It has been a painful day for me. Two pieces of news came in this morning: one about the massacre of up to 80 Yanomami people at a settlement in the Amazon, and the other about Obama green lighting Shell’s drilling in the Arctic Ocean. Both are about resource wars that lead to killing—humans and/or animals, fast or slow, one to get gold, and the other to get oil.
“A massacre of up to 80 Yanomami people has taken place in the Venezuelan state of Amazonas,” The Guardian reported. “According to local testimonies an armed group [illegal gold miners] flew over in a helicopter, opening fire with guns and launching explosives into Irotatheri settlement in the High Ocamo area.”
Survival International, a London–based NGO that works with indigenous communities around the world (over the years I contributed my Arctic photographs for their campaigns) stated in a news release, “Witnesses of the aftermath described finding ‘burnt bodies and bones’ when they visited the community of Irotatheri in the country’s Momoi region, close to the border with Brazil.…The attack is believed to have happened in July, but news is only just emerging.”
Today about 20,000 Yanomami people live in small communities in the Amazon rainforest bordering Brazil and Venezuela. I first came to know about the Yanomami from the remarkable photographs of artist–activist Claudia Andujar. In the 1970s Andujar gave up her career as a photojournalist and embarked on an in–depth photo–essay about the Yanomami people. During this time she was witness to, “one of the most significant cultural dislocations to occur in Yanomami history, when the government began construction of a transcontinental highway in Northern Brazil. Villages were razed to pave roads, and the Yanomami suffered a devastating measles epidemic.” Then, during the 1980s, a new kind of devastation came into the Yanomami homeland, when thousands of garimpeiros, illegal, small–scale gold diggers came to the Amazon to make their fortunes. Twenty percent of the Yanomami died in the 1980’s as a consequence of the gold mining intrusion. Also the mining led to environmental destruction. Following a 15–year campaign, in which Andujar’s work played a crucial role, in 1992, with the help of Brazilian anthropologists and Survival International, the Brazilian government established the Yanomami Park “for protection and use by Yanomami people.”
The July massacre wiped out an entire indigenous settlement. Not the first time. One of the worst Indian massacres had taken place in the predawn hours of April 30, 1871, that came to be known as the Camp Grant Massacre, in which nearly 150 Apaches, including children, elders and women from a single settlement in the Aravaipa canyon in Arizona had been brutally killed. Historian Karl Jacoby writes about that incident in his powerful book “Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History.” From the companion website for the book you’ll learn about what Jacoby calls “the most familiar and yet the most overlooked subject in American history—violence against Indians.”
It will take time to figure out the details of the Yanomami massacre, but one thing is for certain, it’s a tragic case of resource wars—gold, in this case. Unfortunately such events will likely increase in the coming decades because much of the last remaining natural resources left on Earth are in lands inhabited by indigenous communities, or underneath oceans on which indigenous communities depend on—Amazon, Arctic, forests of India… Small illegal bands of garimpeiros or big corporations supported by governments will do everything to destroy and displace human and nonhuman communities to extract those resources.
Resource wars connect the Yanomami of the Amazon with the Iñupiat of the Arctic. On August 30, the Obama administration gave Shell the green light to begin drilling in the Arctic Ocean—Beaufort and Chukchi Seas of Alaska. Shell’s spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger is still sitting in Bellingham, Washington, waiting for the US Coast Guard certification. The administration couched their approval with a soft phrase, calling it “preparatory work.” What that means is that Shell will now begin drilling, but won’t get to the hydrocarbon layer until Arctic Challenger is certified and in place, which is expected to happen soon.
I have written extensively about Shell’s Arctic drilling since May 2010 that you can read here. Here is the key concern: the Obama administration, Shell, and the media are all focused on minutiae to distract the public from the real issues, which at its most basic is the fact that the administration has not done an Environmental Impact Statement on the Arctic Ocean drilling, and no one knows how to clean up a spill from underneath the ice, in the harsh conditions of the Arctic.
As I write this, on the table, I have two books. The first one is: “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain Resource Assessment Final Report: Baseline Study of the Fish, Wildlife, and Their Habitats, Volume 1.” It is a 392–page report with chapters titled: “Soils and Vegetation,” “Birds,” “Mammals,” “Fish,” “Human Culture and Lifestyle,” and “Impacts of Further Exploration, Development and Production of Oil and Gas Resources.” Despite the fact that the Reagan administration gagged federal scientists to promote Arctic drilling, his administration did publish this extensive report in 1986. I learnt a lot about the Arctic Refuge ecology from that report.
