News / USA

Fragile Indigenous Gulf Tribes Face Uncertain Future

Louisiana natives seek answers from survivors of previous oil spill disasters

The native people of the Louisiana bayous are turning to other indigenous groups that have had to deal with oil industry disasters.
The native people of the Louisiana bayous are turning to other indigenous groups that have had to deal with oil industry disasters.

Multimedia

Audio
David Weinberg

Louisiana's Mississippi delta is home to several indigenous tribes that have been living on these bayous for thousands of years.

But decades of oil and gas exploration have severely altered their way of life. Now, with the BP oil spill casting an even darker cloud over their future, the people of these bayous are seeking advice from other indigenous groups that have dealt with oil industry disasters, from Alaska to Ecuador.

Crisis decades in the making

About 100 people attended a recent forum in Dulac, Louisiana to discuss the crisis caused by the BP oil spill. Already, most of the fishing grounds that this community depends on for food and work are closed because of oil contamination.

Inside the building, plastic tables and chairs were arranged in a massive square, as dozens of indigenous people from five countries took their seats.

"It just didn't start with this big BP spill. It's been going on for decades and decades and decades," said the host of the forum, Thomas Dardar, principal chief of the United Houma nation.

Louisiana's wetlands have been deteriorating steadily since the 1930s as a result of the canals dug by the oil companies.

Oil and gas extraction have also caused the land to sink in some places, but nothing of this magnitude has ever hit the Gulf coast and residents here are worried about what it means for a people who live off the land - and the water.

Tribal council Representative Lora Ann Chaison is upset that her community may never be able to fish or shrimp in the Gulf again.

"I have a hard time dealing with this and so I don't know the answer," she told the group. "I don't know if anybody knows the answer but I know that no one can get a straight answer."

Marine biologist Riki Ott (holding microphone) has been studying the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill for the last 20 years.
Marine biologist Riki Ott (holding microphone) has been studying the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill for the last 20 years.

Lessons from the Alaskan coast

These communities are looking to people like Riki Ott to give them a straight answer about how the oil will affect them.

Ott has a PhD in marine biology and makes her living commercial fishing in Alaska. She has been studying the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill for the last 20 years.

"The morning of March 24, we woke up with a tanker wreck, 11 million gallons [40 million liters], we were told. The oil industry under-estimated, made it smaller than what it was, and we have the same thing is happening here," said Ott. "We have this contingency plan that the industry has that says how they are going to clean up after an accident, and we all see here the same as Alaska. It works a lot better on paper then in practice."

When the spill first washed ashore on Alaskan beaches, Exxon told the natives there would be no long-term harm from the oil. Ott says that was not true.

"And we said we would wait until the pink salmon eggs grow up to become adults, they have babies and their babies grow up to be adults. Four years we waited. Four years, the whole eco system collapsed," she said. "The herring collapsed. The salmon. Everything that ate the herring, the whole ecosystem collapsed in four years."

According to Ott, the herring population has still not recovered to the level it was before the spill. "Scientists say it will take 50 years for the oil to leave our beaches and another one hundred years for the clams to come back."

A lawsuit against Exxon was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the company ended up paying $507 million - about one-tenth of the original jury award - for damages to the environment and local economy.

Luis Yanza, lead plaintiff of the largest environmental lawsuit in history, shares his experiences with Louisiana natives.
Luis Yanza, lead plaintiff of the largest environmental lawsuit in history, shares his experiences with Louisiana natives.

Ecuadorean experience

Of all the people who attended the forum, perhaps no one has more experience fighting oil companies than Luis Yanza. He is the lead plaintiff in what is now the largest environmental lawsuit in history.

In the early 1960s, Texaco began drilling for oil in the remote Amazon rainforests of Ecuador.

By the time Texaco left the Amazon in 1992, it had admittedly dumped more than 56 billion liters of toxic waste directly into the streams and rivers of the Amazon. Today, more than 30,000 indigenous people have been affected by the contamination. Chevron purchased Texaco in 2000, and if the court rules against them, they could be forced to pay up to $27 billion in damages.

The company declined to be interviewed for this story. It claims that the responsibility for cleanup lies solely with Petro Ecuador, the Ecuadorian oil company that was a partner in the consortium that owned the wells.

Documenting the damage

Both Ott and Yanza attended the forum, not only share to their stories, but to provide concrete advice for these communities on how to deal with oil contamination.

Yanza stressed the importance of keeping track of the harm done by the oil.

"People need to document the damages and to do it independently, with independent scientists, credible scientists because, at least in Ecuador, when you go to court the decision needs to be based on evidence. You have to prove damages otherwise a company can evade its responsibility."

Residents like Brenda Dardar Robicheux are worried about the aspects of their culture that no amount of money can replace.

"Lousiana is paying the ultimate price for what the world enjoys, for what the U.S. enjoys. The Houma people, all of us living along the coast of Louisiana, are paying the ultimate price," she said. "So I think it's very important that we speak in one very united voice and stand up for our rights as indigenous people no matter what country we represent, what area we represent because our very existence, our very way of life is being threatened."

There are still many unknowns regarding the long-term effects of the spill but, for the United Houma nation, this is likely the beginning of decades of cleanup and litigation that will determine the fate of a fragile community on the brink of survival.

