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Eco-Roundup: How Oil Companies 'Redwash' Pipelines as Indigenous-Friendly

At the end of every month, I assemble a round-up of stories I’m following and issues I’m covering, with palate cleansers at the end.

I just started as a senior editor for the latest season of investigative journalist Amy Westervelt’s excellent podcast Drilled, and the first few episodes and articles are up. “The Real Free Speech Threat” is focused on the criminalization of land and water defenders globally — a topic I’ve covered for a long time. I was especially excited to see that we were including a story by journalist Geoff Dembicki on “redwashing” in Canada, where oil and gas companies attempt to paint their projects as being led and embraced by Indigenous people.

As Geoff put it, fossil fuel companies are “loudly proclaiming support for Indigenous self-determination while deploying militarized force against protesters who don’t want polluting projects on their territories,” and there’s one think tank in particular that has pushed this strategy: the Macdonald Laurier Institute. It’s part of this global network of right-wing groups, called the Atlas Network, that seeks to advance corporate- and rich people-friendly policies — including silencing climate and environmental activists. (Stay tuned for more on Atlas in later episodes.)

The MLI document that really blew my mind was a 2013 white paper by this ex-military guy Douglas Bland, who spends 50+ pages speculating on whether and when a “First Nations insurgency” will occur in Canada. Driving the likelihood of such an insurgency, Bland argues, is “the warrior cohort” —disenfranchised, Indigenous men between the ages of 15 and 29. And at risk is Canada’s network of “critical infrastructure,” particularly railroads and oil pipelines carrying coal, tar sands oil, and other products. To prevent insurgency, Bland recommends a combination of educating the youth (“not because it is the right thing to do but because research demonstrates that young people with a high school diploma and a job are very much less likely to become criminal or political security risks”), providing First Nations a financial stake in industry projects, and increasing the presence of security forces that can threaten deadly force against whoever disrupts transportation infrastructure.

This paper apparently has been around for awhile, but I’d never seen it, and it reminded me so much of the militarized response to the Indigenous-led movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota, three years after the paper was published.

There are all kinds of things wrong with this paper — not least that the guy repeatedly laments the fact that there’s not an “easy solution,” which seems to mean Indigenous people disappearing or fully assimilating. “Time, however, provides no quick solution to this deformity in our society. First Nations communities are not aging, and they are not about to disappear,” Bland states, continuing, “As the First Nations community grows, social difficulties expand exponentially. The easy resolution of these problems – if there ever were readily available policy options and if these could ever be defined as easy – vanishes over an ever-receding horizon.”

Old-school, genocidey vibes, eh?

Geoff points out that a lot of the ideas laid out in Macdonald Laurier Institute papers came to pass. An example that I’ve been paying special attention to is what’s known as the C-IRG, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s Community Industry Response Group. It’s a federal police unit designed specifically to confront Indigenous-led protests against industry. Brett Forester at CBC just published a bunch of fascinating internal documents describing the origins of this group. It seems that Standing Rock was one of the events that convinced Canada to create this police force. Since it started, it’s been involved in multiple crackdowns on Indigenous-led protests. (The piece references Andrew Crosby and Jeff Monaghan’s reporting on the RCMP’s Project SITKA, a related effort that identified Indigenous “threats.” I recommend reading more about that in their book, Policing Indigenous Movements.)

Funnily enough, that 2013 white paper actually warned that a unit like this could backfire. “While the federal government could create a rapidly deployable mobile force, it would soon become obvious that it was aimed at Aboriginal communities. That suspicion might provoke an angry Indigenous response,” Bland wrote. Indeed, in the face of a bunch of lawsuits and complaints filed by land and water defenders against the C-IRG, a civilian review agency that monitors the RCMP is in the middle of an investigation into the unit’s activities. CBC reports that they’ve hired an Indigenous-led law firm to lead the investigation. "What we've really been hired for is to do so in a decolonial, Indigenized and trauma-informed manner," said one of the founding partners. Whether this will amount to Indigenous-led police accountability —or redwashing — is yet to be determined.

In case you missed it:

In my gig as a podcast editor, I get to review scripts and share thoughts about what’s missing or should be amplified in episodes and articles. In case you haven’t followed Drilled, Amy has been running this podcast since 2017. Every season tackles a topic related to climate crisis accountability. For example, to prep for this gig, I listened to her season on Chevron’s prosecution of attorney Steven Donziger, who sought accountability on behalf of Indigenous Ecuadorians for oil contamination in the Amazon. I’ll be thinking for a long time about this particular episode describing how Chevron also went after documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, whose film Crude chronicled the Ecuadorian legal fight.

Along with Geoff’s print article, the first two audio episodes in “The Real Free Speech Threat,” are also out. The most hilarious/terrifying thing in episode 2 is when police in India interrogate activist Disha Ravi on how she knows Rihanna. (She doesn’t.)

