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For the past few months, the mainstream media has focused on the environmental and technical dimensions of the Gulf mess. While that's certainly important, reporters have ignored a crucial aspect of the BP spill: cultural extermination and the plight of indigenous peoples. Recently, the issue was highlighted when Louisiana Gulf residents in the town of Dulac received some unfamiliar visitors: Cofán Indians and others from the Amazon jungle.
What could have prompted these indigenous peoples to travel so far from their native South America? Victims of the criminal oil industry, the Cofán are cultural survivors. Intent on helping others avoid their own unfortunate fate, the Indians shared their experiences and insights with members of the United Houma Nation who have been wondering how they will ever preserve their way of life in the face of BP's oil spill.
A culturally rich state, Louisiana has been home to people of mixed racial descent for hundreds of years. In the 18th and 19th centuries, French settlers intermarried with Indian women. The Houma is a Louisiana state-recognized tribe of about 17,000 people which lives along coastal marshes. Traditionally the Indians have survived off the land, working as trappers or fishermen.
According to the Minnesota-based non-profit Native Languages of the Americas, the Houmas are an offshoot of the Choctaw nation. The tribe originally lived in eastern Mississippi but was driven across the state border and later merged with Cajun communities. The Houma dialect of Choctaw has not been actively spoken since the 19th century and currently most tribe members speak English or Cajun French though some elderly converse in a unique Houma variant of Creole French. Before the spill, some Houma Indians were even working to revive their original language.
The BP spill, however, may throw such plans for cultural revival off kilter. Though the Indians have endured the environmental ravages of the oil and gas industry for almost a century, the current environmental disaster could destroy humble fishing villages. "The Gulf spill is an absolute threat on who we are as Houma people and our way of life," commented Thomas Dardar Jr., Principal Chief of the United Houma Nation. "Our homeland and the health of our people are at risk and we must plan for the long-term effects of this catastrophe," he added.
Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes and nearby Isle de Jean Charles are home to Houma as well as native Chitimacha tribe members. According to the tribe's official web site, the Chitimacha settled the bayous of southern Louisiana as far back as 500 A.D. The Indians lived in peace until marauding French began slaving raids into indigenous territory in the 18th century. A twelve year war ensued which the tribe barely manage to survive.
As if that were not challenging enough, the Chitimacha later faced encroachment by French, Spanish and U.S. settlers. According to Native Languages of the Americas, Chitimacha is now an extinct language though some of the younger generation is working to revive it. In the 18th century, most Chitimacha adopted Cajun French and the last native speaker died in 1940. Currently, 350 Chitimacha remain on the tribe's Louisiana reservation.
Along local bays and lakes, the Houma and Chitimacha search for shrimp, fish, crabs, oysters and crawfish. Already, however, BP's oil spill has ruined oyster plots, soiled crab traps and cut off shrimp trawlers from prime fishing grounds around Bayou Pointe-Aux-Chenes. On Isle de Jean Charles the culture of the "French Indians," as they call themselves, has been vanishing for some time. Even before the oil spill, many younger Indians weren't getting into fishing or shrimping as the business had become less lucrative. If the shrimping business goes belly up, much of the local culture along the bayous could vanish as well. That is because French is passed along on the shrimping boats as young boys learn to fish using the native French vocabulary.
From Cajuns to Atakapans
Losing the Bayou to an environmental disaster is bad enough, though the prospect of cultural extermination of Francophone Louisiana is arguably just as serious. In the 1700s, French-speaking people in Acadia — now part of Eastern Canada — refused to swear allegiance to the British. As a result, the French, or Cajuns as they came to be known, were exiled and took up life along remote Louisiana bayous.
Though life was physically challenging in their new home, the Cajuns enjoyed the incredible seafood bounty and striking natural beauty. Today, the Cajun population ranges from some 40,000 to half a million, depending on how strict a cultural definition is used. In some Louisiana towns, one can hear happy go lucky zydeco music on the radio, hosted by D.J.'s speaking the local patois. It's not uncommon to see people eating fried fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Head over to the town of Grand Bayou and you won't see any cars, just water and boats. The town is home to Atakapa-Ishak Indians, and their very survival is now jeopardized by the BP spill. The tribe, which is spread out over Texas and Louisiana, was originally a hunting and gathering society. In the late 19th century, the Smithsonian sent a linguist to the Gulf coast to write an Atakapan language dictionary but the expert gave up after he failed to uncover the language's origin.
The project stalled until the 1930s, when an anthropologist finally found a native speaker and finished a dictionary which now lies at the Smithsonian. Today, several hundred people claim to be descendants of the Atakapa, though the federal government has so far failed to extend official recognition to the tribe. Community members are a mixture of Native American, black and Cajun, some of whom still speak French at home.
Grand Bayou is a community which lives off fishing. For years the tribe witnessed the loss of native wetlands, encroachment by the oil and gas industry and even hurricanes. Now, as a result of the oil spill, fishing and shrimping has ground to a halt. Grand Bayou residents are also concerned that chemicals used to disperse leaking oil could hurt fisheries for decades.
