When black plumes of oil began gushing forth from the silent bottom deep in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20th, everyone in South Louisiana reverted to the crisis mode we have all lived in for periods of time since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Our first question became “What can we do to help save our wetlands?” Thousands of willing Louisianians signed up to volunteer in the protection and cleanup efforts, and people began planning to carpool down the road to the coast to help out.
Like a mine explosion, an outbreak of smallpox, or a chestnut blight, BP’s oil spill looked like just another disaster, a tragic mistake made by benevolent capitalists. But like those past tragedies, this oil spill is a predictable consequence of an industrial civilization where risks are not calculated by those who will face the consequences should something go wrong. There was no doubt a deepwater oil spill could rob people of their landbase and their ability to feed themselves, but that consequence was considered an acceptable risk by those who do not live in South Louisiana: those affected by a spill could just move to the city and work for money to buy their food if something did happen. As is always the case, the people weighing these risks were not those who would be denied the ability to feed themselves; they were lawyers, CEOs, and businessmen in corporate offices, where shrimp cocktail plates and grilled fish greet their conference room meetings exactly at 12:30pm every day.
Are the benefits worth the risks? Ask the fishermen and shrimpers and bayou people who live off of the bounty of South Louisiana: is oil drilling worth the risk of destroying the ability of Louisianans to eat seafood and live on the coast? They were never consulted. The decisions about the land were made by people who don’t live on, or rely on, the land. These decisions were made in business offices and – after the proper campaign contributions – they were dutifully echoed in the halls of Congress. They can still be heard to this day in those halls, far from the shattered ecosystems of South Louisiana. They call for an end to the moratorium on new drilling, and use the fear of poverty by those who want jobs to amplify their charade. Even though their fishermen neighbors have been devastated by the spill, politicians scare oil workers that have no other employment options into echoing their big oil agenda. In spite of miles of toxic, oiled marshes, 5,000 dead pelicans and other birds, more than 500 dead sea turtles, and ten times the oil of the Exxon Valdez spill contaminating our homeland, the oil-funded fear-mongers in D.C. can only bring them themselves to ask for more of the same and threaten us with poverty if we don’t give in.
Our story is not a new one. There are some other people who know almost this exact same story already. They live half way around the world, in a country called Nigeria.
Their story begins much the same way as it does in South Louisiana: Europeans arrived in Nigeria, having calculated risks much differently than those who had lived there for thousands of years without destroying their landbase. The colonizers calculated the worth of human beings’ labor and the land they called home, and bought and sold them both as private property. These profiteers weren’t bothered by the consequences of people being enslaved, taken off their land, and murdered through work. They never gave a thought to Nigerian ways of life, and how their actions would impact the systems for living sustainably on the landbase that had been honed to perfection from knowledge handed down through generations.
Slavery is a peculiar institution of capitalism. It is only useful to slave-owners when there is plenty of land, but few willing laborers. This is often the case at capitalism’s frontiers, where people do not have to succumb to wage labor because they still live in intact communities who can feed themselves. Such were the circumstances in the Southern U.S. that gave rise to the plantation economy, one of the many points at which Nigerian and Louisianian genealogy intertwine.
When Europeans arrived, the Native Americans who called South Louisiana home refused to willingly become wage laborers. Knowing the land as they did, they preferred to continue living from it rather than to work for colonizers who wanted to pillage it beyond sustainability. The Native Americans took in many African runaway slaves who felt the same way.
The memory of this generosity between peoples resisting capitalist expansion is alive today in the celebrations of the Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans, and in native communities such as the Houma Nation in South Louisiana. The Houma continue to fight against the oil companies whose pipeline canals have carved up the wetlands and allowed salt water intrusion to erode them. Spread throughout six parishes of Southeastern Louisiana, Houma history, culture, and livelihoods are deeply tied to water. Houma Indians are commercial and subsistence fishermen, and still largely rely on the wetlands for survival. Surviving on marginal land until now, nothing in centuries of hardship has put them more in danger of displacement than this BP spill.
Half way around the world in Nigeria, the residents of the Niger Delta, a vast river delta and marshland ecosystem similar to our own, also live in close relationship to a landbase that sits on vast oil reserves. Many Niger Delta residents are fishermen, shrimpers, and bayou dwellers. As it did here, oil exploration came to the Niger Delta area decades ago, brought by the same corporations we see every day in Louisiana: Shell, BP, Chevron, Texaco, and Exxon-Mobil.
Oil companies promised tax revenues and campaign contributions to the Nigerian government in exchange for the “right” to drill for oil in the Delta– a right which, as in South Louisiana, the politicians had no real authority to give away.
Since drilling began in 1958, and after more than 7,000 spills and 13 million barrels of oil have fouled the Niger Delta, it is one of the most polluted places on Earth. Despite their oil surplus, the people of the Niger Delta are still among the poorest Nigerians; revenues flow to the national government and are never returned to the communities who take the risks, and bear the costs, of the oil drilling. Sound familiar?
James Carville recently said of South Louisiana, “We have not seen a single penny of royalties for oil produced more than six miles off our coast. We assume all of the risk, produce seafood and oil and gas, with none of the reward. Yes, $165 billion of royalties have gone to the federal treasury that could go to help repair this pressing issue.”