“The Marlin mine was emblematic and became a model for how to do business.”

Drilled isn’t the only outlet launching a project on criminalization of land and water defenders. One of the most dedicated reporters on this issue, Nina Lakhani, is heading up a series for the Guardian that looks really good. The first piece up focuses on resistance to the Marlin gold and silver mine and how Guatemala became a “playbook for polluters.” And a second piece examines the case of a 54-year-old arrested resisting construction of the Enbridge Line 3 oil sands pipeline, whose felony charges went to trial in Minnesota this week.

"120,000-plus people in Texas prisons who the Tribune apparently does not think merit coverage anymore."

I was disgusted last week to see that the Texas Tribune laid off its criminal justice reporter Jolie McCullough. Jolie has been providing essential coverage of Texas’s sprawling prison system for years, drawing attention to illegal detention of migrants in Texas’s border crackdown, covering a staffing crisis that meant kids were thrown in cells for 23 hours a day, and holding the governor and legislature’s feet to the fire on the deadly impacts of heat in unairconditioned prisons. As LA Times reporter Keri Blakinger pointed out, the layoff means the thousands of people who cycle in and out of the state’s jails and prisons — and their families — are losing a key voice for accountability. Nearby, the Texas Observer imploded not long after publishing its powerful series on deaths in Texas jails in 2021. Neither of that investigation’s reporters, Sophie Novack and Michael Barajas are there anymore.

"Equilibrium will come eventually, but only temporarily, until the next displacement."

As I spiraled out on the death of local journalism, this ode to New York City’s Jamaica Bay, by Jonathan Tarleton, chilled me out. It was published in New York City’s Hell Gate, a newish outlet running the kinds of stories that the alt-weeklies of yore once did. They do good investigative journalism, but also publish pieces rooted in the character and quirks of the city. Importantly they’re run by the workers themselves, so the future won’t be decided in some weird back room where coverage of the state’s most marginalized people can be quietly vetoed. Maybe there’s hope? (Note that you have to subscribe to read their stories, but remember that they’re actually trying to do sustainable, worker-led journalism! It’s worth it.)

“We now have the power to let go of the oil companies and give victory to land, water and life.”

Ok one other hopeful thing: in a national referendum, Ecuadorians voted to halt oil drilling in a sensitive and biodiverse part of the Yasuní National Park. It took more than a decade of fighting by Indigenous people in Ecuador to get to this place, and a win was not certain in a country that has long relied on oil production. Of course, there’s drilling still happening in other parts of the park, and the government has already challenged the results of the vote. Still, in a world like this one, it’s important to take a second and appreciate a small victory for a place and people that have been screwed over for a long time.

Palate Cleansers

I cover topics that are heavy and distressing to take in, so I'm ending these posts with things that make me feel grounded: food, nature, community.

Something Delicious: Outdoor Eating

From NYC: Some friends and I went to the Queens Night Market, and Moon Man's cassava cake blew my mind. I may have eaten three.

From St. Paul: If you are headed to the Minnesota State Fair this weekend, Afro Deli’s sambusas, in the food building, were the best thing I ate. Soft, doughnuty exterior, and satisfyingly savory interior. Apparently they have some brick and mortar locations, including a couple not far from the U of M. Back at the fair, the fried pickles near the Midway were a close second place.

From my backyard: I made this salty coconut grilled corn from the PokPok cookbook a few weeks ago, and it was incredible. Try not to boil it for longer than eight minutes, though, and get it on the grill while the coals are still hot. My second try was just ok — though the kind friends who ate it still liked it enough to take the leftovers.

Garden update: Urban Morning Glory

Feeling blessed to come back to Brooklyn from a long trip back to hometown Minnesota to find the garden still overflowing — thanks of course to my tenacious, water-hauling garden-mates. Right now a bumblebee is pollinating a holy basil plant that has gone to seed, and TWO kinds of chiles are growing on plants we’d dismissed as a casualty of our grow light experiment. The once-pathetic parsley is a deep-green bush. I give up on morning glories, though. They’re cool but their chase for the sun ended on a tangle of wires on my roof, where they’re blooming in pink, a story above me. Left behind are barren window box planters and iron security bars.

Bulletin Board: Dance Film Nights

My sweet friend, dancer and filmmaker Julia Discenza, has been co-curating dance film nights in NYC with the dancer-led group CreateART, and if you’re in the city this fall, you should go. There’s so much more to dance film than TikTok and Disney, and it’s exciting to see the way cinematographers use their own kind of choreography to capture dancers’ movement. The next one is September 12 at 7:30 at Millenium Film Workshop in Bushwick, with artist Jessica Ray setting the program. To watch for future dance film nights, follow CreatART’s Instagram.