Amazonians Head to the Gulf
What could Amazonian leaders hope to add to the environmental discussion afflicting the Gulf? At first it might seem outlandish that South American Indians would tour areas of the Bayou affected by the BP spill and meet with the Houma. Yet Amazonian indigenous peoples have a lot of experience protecting their culture from oil disasters. At a town hall, the Ecuadorans spoke with the Houma and presented a report about severe oil contamination which was carried out in conjunction with the hard hitting environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch.
While the U.S. public is now focused on BP, few are aware of another devastating ecological disaster which hit Ecuador. For years Texaco (now Chevron) dumped millions of gallons of crude into the rainforest and left hundreds of unlined pits in the jungle. The Indians claim that the contamination caused outbreaks of illness, birth defects and cancer. To get a sense of the horrible after effects, be sure to catch the recent documentary film, Crude. Today, thousands of Amazonian Indians are pressing a historic lawsuit against Chevron that, if successful, could provide some environmental remediation.
From a cultural standpoint, oil development in the Ecuadoran Amazon had very disruptive effects. The Tetetes, a tribe which lived near the modern oil boom town of Lago Agrio, was displaced as a result of petroleum development. In the 1970s, missionaries could only find two native speakers of Tetete. Today, the tribe and its language are considered extinct. Other groups including the Siona, Secoya and Huaorani were decimated and lost much of their ancestral lands.
Before Texaco started to drill, the Cofán was a small but thriving tribe numbering some 15,000. Traditionally, the Cofán lived off fishing, hunting and subsistence agriculture. Oil exploration resulted in increased illness, road construction, crimes like murder and rape as well as cultural degradation. Lowland Quichua Indians, displaced by mestizo settlers, moved into Cofán territory. Thus began a process of "Quichuisation" of the Cofán, who in addition faced a growing wave of outsiders including missionaries, settlers and oil companies.
After thirty years of oil drilling, the Indians' numbers were reduced to less than a thousand and the native language placed in great jeopardy. Today the tribe is slowly trying to rebuild its culture by instituting bilingual education programs in Cofán and Spanish. School dress codes meanwhile require traditional clothing, and elder shamans are doing their utmost to transfer their medicinal knowledge to youth.
Perhaps, if there is any silver lining to the BP tragedy, it is that the oil disaster will bring indigenous peoples together. Like the tenacious Cofán, native peoples of the Bayou are determined to hang on in the face of adversity. The Cajuns, having already been expelled once from their homeland, are in no mood to give up or relinquish their independence. James Wilson, assistant director of the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, recently remarked "I would not expect to see any great migration away, regardless of what happens to these communities. It's a life-or-death decision for them: People can't see a life anywhere else. If they can't live the life that they're used to within their culture, then that is death."
Now that the BP story is fading from view, Bayou people hope that the rest of the country continues to pay attention to their plight. For far too long they, as well as other indigenous peoples from the Amazon rainforest, have paid a disproportionate cultural price owing to oil development.
What if, instead of a nasty oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the U.S. public was now confronted with a natural catastrophe in the Grand Canyon or in California Redwood forests? Within the popular imagination, certain types of ecosystems elicit more sympathy than others, and very low on the totem pole are mangrove forests. Located in the tropics, mangroves are a mess of thick, tangled salt-tolerant trees and shrubs which thrive in brackish tidal waters. When I paddled through the Florida Everglades in a canoe some fifteen years ago, I found mangroves bizarre looking: trees have long roots which stick out above the water level.
Perhaps because they are swampy and inhospitable, mangroves have failed to capture the public's attention. Yet, they fulfill a vital environmental purpose as they are home to a wide diversity of plant and animal life. What's more, their myriad exposed roots provide a nursery for many commercial and recreational fish species, including shrimp and spiny lobster. Above water, they serve as a nesting and foraging area for wading and fish-eating birds.
While whales and dolphins are adored by the public and receive attention from environmentalists, few are aware of other aquatic mammals such as manatees and dugongs which rely on mangrove habitat.
What will it take for the public to become more aware of these vital swampy ecosystems? Tragically, some may only learn of their existence as a result of the ecological crisis afflicting the Gulf of Mexico. There, the BP spill poses a direct threat to 800 square miles of U.S. mangrove habitat located in Louisiana, Texas and the southern tip of Florida. Since 1980, upstream development and damming have felled 30% of Gulf Coast mangroves, and the oil disaster could well finish the job.
Antecedents in Venezuela
It's not the first time oil has posed a threat to mangrove ecosystems. I first became aware of this insidious connection while carrying out research on my dissertation which dealt with the environmental history of oil in Venezuela. In the early twentieth century, subsidiaries of Standard Oil and Royal Dutch Shell moved into the Lake Maracaibo area, located in the westernmost section of the country, with dire consequences for the environment.