The second book is: “Cumulative Environmental Effects of Oil and Gas Activities on Alaska’s North Slope.” It is a 288–page book published by the National Research Council, a division of the US National Academies with chapters titled: “The Human Environment,” “The Alaska North Slope Environment,” “History of Oil and Gas Activities,” “Future Oil and Gas Activities,” “Effects on the Physical Environment,” “Effects on Vegetation,” “Effects on Animals,” “Effects on the Human Environment,” “Filling Knowledge Gaps,” and “Major Effects and their Accumulation.” Despite the fact that the George W. Bush administration gagged federal scientists and manipulated major scientific reports to promote Arctic drilling, his administration did publish this extensive report in 2003. It was the first of its kind and remains the most scholarly publication about the cumulative impact of oil development on Arctic tundra. Both reports are about the terrestrial environment of Arctic Alaska. Nothing like that exists about the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas which is home to more than 10,000 endangered bowhead whales, more than 60,000 beluga whales, nearly 4,000 threatened polar bears, tens of thousands of seals and walruses, and hundreds of thousands of sea birds, to name a few species. The Iñupiat people of the Arctic coast depend on the Ocean that they call “the garden,” for their economic, cultural and spiritual survival.
Now, if you ask the Obama administration if there is a report on the Arctic Ocean similar to the 1986 Arctic Refuge baseline study, the answer you will get would be: “nada,” “zero,” “zilch,” “zippo,” “zot,” “golla [that’s Bengali].” On September 13, 2010, Seth Borenstein wrote in an Associated Press story, “Tens of thousands of walruses have come ashore in northwest Alaska because the sea ice they normally rest on has melted. Scientists with two federal agencies are most concerned about the one–ton female walruses stampeding and crushing each other and their smaller calves near Point Lay, Alaska, on the Chukchi Sea. The federal government is in a year–long process to determine if walruses should be put on the endangered species list.” Since then we have heard more than a hundred times that Shell has spent more than 4 billion dollars in their Arctic venture, but have you heard about what’s happening to the walruses? Over the past decade, Arctic warming has very significantly changed the ecological and cultural dynamic of the North and we do not yet have a comprehensive understanding of these rapid changes, yet Shell will drill there now, thanks to the Obama administration.
How is Obama getting away with approving the most dangerous form of drilling anywhere on earth without having done a comprehensive study on the Arctic Ocean to a company that is causing great destruction to the Niger Delta and the indigenous Ogoni people? Allow me to guess. With approving Shell’s drilling Obama has given his boots to the face of the environmental organizations, and us. He has figured he cannot afford to upset Shell (the company might pour too much money to zabbledabble his reelection campaign, thanks to Citizens United), but he can indeed afford to piss off the environmental community, which he believes (my guess) is “wimpy,” because they never challenged Obama, only appealed to him politely, again, and again, and again. Imagine the rage the green groups would have exhibited to a Republican president if she/he had done the things Obama has done: he hasn’t done anything on climate change and didn’t even mention the phrase in his 2012 Earth Day Proclamation—remember his top climate change advisor Carol Browner resigned after realizing she won’t get a thing done under this administration; sold the Powder River Basin of Wyoming to King Coal—a completely unnecessary act; approved the building of the southern half of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and now Shell’s Arctic drilling.
In her testimony in the recently published anthology “Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point” that I edited, Iñupiat elder and community leader Caroline Cannon wrote: “It feels as if the government and industry want us to forget who we are, what we have a right to, and what we deserve. They repeatedly overwhelm us with information, requests, and deadlines, and it seems as if they hope that we will either give up or die fighting. We are not giving up. We must fight.”
The fate of indigenous communities around the world is connected through destructive resource wars. For a long time, dominant cultures had referred to members of tribal communities as “barbarians.” Is a Yanomami barbarian? Is an Iñupiaq barbarian? Is a thug of a plutocratic society barbarian? Time has come to put that word ‘barbarian’ on its head. Indigenous communities are left with no choice but to fight and resist destruction.
By Subhankar Banerjee
31 August, 2012
Subhankar Banerjee is a writer, photographer, and activist. Over the past decade he has worked tirelessly to conserve ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human rights and climate change. He is the editor of a new book, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press) and won a 2012 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award. His Arctic photos can be seen this summer in three exhibitions, all our relations at the 18th Biennale of Sydney, Australia, True North at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, and Looking Back at Earth at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College.