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The Centuries-Long History of Extractive Greed

Two years after spilling 407,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota, the Keystone Pipeline erupted again. In November, a North Dakota portion of the pipeline leaked another 380,000 gallons – adding to the millions of gallons of crude oil that have spilled from pipelines over the last decade, as Undark has reported.

As the climate crisis worsens, the fossil fuel industry has clearly messaged its apathy by continuing to pollute the planet. But these horrific leaks aren’t simply one-off “incidents.” They reveal a long history of oppression on communities of color and the planet.

Colonial economies have depended on the extraction of natural resources and the oppression of people of color as early as the 16th century. This process took many forms – mining for gold and silver in the Global South, the creation of plantations, and the enslavement of Black and Brown people.

Dina Gilio-Whitaker, the author of As Long As Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice From Colonization to Standing Rock, notes how the 19th-century codification of racist ideologies, like Manifest Destiny and the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, allowed the U.S. to assume “ultimate dominion over the lands of America.” 

These ideologies became the backbone of false moral and legal justifications of genocide and slavery, which provided the land and labor for massive extractive operations like the Gold Rush. As historian Howard Zinn states, the removal of Indigenous communities was “necessary for the opening of the vast American lands to agriculture, to commerce, to markets, to money, to the development of modern capitalistic economy.”

Nothing has changed today. The legacy of genocide and ecological destruction continues to live and thrive in the present-day global economy, thanks to the greed of extractive industries and the state power that protects them from community resistance.

In Honduras, water defenders in the community of Tocoa have been killed and imprisoned for organizing against mining companies. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing neoliberal government is helping corporations with their deforestation and land grabs, which are displacing Indigenous communities in the Amazon. In the United States, water defenders organizing against the Dakota Access Pipeline were arrested and violently repressed by a militarized police presence protecting the pipelines. Meanwhile Indigenous protesters opposing the expansion of the leaking Keystone Pipeline are criminalized.

Unfortunately, this is only a minuscule list of examples. But as long the foundation of racism, and genocide is not addressed, corporations will continue to benefit from ecological destruction.

Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips have managed to become the top three companies responsible for the climate crisis we live today, thanks to neoliberal policies that have allowed them to displace Indigenous communities. And they don’t act alone. They have plenty of accomplices in the financial sector.

According to a recent report from the Indigenous Environmental Network, 33 of the world’s largest banks have financed fossil fuel industries to the tune of $1.9 trillion since the 2016 Paris Agreement. JPMorgan Chase alone – the largest fossil fuel financier by a wide margin – poured $196 billion into these extractive projects, including fossil fuel expansion.

According to The Guardian, Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street manage a combined $300 billion in fossil fuel funding. Put together, all three managers are responsible for the management of nearly 10 billion barrels of crude oil alone, responsible for up to 900 million tons of CO2 emissions.

The fight against the climate crisis has been going on for more than 500 years. After all, colonialism, slavery, and extraction are three faces of the same ogre – capitalism – that continues to devour our planet today. And recognizing these intersections is crucial. As researcher Adriana Gomez Bonilla writes in El Cambio Climatico: Alternativas Desde La Autonomía Zapatista, any climate action that doesn’t connect the historic links between the carbon economy, colonialism, capitalism and ecological destruction would be oppressive to Indigenous communities.

Indigenous communities have always considered the relationship between humans, living organisms and Earth to be sacred. From the mexica Tlaltecuhtli, the Lakota Unci Maka, and the Inca Pachamama to the Vedic Prithvi Mata and the Akan Aasase Yaa, virtually all Indigenous communities have always had a concept of Mother Earth as a living organism we must respect – a harmonious relationship disrupted by capitalism and the greed for profit.

Even after centuries of oppression, Indigenous communities have protected, and cared for ecosystems, showing the path forward for treating the climate crisis we are facing today. “Community approaches…informed by indigenous knowledge and local knowledge” the UN’s IPCC 2018 landmark report notes “can accelerate the wide-scale behavior changes consistent with adapting to and limiting global warming.”

But using Indigenous knowledge to tackle the climate crisis isn’t enough. Any climate solution must be centered on Indigenous liberation.

As we continue to address the climate crisis systematically, we can’t turn a blind eye to the draconian legacy of genocide and slavery caused by the state and by extractive corporations. Any climate action must hold them accountable and prioritize the decolonization, land restoration and environmental self-determination of Indigenous communities.

Climate change is a symptom of a malevolent virus borne out of capitalism and colonialism. And to heal the planet, Indigenous liberation provides a cure.

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