Indigenous cultures across the globe take many forms. But one common unifying theme is their ethic of environmental stewardship—adherence to the commonsense edict that if we take care of the environment that nourishes us and maintains life, that we’ve got a better chance of survival overall.
With this in mind, Indian Country Today Media Network went back through the archives to update five environmental stories that have come and gone. Where are they now?
Palm Oil Displaces Indigenous Peoples
Uncertified palm oil is fueling deforestation and displacing Indigenous Peoples. Take the hunter-gatherer Penan tribe. When we reported their story in 2010, they were under threat from plans to expand palm oil plantations in the Malaysian state of Sarawak.
RELATED: Palm Oil Pushes Indigenous off Land
This month National Geographic reports that more than 90 percent of the Malaysian island of Borneo’s primary forest has now been destroyed. Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has called the deforestation of Sarawak, "probably the biggest environmental crime of our times."
Sarawak’s government does not recognize the Penan’s rights to their land, according to Survival International, an indigenous rights organization. In Indonesia, the demand for palm oil and energy drives deforestation and displacement of local communities. Learn more about certified palm oil.
Photo: Survival International
Penan armed with blowpipes block road as Shin Yang logging trucks approach, during a previous blockade.
BP Oil Spill
The April 20, 2010 BP oil spill off the Gulf of Mexico was nothing short of catastrophe for many, including Native tribes.
RELATED: Ecological Calamity Grows
A year later, the spill’s first anniversary was marked by continued devastation to Native lands and wildlife, the loss of livelihoods, and potential health hazards from exposure to the oil as well as to chemical dispersants.
Four years later, BP is still arguing its case in court as a decision looms on whether the corporation will pay $13.7 billion in fines—the maximum, which the U.S. Justice Department is seeking—or the statutory minimum of $3.19 billion, according to The Times-Picayune. The case is in the second week of the penalty phase of the civil trial.
Environmental repercussions continue as well. An April 2014 report compiled by the National Wildlife Federation found that more than a dozen species were still struggling, according to National Geographic. BP refuted the claims. Questions about public-health repercussions linger as well, CBS News reported last April.
Pointe-au-Chien tribal members survey the destroyed dock of their shrimp-processing plant after the BP oil spill.
Alaska Wishbone Hills Coal Mine
Back in September 2011, ICTMN reported on acts of racism targeting the Chickaloon Tribe over its intent to block the reopening of the Wishbone Hills coal mine—a controversial project proposed by the Usibelli Mine Company—after the tribe had built homes and an elementary school near the abandoned mine.
Their protest did not grab authorities’ attention, and Alaska approved Usibelli Coal’s renewal of the Wishbone Hill mining permits in October 2014.
“If the state isn’t managing its permit this closely, if they are not following their own rules at this stage, then if operations are to start, would they follow their own rules in ensuring the health and the safety of the community, which has changed dramatically since 1991?” Chickaloon Village Traditional Council representative Lisa Wade told Alaska Public Media.
The tribe has been requesting tribal government-to-government consultation since 2011, to no avail.
A local drinking establishment in Sutton, Alaska proudly displays its support for the Usibelli Mine Company’s proposed Wishbone Hills coal mine.
Dunes Gone Rogue: Runaway Sand on the Navajo Nation
In 2009, sandstorms swept over parts of Navajo country by runaway sand dunes unleashed by a warming planet. The biting sands bury homes, structures, and cars, and create havoc and health issues for the Diné people.
A March 2014 report, Considerations for Climate Change and Variability Adaptation on the Navajo Nation by the University of Colorado, Boulder updates the situation. Sand dunes may become more active with future climate change impacts, covering roads and houses, as well as causing a range of infrastructure damage, the report said.
Such storms already periodically reduce visibility on Navajo roads, sometimes down to zero, and contribute to road closures. When moving sand dunes bury fences, livestock can walk into roads, where they may cause a collision. If sand dune mobilization increases, it could contribute to more closures and accidents on Navajo roads, and increased closures of airport runways.
The potential climate disruptions are not limited to sand dunes. Drought, water scarcity, a decline in native vegetation, increased erosion and desertification are also raised in the report.
Photo: Margaret Hiza-Redsteer, USGS
Remnants of a home buried by migrating dunes on the outskirts of Tuba City, Arizona.
PCBs’ Toxic Legacy at Akwesasne
The General Motors Superfund site leapt onto the national radar in 2011 with the arrest of Larry Thompson, Mohawk, after he took a backhoe to the site. He loaded contaminated material onto railroad cars that were standing empty awaiting the debris from the corporation’s buildings, which were being demolished. The protest reflected his desire that the contamination be removed, not buried, in the name of remediation and public health. His assertions that the site was responsible for numerous health conditions was buttressed by research.
The same year, high PCB levels were found in members of the St. Regis community, and research indicated that these compounds could contribute to autoimmune disorders, altered thyroid gland function and lowered testosterone levels. The suspected culprit this time was a disused General Electric plant in the same area, also a Superfund site. Moreover, nearby Reynolds and Alcoa aluminum smelters, now New York State Superfund sites, also released PCBs.
In January 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that PCB contamination left by a General Motors plant was 250 percent higher than was originally reported, according to Indian Time News.
Cleanup Grasse River Remedial Options Pilot Study (Photo: NOAA)