasing extensive US aid, which basically feeds settlement expansion. Gaza has just been subjected to brutal and savage attacks by Israel with US support.

EF: We’re seeing a rise in nationalism and right-wing extremism in Europe at the moment. First and foremost the hatred is being directed at the refugees fleeing the chaos in the Middle East. With the rise of Donald Trump, a similar picture seems to be developing in the United States. Do you think that the fear-mongers are winning?

NC: It’s very interesting to look at the so-called refugee crisis. In Austria, for example, a neo-Nazi is on the verge of political victory. Austria has taken in a very small number of refugees. One of the most forthcoming countries in Europe, I suppose, is Sweden, which has taken in some 160,000 refugees. Sweden is a rich country with a population of 10 million, so now refugees make up about 1.5 per cent of the population. But this is still a very small number compared to a poor country like Lebanon, which has no role in generating refugees. But refugees currently make up 40 percent of its population; 25 percent of those are Syrians. Jordan has also taken in a huge number of refugees, while most European countries have apparently absorbed very few.

But where are the refugees coming from? Most of them come from the Middle East, but some are also coming from Africa. Europe has a long history in Africa. For centuries, Africa suffered devastation and destruction, which is still one of the reasons why people are fleeing from Africa to Europe. In the Middle East, there are many causes for the crisis, but one major and overwhelming cause is the American and British invasion of Iraq, which virtually destroyed the country. Iraqis are still fleeing, at the moment mostly from a sectarian conflict that barely existed before the invasion. Look more closely and it is clear that there are countries that have generated refugees throughout their history – and they include the US, Britain and a number of European countries.

Interview conducted by Emran Feroz

Emran Feroz is the founder of the Drone Memorial.