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Caravanning for Justice: Movement Building Across Communities and Regions

By Julie Maldonado

August 30, 2016

In July 2016, over 10,000 citizens took to the streets of Philadelphia, PA to participate in the March for a Clean Energy Revolution, where one of the demands was for the Protect Our Public Lands Act  (POPLA). If passed by the U.S. Congress, this Act will stop all hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on U.S. public lands. POPLA arises during a time when the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that U.S. natural gas production – in large part a result of the use of fracking and horizontal drilling to access previously inaccessible gas formations – will increase by 55 percent by 2040. A report recently released by Oil Change International confirms that this will lock in enough carbon emissions to bust through agreed climate goals, signed by 178 nations in the Paris Agreement.

At the same time, July 2016 was the hottest month in recorded history, the 10th record hot month in a row, according to NASA. Communities around the globe are already experiencing the effects of a changing climate and more extreme weather events, from loss of fishing and water resources, to observed changes in the timing of seasons, to, in some extreme circumstances where places are becoming unviable to maintain livelihoods and settlements as the land disappears underneath due to sea level rise, coastal erosion, and melting permafrost, being forced to relocate.

Indigenous, frontline communities are among those observing and experiencing these impacts first and foremost. According to the U.S. National Climate Assessment, “[t]he consequences of observed and projected climate change have and will undermine indigenous ways of life that have persisted for thousands of years.” Many of these communities are the same ones that have already been – and continue to be – sacrificed by the extractive industry.

In this context, the idea for the Protect Our Public Lands Tour: For a Just and Renewable Energy Future arose out of a partnership between colleagues and friends from the Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), Food and Water Watch, Paper Rocket Productions, the Native American Producers Alliance, the Kentucky Environmental Foundation, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy, and the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on the Human Rights Impacts of Fracking.

Twenty-four Indigenous and non-Indigenous advocates, activists, and community workers of all ages – from youth to elders – and diverse tribal and community affiliations, caravanned across the United States on the tour. It was envisioned to bring Indigenous community members to Philadelphia to speak at the Summit for a Clean Energy Revolution, for experts and activists to come together to create solutions to stopping fracking and dirty energy processes, and to participate in the March to build the Clean Energy Revolution. More than about a single destination, the journey was also intended to learn from the stories of frontline community members working hard to transition from toxic energy industries to a just and renewable energy future.

Stemming from LiKEN’s vision, a link-tank for connecting, mentoring, and empowering citizens, policy makers, scholars, and scientists working to establish sustainable post-carbon livelihoods and communities, the impacts evolving out of this tour include, but are not limited to:

  1. A creative process to build public will, coalitions, and empowerment for people working at the grassroots level to communicate their work, vision, and process through story-telling, film and social media, by translating their work and the issues they have been battling from their places on-site to people from other communities and cultures.

  2. Strengthening and igniting networks and communication pathways between: Native American activists across tribal nations and regions; Native and non-Native advocates and workers across other frontline communities and regions (e.g., Appalachia); frontline environmental justice communities and mainstream environmental justice activists.

  3. Helping to inform the transition movement from fossil fuels to clean energy and renewables about the need for a just transition, which includes past injuries from the fossil fuel industry and other historic traumas and injustices, so that history does not repeat itself and the same communities who have been the fossil fuel sacrifice zones are guiding the effort to understand what is needed to create ajust transition.

POPLA Tour caravanners at the site of the proposed and blocked Desert Rock coal-fired power plant. July 19, 2016. Photo by Julie Maldonado

Paper Rocket Productions, a Navajo/Hopi film crew who mostly grew up in communities affected by fossil fuel extraction and raised by families fighting for justice, filmed the tour, as we traveled together to experientially learn from each other, from the site where Navajo activists showed us where they stood their ground against the development of a the Desert Rock coal-fired power plant in their community, a Nation that is already home to the health and livelihood impacts caused by dozens of coal and uranium mines and thousands of oil and gas wells; to being gathered outside the New Mexico Bureau of Land Management office in Santa Fe, as Kendra Pinto, a strong, young Navajo woman on the tour, asked, “how are our lives not important?”, depicting the witnessed devastation to her community the prior week when an explosion at a fracking site near her home caused six new and 30 temporary storage tanks to catch fire and forced dozens of families to evacuate, leaving them with only 30 minutes to gather whatever they could.

We stood together at Lake Thunderbird in Oklahoma, where Absentee-Shawnee community workers and activists who were part of the tour showed us where they are resisting yet another pipeline – Plains American Red River II Pipeline being laid across their sacred land. This was the same place where their ancestors’ remains were dug up and dumped into a mass grave after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flooded the land in the 1950s to create a lake reservoir, with tribal residents’ houses washed away and entire families forced to move. We traveled to Ponca Nation in Oklahoma where Casey Camp Horinek, a long-time Native rights activist and cultural practitioner, and her son Mekasi informed us about the contamination flowing into their community by the fossil fuel industry in all directions.

This strategy – of journeying, witnessing, and experiencing together to create platforms and support frontline community members tell their stories of historic trauma and current injustice – is working to build both local and national awareness and demonstrate the needs for embedding justice into the transition to a clean energy economy. It is not an isolated practice. For example, while the POPLA Tour crossed the country to Philadelphia, Lakota youth from Standing Rock in North Dakota ran 1,500 miles to Washington, DC to protest in front of the White House against the $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry half a million barrels of Bakken crude from North Dakota to Illinois, threatening their water sources, land, and health.

Challenges to this type of movement building abound – from bringing people together from many different cultural backgrounds, beliefs and practices, to traveling far distances in limited time with limited funds and capacity, to systemic and overt racism, such as someone during the March telling some of the participating Indigenous activists to chant in English because “this is America.” The emotions of re-telling (and in a sense, re-living) experiences of death, displacement, cancer rates plaguing their families and communities, of continuing to be sacrificed by colonizers cloaked in the form of fossil fuel corporations. But these challenges were met with resolve and determination. As a Navajo elder who was part of the caravan, shared with her family and fellow caravanners along the way, “I want to help protect our public lands. I’m very tired of living in the midst of the coal mine…It is now late at night and still on the road but it’s all worth it.”

Ava Hamilton with the POPLA Tour, participating in the March for a Clean Energy Revolution. Philadelphia, PA, July 24, 2016. Photo by Susan Rose.

The work flowing out of this tour raises key questions:

  1. How can we work to create and share an open space for frontline communities in sacrifice zones who are deeply suffering from historical trauma and continued atrocities wrought by the fossil fuel industry to have their voices heard and work to ensure that the same injustices are not continued in the post-carbon transition?

  2. How could such stories be leveraged to build awareness, knowledge sharing, and solidarity across cultures, communities, regions, and even nations, to infuse environmental justice into the transition to a post-carbon, clean energy economy?

We work together across communities and regions to begin to answer these questions and to be able to tell a story of what we are for:

empowerment and justice for the present and future – for all generations and relations now and for those to come.

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