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Gulf activists say: ‘Corporations must pay for environmental damage’

Published Jul 15, 2010 10:57 PM

On June 25 more than 300 people attending the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit took part in a People’s Movement Assembly organized around global ecological justice and environmental racism. This is Part 2 of Piette’s coverage.

Survivors of Hurricane Katrina and
BP oil spill propose actions at Social Forum.
WW photo: Betsey Piette

A particularly moving part of this People’s Movement Assembly was a panel of speakers from communities of color in the Gulf of Mexico region. They were first displaced because of devastating hurricanes, starting with Katrina in August 2005, and then because of the enormous environmental destruction caused by the explosion and oil gush of BP’s deepwater well.

Jamie Billiot spoke on behalf of 17,000 Indigenous people from the United Houma Nation, living in marshes in southwest Louisiana who, for many generations, made their living fishing but can do so no longer. “We are forced to work for BP and ExxonMobil. We have to force these companies to take responsibility for the damage they are doing.”

The loss of jobs in the fishing industry has also taken a heavy toll on the Vietnamese-American community on the Gulf Coast. John Win, a youth organizer with the Vietnamese Americans Community Association in New Orleans, noted that among the roughly 40,000 Vietnamese Americans who live in the area, 80 percent of families — mostly employed in the fishing industry and restaurants — have been affected by the oil spill.

“BP pays claims up to $500 per month, which is not enough when you have families to feed, boat loans to repay and housing debt,” Win said. “There is also a serious problem of risk to mental health including depression and even suicides by people who can’t work any more.”

“The debate on immigration, on migration, is really a debate on displacement,” stated Colette Pichon Battle, program director with the Gulf Coast Fellowship for Community Transformation in Slidell, La., who had also participated in a panel of Katrina survivors at the 2007 U.S. Social Forum in Atlanta.

“After a painful five years people have just rebuilt their houses, just started their families again, just come back,” Battle said. “Now we’re being displaced again. It’s happening in the Gulf Coast because of oil, because of gas, because of industry — it’s time for us to stand up and stop what is happening.”

Battle placed the blame squarely on the destruction of wetland marshes by channels created by the oil industry to move their tankers and machinery. “These storms — Katrina, Rita, Gustoff, Ike — that hit us all in the last five years, caused so much damage because wetlands have been absolutely decimated.

“In disasters like Katrina things happen that don’t get talked about — people get killed,” Battle continued. “Recently in New Orleans, police officers came forward to admit they shot people on the bridge who were just trying to leave the city. The prison population in Louisiana is the largest in the world. After Katrina, schools in New Orleans were privatized; they start tracking Black children in the fourth grade to figure out how many prison beds they’ll need down the road. This all connects to the wetlands — if not for that destruction, these things wouldn’t have happened.”

Tanya Turner, an activist with Mountain Justice in Kentucky, spoke on the impoverishment of isolated communities in the eastern part of her state and the devastation caused by the coal industry’s practice of removing entire mountain tops and dumping the resulting rubble into streams as “valley fills.” “We have the best politicians that coal money can buy,” she said wryly.

Navaho environmental activist Jihan Gearon concluded the panel by describing conditions on her Arizona reservation, home to oil, gas, coal and uranium industry expansion. “We are economic hostages, intentionally and purposely put in a situation where our economic development depends on us agreeing to the destruction of the environment and our homes.”

Following the presentations, the attendees broke out into several regional and one international group to take up action proposals, including mobilizing against Arizona SB 1070 on July 29; coordinated actions in solidarity with Gulf Coast residents on Aug. 29 in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina; and strategies to push for proposals around ecological justice raised at the April 2010 climate conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia.