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BP Oil Spill Threatens Future of Indigenous Communities in Louisiana

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During our recent trip to southern Louisiana, we visited Grand Bayou, a village accessible only by boat, that feels they are on the brink of extinction. The indigenous Atakapa-Ishak people in this coastal Louisiana village have relied on the land and water around them to survive for generations. They live mostly off the oysters, shrimp and fish they draw from the marshes. Now the traditions and very survival of this small community are at risk. We went to Grand Bayou on the same day as a visiting delegation from Alaska who survived the Exxon-Valdez spill and spoke to indigenous leaders from both disaster-affected communities. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the Gulf of Mexico, where Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen is warning it will be at least the fall before tens of thousands of barrels of oil gushing into the water each day from BP’s ruptured well can be cleaned up. On Monday, BP said the cost of its response to the oil spill catastrophe has reached $1.25 billion.

But traveling through the Gulf of Mexico last week, we spoke to many who hold BP responsible for a damaged ecosystem, threatened livelihoods, and an end to a way of life. We visited one community in Grand Bayou, a village accessible only by boat, that feels they’re on the brink of extinction. The indigenous Atakapa-Ishak people in this coastal Louisiana community have relied on the land and water around them to survive for generations. They live mostly off the oysters, the shrimp and the fish in the waterways and the marshes. Now the traditions and the very survival of this community are at risk.

We went to Grand Bayou on the same day as a visiting delegation from Alaska who survived the Exxon-Valdez spill, and we spoke to indigenous leaders from both disaster-affected communities.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re coming into the Grand Bayou. I’m here with Rosina Philippe, who’s one of the leaders of this community, what I think it’s fair to say is an endangered community. Rosina, tell us about this river. Tell us about the land, about your home.

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: OK, well, first of all, this is Grand Bayou. It’s a bayou, and it’s saltwater, and that’s different from the river. And we’ve been here for centuries. We are a Native American community. We’re the Atakapa-Ishak. And we live a subsistent life. It’s 2010, and we still live the same way that we did centuries ago. The life of our community is more than just ourselves. You know, we are part of this ecosystem. Everything in it, you know, we’re a part of, and it’s part of us. People ask us, you know, how long have we been here. We’ve been here forever. We still have our sacred places, you know, back — the landscape has changed. You know, it used to be forested. The land used to be high. Now we have no trees, and that’s because of saltwater intrusion, with canals that were cut for the oil exploration. This is what nature has managed to come up with when all the trees were gone. You know, the land subsided. The other vegetation died off. So nature finds a way to bring something in. So this is like Spartina, a salt grass, and, you know, it used to have small amounts of it, but over a period of time it took over, because it didn’t have anything else to compete with. So now we have this kind of prairie marsh.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re right behind an oil tanker. Can you explain what it’s doing here?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: They pass daytime, nighttime, any day of the week, you know, whenever.

    AMY GOODMAN: So this is a tug pushing what?


    AMY GOODMAN: And the barge is for what?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: The barge carries product.

    AMY GOODMAN: For the oil industry?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: Absolutely, yes.

    We’ve had a lot of challenges, you know, come to us — natural conditions, of course, the storms that come into the coast. But I think the most difficult challenges that we’re facing are the human-induced challenges. And those are the ones that are hard to recover from. We’re facing a challenge right now with an oil disaster and chemicals, and that’s new. And we really don’t know what to do at this point.

    You know, I think a lot of what’s happening, from the BP side, they’re doing damage control, and they’re doing PR work and sound bites, and they’re getting away with it. I think that — what is it? — forty-one, forty-two days out, they should no longer be calling the shots and to continue to play with people’s lives. You know, it’s life and dea. th, you know, and they need to stop playing politics. They need to let the government be the government and let corporate America be corporate America. But right now the corporations are calling the shots. You know, when I vote, I vote for a government. I don’t — and people to represent me in that structure. I don’t feel that that’s happening right now.

    AMY GOODMAN: Who’s stronger, the corporation or the government?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: Oh, the corporation, by far. You know, that’s without a doubt. I think that, you know, the government is just a paper tiger, you know? It’s like lots of show and bravado, but when all is said and done, at the end of the day, you know, money talks.

