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
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
“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
“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
“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.
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