“White people don’t understand our struggle to protect nature. To them, what matters is looting. To them, we are just a market to steal from and take away.” These are the words of Kretã Kaingang: an indigenous leader from the Brazilian state of Paraná, a member of the coordinating body of APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), and a partner of the No Fracking Brazil Campaign. He spoke during the first Great International Assembly of the Alliance of Mother Nature’s Guardians, held in Brasilia from October 11 to 16, which brought together about 200 indigenous leaders from around the world.
Participants from across the globe – from small islands, the Arctic, desert areas, steppes, mountains, and forests – gathered to discuss issues relevant to the future of the planet, such as the climate, biodiversity, and development. Inspired by the struggles and solutions found in their own traditional territories, the participants created a document containing 17 proposals and delivered it to United Nations ambassadors and representatives. The proposals and recommendations were drawn from an existing document that had been drafted in response to discussions held in 2015, in Paris, during COP 21, when the Alliance was created.
On the third day, one of the panels addressed the subject of mining and the exploitation of fossil fuels. Representatives from Brazil, Africa, and Southeast Asia participated in the debate. The panelists shared examples of popular struggles against extractive practices, which are often illegal and irresponsible – for instance, the extraction of oil and gas through both conventional and unconventional methods – as well as the dangers of uranium and gold mining and the pollution they cause. Pulmonary diseases, cancer, and cases of sterility, which affect workers and residents in the surrounding areas, are the problems common to all activities.
For Aboubacar Albachir, leader of the Tuaregue people who inhabit the Niger desert, uranium mining in the country brings no benefit to the national economy – contrary to the claims of developmentalist discourse. “We are the ‘nomadic pastors,’ and with the rural economy, we represent 13% of the national GDP, while the contribution of uranium represents only 7%. We struggle to end ore extraction in our region.” He says that there are French mining companies in his area who know the risks entailed by the process, but who continue with their activities nonetheless.
In Brazil, since the late 1980s, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami has spoken out to the world against the genocide that mining has wrought on his people and their lands. In a document published in 2014 by the ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute), 84 indications of mining were detected within the Yanomami Indigenous Land.
The extraction of gold and other minerals can occur in the open or by drilling into the earth. There is widespread use of chemical compounds such as mercury, cyanide, and uranium, causing severe damage to the health of the environment, water, plants, animals, and people. During this process, the mercury that escapes into the environment contaminates rivers and groundwater. “Contaminating the water means contaminating the plants and the flesh of the animals we eat,” recalled David Kopenawa.
Another harmful form of natural resource-extraction is fracking, an unconventional technique used to remove oil and gas from under the ground through hydraulic fracturing. This technology has already been banned in several European countries, prompting companies located in those countries to direct their activities toward places where the practice is still authorized. In recent years, Brazil has been the target of this expansion. By contrast, specialists, lawyers, legislators, and civil society have mobilized to ensure the protection of Brazilian land. As a result of this mobilization, led mainly by 350.org Brazil and COESUS – No Fracking Brazil Coalition for Climate, Water and Life, more than 350 cities have already passed laws to ban this technique.
“I had never heard the word fracking before, but when I learned about the risks it entails, through the work of 350.org and COESUS, I joined the fight to protect my children, my relatives, my people. We have fought a major battle in Paraná, which was the first state to auction blocks for this activity. I will do my best to stop these companies and keep our resources where they belong: underground,” affirmed Kretã Kaingang. During his speech, Kaingang indigenous people raised signs with slogans against fracking.
The difference between the fracking technique and conventional drilling is that fracking can access sedimentary shale rocks in the subsoil, thus exploiting reservoirs that were previously impossible to reach. To do so, however, millions of cubic meters of water mixed with hundreds of chemicals – many of them carcinogenic – are injected at high pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc. Therefore, fracking can contaminate not only groundwater and surface water, but also important aquifers such as the Guarani Aquifer. It can also contaminate the air and soil. This technique also releases methane gas, one of the main greenhouse gases.
Casey Camp-Horinek, a female leader of the Ponca nation in the state of Oklahoma, United States, discussed the effects of fracking on their land. “In my region, fracking began in 2009, and since then we have had several earthquakes, ranging from 3.5 to 5.8 degrees of magnitude. In addition, we have observed cases of women who can’t give birth, miscarriages, and high infertility rates. We are experiencing tornadoes, droughts, and floods, which are nature’s responses to these activities. We touch its bones and suck the blood from its veins. But we are also responsible for healing it,” she observed.
Petrus Asuy, leader of the Dayak Benuaq people, who live on the eastern side of the Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo, recalled his people’s struggle against the oil companies. “The government causes conflicts among the indigenous peoples themselves. One of the communities in the region got permission from the government to sell and open up their territory to exploitation. Neighboring peoples have tried to dissuade them, but the companies are very powerful. Our struggle has no support from the local or national government. With this meeting, I hope we can strengthen our fight and join forces with our brothers and sisters. The way governments view development is not the same as the way indigenous peoples see development, which is in harmony with nature,” he concluded.