    AMY GOODMAN: How do they tell you whether your area is contaminated or not?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: Well, they’re supposed to be monitoring.

    AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen them testing it here?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: No, I haven’t. You know, I hope they’re monitoring, you know, because, my god, I hate to think that something could get by them or they’re lax in their duties, and it’ll cost people their lives. I mean, people have already died because of this.

    AMY GOODMAN: If you couldn’t shrimp or fish, what would happen to your community?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: That’s difficult, because this is all we know. So I don’t know what we would do if we couldn’t do this, but I know we’d find a way to stay here. We’re facing something that we have never faced before. And it has the potential to imperil us all for the next twenty, thirty years. We’re talking to some of the people from Alaska, and, you know, looking at some of the terrible knowledge that they have, you know, from what they went through, hoping to, I guess, learn something that’s going to serve us.

AMY GOODMAN: Rosina Philippe is with the Atakapa-Ishak people. She visited with the delegation of Alaskan community leaders while in the Grand Bayou, including Patience Andersen Faulkner, Stanley Tom and Faith Gemmill.

    FAITH GEMMILL: I’m Faith Gemmill. I’m Neets’aii Gwich’in, Pit River and Wintu, and I’m from [inaudible], Alaska. It’s Arctic Village, Alaska, 110 miles above the Arctic Circle, in the Brooks Range in the northeast corner of Alaska.

    We are here to show support and solidarity with the communities here in Louisiana that are dealing with this devastating spill, which has happened to Alaskans also. And prior to us coming, a few year ago I met with one of the community leaders here as we were addressing global warming issues. And as we talked, we realized there are so many similarities between our communities. We are both fossil fuel states, where the fossil fuel industry has encroached into our indigenous territories and threatened our livelihood, our subsistence livelihoods. And we’re dealing with severe coastal erosion issues in Alaska and Louisiana. And we’re dealing with severe impacts of global warming and climate change.

    Now we share this disaster, which has impacted people in Alaska with the Exxon Valdez oil spill twenty-two years ago, and now the Gulf spill, which is impacting these communities now. It’s been very heartbreaking being here to hear the communities, and we’ve seen the tears. And they’re saying, “How are we going to be able to feed our families? What about our economy?” And it’s the same question that the people in Prince William Sound faced twenty-two years ago.

    The thing that struck me the most is when we were out on the waters, we saw the shrimpers with their boats. Instead of bringing shrimp home to their families, they were laying boom and picking up oiled boom and bringing that back. And they had no protective gear that day when we saw them. They weren’t wearing gloves. They weren’t wearing respirators. And there’s severe human health impacts to cleanup workers from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. We don’t want to see that repeated. So we’re here to share our knowledge about those kinds of impacts.

    AMY GOODMAN: What are the long-term health effects of the workers on Exxon Valdez?

    FAITH GEMMILL: There’s many different impacts. There’s neurological disorders, cancers, skin disorders, all kinds, respiratory disorders.

    AMY GOODMAN: So what are your words of wisdom for the people here, having been through what you were twenty-two years ago, which wasn’t just Exxon? We say Exxon Valdez, but the main partner in the Alyeska pipeline consortium was actually BP.

    FAITH GEMMILL: Well, what we’ve shared with the people here is that — I’m from a community 800 miles north of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. And when that happened, the impacts to my people, there were certain species of birds that never returned to this day. Out of twenty-two species that were harmed, only eight are on the recovered list. Some of the other things we’ve shared is there is there is a long recovery in this process.

    And one of the most important things, I think, that we’ve been able to share is that the communities that were impacted by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, they’re still there. They have managed to move to new fisheries, and they’re gaining their economy back slowly. And they’re surviving today. It hasn’t devastated them to the point where — there’s hope. There’s hope. And now their fisheries are coming back, and they are recovering. It’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be long, and they all need each other’s support.

    AMY GOODMAN: And what about advice when it comes to dealing with a multinational corporation — in your case, Exxon; here it was BP?

    FAITH GEMMILL: That we have to be vigilant, that we have to stand up and remain firm and continue to resist what they’re doing in our territories, because the places that they are going, these are the last places that our people need for survival. We have to stand and defend these places, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, like the Chukchi Sea and the Beaufort Sea, Bristol Bay, Cook Inlet, Yukon Flats Wildlife Refuge, places here that they have not gone into yet. We need to stand up and hold our territories that we need for our survival. That is how we’re going to survive.

    We can’t allow this industry, which is so polluting, to continue to harm our peoples, but not only us, all peoples. This is not our issue; this is everyone’s issue. Everyone is affected by global warming. Fossil fuel development is the leading human-induced contributing factor of climate change. We’re all dealing with it. And it’s time for us to shift our energy. This spill is a wakeup call. And we need to do it. And that was a promise by Obama. I want to see it fulfilled. This is a wakeup call, America. It’s time to move forward, to change what we’re doing, because our survival as humanity is on the line.

    STANLEY TOM: I am Stanley Tom. I’m the travel administrator for Newtok Traditional Council, and I’m from Newtok, Alaska.

    AMY GOODMAN: Which is where?

    STANLEY TOM: It’s west of Bethel about ninety-two air miles, and it’s in the coastal area.

    And I’m here to talk about the relocation effort, because they’re facing the same problem in Alaska that we’re facing due to the climate change. And the climate here is just like in Alaska; it’s just like a tundra out here. It reminds me of my home village.

    AMY GOODMAN: What experience do you have that is similar to the people of Louisiana?

    STANLEY TOM: We’re having a erosion, flooding and sinking of the village.

    AMY GOODMAN: Sinking of the village?

    STANLEY TOM: Sinking of the — we’re sitting on a permafrost, and —-

    AMY GOODMAN: What is permafrost?

    STANLEY TOM: The permafrost is ice, and it’s melting. The village is sinking.

    AMY GOODMAN: Usually the permafrost was ice, was frost, all year round?

    STANLEY TOM: All year long. But with this climate change, it’s melting the surface. You know, it’s sinking really fast.

    AMY GOODMAN: What will happen then?

    STANLEY TOM: And the result of it, we have to relocate. And we have talked about the relocation effort for more than thirty years.

    AMY GOODMAN: Where would you go?

    STANLEY TOM: We will move to south of the village. It’s about nine miles of our current village.

    AMY GOODMAN: And how do you feel about this?

    STANLEY TOM: It’s devastating. You know, our community is -— you know, it’s in our subsistent area, and we hate to leave the village, but we have really no choice. And that’s what’s happening here, too. They don’t want to leave their village, because they’re living off the land. And that’s how we live. We’re the subsistence gatherers back home.

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: My name is Patience Andersen Faulkner. I’m from Cordova, Alaska, the eastern side of Prince William Sound, where the Exxon Valdez hit the rock. I’m a member of the Native village of Eyak. I’m a Chugach Eskimo, and I’m on the village council. I’m on many other boards, too, but I represent the fishermen on our Prince William Sound Regional Citizens’ Advisory.

    AMY GOODMAN: What should people here understand?

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: Well, I like to ask people — I like to give them the story first, before they — you know, in Rome, they killed the messenger. And I am the messenger. And the messenger is that we’re in for a marathon down here. I mean, Exxon Valdez did the damage. Twenty-one years later, we’re not completely recovered. We just got shrimping back after seventeen years. We have no herring.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about the health of the whole communities, the fishers and everyone? Were you a fisher?

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: I’m from a fishing family. We’ve all been damaged. The luck is that it’s been a staggered damage, meaning we had the oil spill, and then, a couple years later, someone would die. So we’d have the strength to help each other get through everything. It’s been tough. It’s not been an easy journey.

    AMY GOODMAN: What about compensation?

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: Well, we got really good compensation: we got the value of about six cents on the dollar. And that’s it. And my fishermen can tell me exactly what they didn’t get. When we went to the Supreme Court finally for our $5 billion jury award —-

    AMY GOODMAN: The US Supreme Court?