Prior to the oil boom in the 1920s, wildlife on the east bank of Lake Maracaibo thrived within jungle and marshes. On the coastline grew mangroves which supported distinct microhabitats of birds, mammals, reptiles, gastropods, crustaceans, insects and fish. One naturalist reported that jaguars prowled local mangroves and "in some of the mangrove swamps near Maracaibo their trails are frequently found." Manatees, sawfish and caymans meanwhile plied the lake's mangrove waters.
Though mangrove contamination must have surely occurred, it's difficult to calculate the exact damage as we don't know the precise location of all these ecosystems during the first years of the oil boom. The death of local mangroves could have led to the destruction of habitat for many other organisms such as oysters and crabs, which typically live on and among aerial roots or in sediments. These would have been killed directly by smothering and/or toxic effects.
In general, oil enters mangrove forests at high tide and is deposited on aerial roots and sediment surface when the tide goes down. Mangroves can be killed by heavy or viscous oil which covers breathing pores on aerial roots, thus depriving the subsurface roots of oxygen. Mangroves can also be killed if oil penetrates sediments, through toxic effects of oil on subsurface roots. Root cell membranes are damaged, which impairs their normal salt exclusion function. The resulting influx of salt is a source of stress to the plants.
Some local mangroves were located right in the crosshairs of local oil development. Take, for example, the great swamp of Lagunillas which occupied 10 square miles and was covered in mangroves and other aquatic vegetation. One ornithologist remarked that "on the large cienaga at Lagunillas there were thousands of tree ducks...While not allowing a close approach when resting on the water, these ducks when flying seemed to have little fear of a boat." Unfortunately, oil fouled local waters and in 1928 petroleum actually ignited on the lake itself, leading to a large conflagration.
From the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico
Having trammeled the environment in Venezuela, the oil industry moved on to the Middle East where it encountered more mangroves and an aquatic mammal called the sea cow or dugong, cousin of the Lake Maracaibo manatee. Off the coast of Bahrain, large seagrass pastures supported 2,000-3,500 dugongs, creatures which inspired mariners of old to envision mermaids.
Carrying out oil exploration in such close proximity to mangroves in the Persian Gulf was bad enough, but in 1991 the situation became even worse with the onset of war between Iraq and the U.S. At one point, the Persian Gulf became the site of massive oil spills, some of them the result of bombing and artillery barrages which targeted storage tanks and refineries.
Yet Iraq, which intentionally dumped oil from several tankers into the Persian Gulf in an effort to ward off a potential landing of U.S. marines, may have been the greatest environmental culprit. During the Gulf War, no fewer than 1 million barrels of oil contaminated local waters, with some estimates ranging up to a whopping 6 million barrels. Major mangrove forests were seriously damaged, hundreds of dolphins and porpoises died, and, catastrophically, between 20-30,000 seabirds perished including flamingoes, herons and cormorants.
Environmentalists grew particularly concerned with the fate of Bahrain's Tubli Bay, a complex system of flats and mangroves. Home to dugongs, sea turtles and shrimp, Tubli lay in the path of one damaging spill which had spread all the way from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait. As the spill hit, it killed off plankton and algae which fed local fish.
A Collective Moral Failure
While oil spills are devastating for the environment in general, they are particularly damaging for mangroves. That's because oil persists far longer within such ecosystems. One mangrove expert has remarked, "Never, ever let oil get into a mangrove coast. You'll never get it out. It's like a sponge you rub on a greasy bacon pan. You need very hot water and a lot of soap, and you still might just give up and throw away the sponge."
Once contamination takes place, the possibility of recovering the environment may be limited: if mangrove prop roots become oiled the entire mangrove tree may die. What's more, because mangrove trees grow so slowly, replacing them can take decades. In the Gulf of Mexico, forests are tightly bunched and as a result people won't be able to get into swamps to wipe them down. In addition, there are literally hundreds of millions of trees.
Perhaps the only way to save some forests may be to laboriously scrape away a thin surface layer of soil to allow plants to grow. Scientists stress, however, that it's important not to push petroleum under the surface or remove rootstalks lying just beneath the surface. In addition, if there's a lot of oil this will complicate any rescue effort as rising and falling tides will simply add new coatings of crude.
While all logistical and technological means should be deployed to save Gulf mangroves, realistically we could be looking at significant damage all across the region. At this point, our best hope may be to minimize the environmental loss that's already occurred and hopefully head off a full scale disaster in the Florida Everglades.
Sadly, it may take a further tragedy for people to wake up to what we have lost. Experts agree that one of the most vital services performed by mangroves is to protect human settlements from storm surges and wind storms. It's a particularly crucial asset to consider in the hurricane-battered Gulf region. If Gulf mangroves are destroyed, a vital buffer will be eliminated. Additionally, the current BP oil spill could give rise to a vast surplus of potentially lethal hardwood.
Why has it been so difficult to acknowledge the important environmental services provided by mangroves? Harsh and forbidding, these habitats don't capture the popular imagination to the same degree as other national treasures. Slow moving manatees and sea cows aren't nearly as well known as dolphins. If this disaster reveals anything, however, it is the fundamental fallacy of this mindset and the need to preserve all ecosystems and creatures equally.