A few days ago I heard someone say that they went to Standing Rock. I wasn’t in the conversation, but just encountering the words “Standing Rock” made me feel revitalized. I remembered how powerful it is to say water is life, how many people that protest affected. I remembered how defending water can be dangerous, and how that hasn’t stopped millions from waking up.
“Water is Life” has become a powerful sentiment for social movements across the world — a great river flowing.
You can see photos of Indigenous peoples in Bolivia, Kenya, and elsewhere holding signs in solidarity with Standing Rock, against the Dakota Access pipeline. A pipeline that has already leaked. This just shows the precariousness of water sources like the Missouri river. The protests of Oceti Sakowin offer a platform for Indigenous sovereignty and show the world that pursuit of fossil fuels will jeopardize both climate and water.
Merely 2.5% of the world’s water is freshwater – that which we drink. And of that, according to US Geological Survey, rivers constitute 1/10,000th of one percent of total water. USGS says “rivers are the source of most of the fresh surface water people use.” As such, we all share responsibility to take care of this lifesource. To create a culture of life that gives new life.
We are not the only ones on this planet who drink water. Rivers are the veins of a healthy ecosystem. In brooks, streams, and deltas, both human and nonhuman life are supported.
Dams threaten all of that. The continued construction of hydroelectric dams and reservoirs displaces Indigenous peoples in order to provide electricity to urban centers. Dams also cut off vital sediments and nutrients, and restrict the flow of water — affecting everything and everyone in the watershed.
Further downstream from dams, lush coastal estuaries dry up, thus threatening the fish, mollusks, and plants that are food lifeways for people and animal alike. And once the land around the river is flooded, the plants drown. Plants that die underwater decay differently, letting out methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide.
For all these reasons, you see a proliferation of social movements against hydroelectric dams around the world. Indeed, the issue is life or death. Berta Caceres, a Lenca environmental protector in Honduras, was murdered. She was targeted in part because she successfully rallied her community to block a dam that would have uprooted them and inundated sacred sites.
When an Indigenous community decides that it doesn’t want a dam, they must be heard. It’s that simple. This is a fundamental right, which Nayeeri and Wixarika peoples in Nayarit, Mexico have recently fought for. New encroachments into their sacred riverland come in the form of a mega-project- the Las Cruces dam. The development has proceeded, despite Mexico’s failure to obtain consent of Indigenous Peoples. Native leaders have called for recognition of the right to consent. They don’t want the dam and were never even consulted about it.
I’ve written about this before: the need for Free, Prior, Informed Consent (FPIC). FPIC has been mostly ignored by institutions, but it is a firm platform of Native resistances. You can find countless examples of land/water protectors who put FPIC on their signs and press releases. Of course, this is only scratching the surface — the hard work of democratic decision making is ongoing. But at least FPIC is a framework for Native sovereignty, since the concept is a result of over 20 years of international work by Indigenous peoples.
You can see a short video in Spanish on the protest against the Las Cruces dam being built on Rio San Pedro Mezquital here (no English version, but it transcends language). Activists who have challenged the dam make a central claim on behalf of both environment and society. As with other protests in Latin America, people have been assassinated, according to locals. One Wixarika leader named Santos de la Cruz Carillo sees a broader fight, saying “This land does not belong to us, since we belong to the earth.”
In Brazil as well, dams are contested. The documentary ‘Belo Monte: After the Flood’ covers this thoroughly. In the state of Nayarit and in each of these regions, dams continue despite widespread protest, leaving unknowns. What happens to people who are forcibly displaced? How is biodiversity affected?
It’s uncertain if there can be a sovereign dialogue between Indigenous nations and outside actors when such projects go ahead without consent of locals. Indigenous peoples will have to continue to fight to determine their own fate, on their own homeland — a right that non-Native communities take for granted.
In the meantime, non-natives can:
– listen to Indigenous peoples
– uphold Native peoples’ right to reject projects they don’t want.
– share, join, and follow Indigenous struggles for the basic right to consent — the right to say no, which goes hand in hand with general consent education: children from a very young age must learn what it is to accept “no” for an answer. Men, companies, and governments need to do the same.