The situations in the two Deltas bear striking parallels. Oil companies have been able to buy themselves even greater exemption from regulation in Nigeria than here, and the people are even poorer and have a more polluted Delta as a result. Their situation provides a grim warning as to where Louisiana’s coast is headed.
There is one difference, however, between Southern Nigeria and Southern Louisiana: In the Niger Delta, they have the MEND.
MEND: The Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta
Residents of the Niger Delta have fought the oil companies for decades. They’ve fought for better protections and regulations to stop the oil spills that were destroying their ability to fish, farm, and survive with dignity on unpolluted land. They fought for more oil revenue to come to the Delta in a cruel exchange for losing their way of life. They fought dictatorships and elected politicians alike, who both favored oil drilling in the Delta, while taking all the royalties from it…..as do our two national parties here.
The Nigerians fought peacefully for decades. They organized, they protested, and they created large united movements fighting for justice. They became effective, and so their leaders were murdered and arrested by government and private oil company hit squads. In 1995, after leading a protest movement against Shell, activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was infamously executed at Shell’s behest.
After decades of frustratingly unsuccessful peaceful struggle, a few years ago some smaller Niger Delta outlaw groups united to fight together by any means necessary, to force the oil companies to change their practices. The need for change was urgent: it was fight, face toxic death, or become new slum dwellers in cities, working for peanuts at jobs they hated, if they could even find jobs. This is how MEND was born.
MEND, the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta, have engaged in everything from destroying oil pipelines and giving away free oil, to occupying oil platforms, guns mounted on their fishing boats. They’ve kidnapped foreign employees for ransom, and bombed oil company offices. They’ve declared war against big oil in the Delta.
Can you blame them? What threat is more fundamental, more existential than taking away a community’s ability to feed itself? Native Americans fought back as their buffalo were slaughtered, Native Mapuche warriors in Chile fight logging companies fouling their rivers and destroying their hunting habitat, tribes in West Papua, Indonesia fight against mining by capitalists Freeport-McMoRan, who, in their insatiable quest for gold and copper, are polluting rivers and killing fish the tribes rely on. MEND is fighting back, just like countless people who’ve relied on the land have done, against corporations who decide that someone else’s land, food, and way of life can be sacrificed for the benefit of civilization, profits, and investor dividends. And they use the violence of the state to make sure it is in the end, even if it means killing every last Indian or buffalo. (I’m not sure about that last part of this last sentence… take it out if you want to)
Our Future, Our Decision
The BP oil spill is an accident the same way that fouling the rivers with silt by clear-cutting is an accident. It is an accident the same way the oil company canals destroying our wetlands are an accident. When you hear “accident” from a corporation, it can be translated as “an acceptable risk that was taken with your lives and lands.”
Only the people who live on the land can weigh the risks and benefits of an action that could destroy the entire basis for the community’s survival. They reliably, and intelligently, decide that those kind of risks are not risks worth taking.
For decades in Louisiana, it has been “one damned thing after another,” in the words of James Carville. Caller after caller on WWL radio has said if the Gulf Coast was its own nation, we’d be as rich as Saudi Arabia with all the oil revenues we’d have. Instead, we are part of the perpetually poor Deep South. When will it stop being one damned thing after another here? When will we get to be the ones who decide what happens on our coastline? When will we be the ones to decide which risks are acceptable?
Let’s hope it doesn’t take a fight like the one MEND is waging in Nigeria… but if history is any guide, it just might. We have few other decisions left.
Will the future see the emergence of MELD, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Louisiana Delta? Lord knows we have all the guns we need. Now we must decide what our way of life and our ecosystem is worth to us, to our kids, and to our grandkids. Will we fight for our ability to live from the bayous and the land? Will we fight, or will we surrender to the monstrous pressures of corporations, protected by the police, military, and court system? Will we fight, or will we accept the decisions the politicians make for us, even when those decisions destroy our lives?
The only true decision we have left is about which path to take: resistance, or capitulation. It’s the only decision not taken out of our hands by powerful interests backed by government-caliber guns, and it’s the same decision that has been faced by every people deemed expendable by the insatiable appetite for growth of “western civilization.” It’s a decision that has been nagging in the back of our minds for decades: as Army Corps projects deprived the wetlands of sediment, as US agri-business and industry was allowed to use the Mississippi River as a giant industrial sewer creating Gulf dead zones, as oil pipelines spilled and eroded our wetlands, and as chemicals have rained from the skies and poured as poisons into the water from the oil and chemical refineries of Cancer Alley between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
If such a decision is made, and resistance to this destruction comes to exist, the MELD will always find a welcome place in my home, and I know many people of the Gulf Coast who feel exactly the same way. For a resistance worthy of the love we feel for this place we call home. For the future.
Ray B. is an anarchist who dropped out of high school to summit hop after the Seattle WTO riots and organize against corporate scum from home in New Orleans. He first fell in love with nature during 3 years growing up in the Northwest. He has participated in various environmental and animal rights campaigns, been a FNBer, a squatter, and organizer of solidarity events for West Papuan tribal guerillas. He was a collective member at the Iron Rail Infoshop for years, and has fought for justice alongside the poor fiercely. He enjoys traipsing around the flotant marshes with the alligators when he’s not in school working on his degree in geography.