You May Like

Photogallery Americans Celebrate Thanksgiving With Feasts, Festivities

Holiday traditions include turkey dinners, 'turkey trots,' American-style football and New York parade with giant balloons More

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

With two years left in term, analysts say, president has less to lose by taking conversation on race further More

Video Italian Espresso Expands Into Space

When Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti headed for the ISS, her countrymen worried how she would survive six months drinking only instant coffee More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
To Make A Living, Nairobi Street Vendors Face Legal Hurdles, Physical Violencei
X
Lenny Ruvaga
November 27, 2014 7:05 PM
The Nairobi City Council has been accused of brutality in dealing with hawkers in the Central Business District - in order to stop them from illegally selling their wares on the streets. Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video To Make A Living, Nairobi Street Vendors Face Legal Hurdles, Physical Violence

The Nairobi City Council has been accused of brutality in dealing with hawkers in the Central Business District - in order to stop them from illegally selling their wares on the streets. Lenny Ruvaga has more for VOA News from the Kenyan capital.
Video

Video For Obama, Ferguson Violence is a Personal Issue

Throughout the crisis in Ferguson, Missouri, President Barack Obama has urged calm, restraint and respect for the rule of law. But the events in Ferguson have prompted him to call — more openly than he has before — for profound changes to end the racism and distrust that he believes still exists between whites and blacks in the United States. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Online Magazine Gets Kids Discussing Big Questions

Teen culture in America is often criticized for being superficial. But an online magazine has been encouraging some teenagers to explore deeper issues, and rewarding their efforts. VOA religion reporter Jerome Socolovsky went to this year’s Kidspirit awards ceremony in New York.
Video

Video US Community Kicks Off Thanksgiving With Parade

Thursday is Thanksgiving in the United States, a holiday whose roots go back to the country's earliest days as a British colony. One way Americans celebrate the occasion is with parades. Anush Avetisyan takes us to one such event on the day before Thanksgiving near Washington, where a community's diversity is on display. Joy Wagner narrates
Video

Video Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Opposition to Keep Pushing for Constitutional Change

Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi says she and her supporters will continue pushing to amend a constitutional clause that bars her from running for president next year. VOA's Than Lwin Htun reports from the capital Naypyitaw in this report narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video Mali Attempts to Shut Down Ebola Transmission Chain

Senegal and Nigeria were able to stop small Ebola outbreaks by closely monitoring those who had contact with the sick person and quickly isolating anyone with symptoms. Mali is now scrambling to do the same. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Mali on what the country is doing to shut down the chain of transmission.
Video

Video Ukraine Marks Anniversary of Deadly 1930s Famine

During a commemoration for millions who died of starvation in Ukraine in the early 1930s, President Petro Poroshenko lashed out at Soviet-era totalitarianism for causing the deaths and accused today’s Russian-backed rebels in the east of using similar tactics. VOA’s Daniel Shearf reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests at a Crossroads

New public opinion polls in Hong Kong indicate declining support for pro-democracy demonstrations after weeks of street protests. VOA’s Bill Ide in Guangzhou and Pros Laput in Hong Kong spoke with protesters and observers about whether demonstrators have been too aggressive in pushing for change.
Video

Video US Immigration Relief Imminent for Mixed-Status Families

Tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants in the Washington, D.C., area may benefit from a controversial presidential order announced this week. It's not a path to citizenship, as some activists hoped. But it will allow more immigrants who arrived as children or who have citizen children, to avoid deportation and work legally. VOA's Victoria Macchi talks with one young man who benefited from an earlier presidential order, and whose parents may now benefit after years of living in fear.
Video

Video New Skateboard Defies Gravity

A futuristic dream only a couple of decades ago, the hoverboard – a skateboard that floats above the ground - has finally been made possible. While still not ready for mass production, it promises to become a cool mode of transport... at least over some surfaces. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Falling Gas Prices Impact US Oil Extraction

With the price of oil now less than $80 a barrel, motorists throughout the United States are benefiting from gas prices below $3 a gallon. But as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, the decreasing price of petroleum has a downside for the hydraulic fracturing industry in the United States.
Video

Video Tensions Build on Korean Peninsula Amid Military Drills

It has been another tense week on the Korean peninsula as Pyongyang threatened to again test nuclear weapons while the U.S. and South Korean forces held joint military exercises in a show of force. VOA’s Brian Padden reports from the Kunsan Air Base in South Korea.
Video

Video Mama Sarah Obama Honored at UN Women’s Entrepreneurship Day

President Barack Obama's step-grandmother is in the United States to raise money to build a $12 million school and hospital center in Kogelo, Kenya, the birthplace of the president's father, Barack Obama, Sr. She was honored for her decades of work to aid poor Kenyans at a Women's Entrepreneurship Day at the United Nations.
Video

Video Ebola Economic Toll Stirs W. Africa Food Security Concerns

The World Bank said Wednesday that it expects the economic impact of the Ebola outbreak on the sub-Saharan economy to cost somewhere betweenf $3 billion to $4 billion - well below a previously-outlined worst-case scenario of $32 billion. Some economists, however, paint a gloomier picture - warning that the disruption to regional markets and trading is considerable. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Chaos, Abuse Defy Solution in Libya

The political and security crisis in Libya is deepening, with competing governments and, according to Amnesty International, widespread human rights violations committed with impunity. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video US Hosts Record 866,000 Foreign Students

Close to 900,000 international students are studying at American universities and colleges, more than ever before. About half of them come from Asia, mostly China. The United States hosts more foreign students than any other country in the world, and its foreign student population is steadily growing. Zlatica Hoke reports.

All About America

AppleAndroid