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: United States Supreme Court -— they reduced it to $500 million.

    AMY GOODMAN: From?

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: From $5 billion. And that is not a very big punitive damages for anybody. Exxon tried to pull so many tricks. They tried to get the punitive damages issue — not the dollar amount, the issue — so that we wouldn’t get punitive damages. They tried to do all sorts of manipulating in Congress. So we’ve been fighting them all the way, but each time we fight, or they’d bring something up we’d fight, and we felt stronger. We acted.

    AMY GOODMAN: What message do you have for the people of souther Louisiana, specifically words of wisdom from mental health to even the way you hear the spokespeople, the BP spokespeople, speaking?

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: Well, since we’re in for the long haul — I’m talking a twenty-year marathon — you better pace yourself, because a person can’t stand at this heightened chaos for that long without driving yourself insane. So be prepared for a marathon. And I also remind folks your family is the most important thing. Sit down with everyone and keep connected. That way, everyone will be stronger and know that there is something there. And BP can’t destroy the family.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Patience Andersen Faulkner from the visiting Alaskan delegation in Grand Bayou. After gathering with Rosina Philippe’s family, we sat on her front porch overlooking the Bayou, and I asked both Rosina and Faith Gemmill about the impact of offshore drilling in Alaska and Louisiana.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think offshore drilling, Faith Gemmill, should end?

    FAITH GEMMILL: Yes, I strongly think that offshore development needs to stop now. This is a wakeup call. We need to look at this and realize that we have to change what we’re doing. And especially in the Arctic, there should be a moratorium on it, because they don’t know what they’re doing. They’re going into these ecosystems that they don’t understand. And the people that have been there and understand that environment intimately have said it cannot be done here in a safe way. You’re going to destroy everything. And this is an example of what could happen. And yes, there needs to be a moratorium on offshore development.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you believe the same here?

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: Absolutely. I mean, look at what’s happening. You know, there are alternative sources of energy. We need to start weaning ourselves from this, investigating other sources of energy, utilize and implement those sources so that we’re not solely dependent on fossil fuel, you know, consumption. And that’s what it’s going to take. And until that happens, we’re still going to be stuck with this monster, no matter where they are on the planet. And the ultimate cost is going to be ourselves. We’re going to, you know, be the — what — the cause of our own extinction at some point.

AMY GOODMAN: We then moved inside Rosina Philippe’s house, where the Alaskan delegation presented a gift to the indigenous community of Grand Bayou. Faith Gemmill sang a song as a prayer to help the local community survive the disaster, but first Patience Andersen Faulkner explained the significance of the gift.

    PATIENCE ANDERSEN FAULKNER: As is traditional in the Native village of Eyak, or with me, anyway, I always like to bring a present of some sort. This is a healing drum. And that’s just about the only kind I make. And these streamers on here carry names of folks, like your neighbors, all across the places that we visited, so that everyone would know nobody is alone. So the drum shows the unity of the people in Louisiana. The beater happens to have seal, which was impacted by the Exxon Valdez, and sea otter, which was also impacted.

    FAITH GEMMILL: When the first community we met with, as we came here, there were tears, because the oil had just hit the waters right before their shrimping grounds. And it hurt. And all I could give is what I’m going to give. This song is from my great-grandfather. Any time we have an important gathering, any time we need strength and we need prayer, we need to sing this song. And I sing it for the people here as a prayer for the people, to help you all through it. [sings]

AMY GOODMAN: Later that evening, Rosina’s brother showed us an abandoned oil boat that had just been left in the bayou long before the BP disaster. We left Grand Bayou talking about Rosina Philippe’s determination to stay on her land.

    ROSINA PHILIPPE: We’re never going anywhere. We’re going to fight to stay here, because this is more than just our place, you know, like on a map, like a geographical location. This is our place in the universe. This is where we belong. This where we connect with nature. We’re part of this natural cycle. And if we weren’t here, we wouldn’t be who we are.

AMY GOODMAN: Special thanks to Jacquie Soohen and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films and Mike Burke and Anjali Kamat.

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