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Fish and Oil: Sorrow, Survival and Solidarity in Louisiana's Bayou

Mitchell Anderson

I spent last week in southern Louisiana, in a region I had never visited before.  My first impression was one of sadness; a long profound melancholy that seemed to reside in the landscape: the spires of drilling rigs, the rising murky water, the stagnant sinking marshes, the faint mix of saltwater and burning oil from the Gulf, the rusting pipelines and dead wetland trees. Taken together, there was a sense that something terrible had been occurring there for many years.  Something fundamental, something which preceded the current oil disaster, something irreversible and wrong.


"Fish and oil, fish and oil."  I heard this strange and perverse couplet many times during the week - over fried shrimp dinners, on boat tours, in community forums, and walking along the desolate beach on Grand Isle and the flooded Isle de Jean Charles.  The utterance had the bizarre ring of prophecy, of brute reality, of what shouldn't have been the case, but is, nonetheless.  Ironically, the coastland of Louisiana is the most productive seafood estuary in the country, while the coast and adjacent Gulf waters contain the most productive offshore oil patch.  Now, the seafood is contaminated, the oil is spreading in the marshlands, and despite the ongoing calamity, the oil industry is fighting tooth and nail to reserve the right to keep drilling off the coast.  

I was with a delegation of indigenous and campesino leaders from the Ecuadorian Amazon, who know all too well about fish and oil.  They have been suffering for the last forty years as a result of Texaco's (now Chevron's) oil contamination in their rainforest homeland.  They had come to meet with the Houma and Atakapa tribes, Native Americans who have been living off the water and land of southern Louisiana for hundreds of years.  They had come to learn firsthand about the oil disaster plaguing the Gulf Coast, and to share their own stories and lessons from the Amazon on how to cope with the lasting, pernicious impacts of severe oil pollution.  

It was a kind of redemption of industrialized globalization.  Communities devastated by the impacts of a bloated global industrial growth model coming together to share in pain and hope.  I feel honored to have been a part of the encounter, and outraged to have seen how much has been destroyed.  And I feel compelled now to share what I witnessed.

Impressions from the Bayou

Mud-stained and rain-soaked American flags droop over rickety abandoned houses.  Telephone poles rise out of marshlands near underwater graveyards.  Oil clean up crews and bird rehabilitation units work on converted seafood loading docks.  Government officials speak of "an invasion of oil." Native American women speak of the next great storm.  The paperwork and bureaucracy of the British Petroleum claims process punishes locals.  Miles of snaking orange boom lies abandoned on desolate beaches.  The heavy weight of industrial language is spoken over gumbo dinners:  boom, sand berm, skimmer, rock levy, relief well, spill zone, oil sheen, treatment plan, containment dome, top kill, controlled burn, chemical dispersants.  

The Houma and the Atakapa people told us of their dreams, of their fears, and of what is at stake in the bayou: Great Egrets, Laughing Gulls, Blue Heron, Muskrats, Alligators, Blue Crabs, Speckled Trout, Black Drum, Garfish, Tilapia, Amberjack, Sheepshead, Shark, Red Snapper, Grouper, Pompano, the spring breeding grounds of fish, crab, shrimp, whales, crawfish boils, fishing rodeos, memories, the sweetness of the early morning sun before a day of fishing- an entire way of life.  

A Century in the Bayou

From more than forty miles offshore, the oil migrates past the barrier islands into the marshlands, clinging to weeds and wings, riding in on the weather, sinking to the sea floor, floating to the surface, arriving on the beaches and in the bayous, mixing with sand, algae, fish.  And the media is screaming, "the horror, the horror." But strangely, and unfortunately, the BP disaster is not the root of the problem - nor is BP just the "bad seed" of the oil industry.  An industrial ghost has haunted the bayou for the last century. 

One can see it in the warm, terrible glow of gas flares silhouetted by the darkened, stormy sky.  One can see it in the spires of offshore drilling rigs and platforms.  One can see it in the eyes of the confused, screaming birds with oil-soaked wings.  One can see it in the flooding of the Isle de Jean Charles, the sinking of the marshlands, and the oil channels and pipelines cutting through the Bay of Baptiste.  One can see it in the sheen of oil coating the bays and choking the marshes.   

But there is much that goes unseen - the cloak of time is often blinding and the ghost of industry has used it well, working slowly and methodically over the last century in its profitable destruction of the gulf coast ecosystem. 

It started more than a century ago when the Mississippi was levied to the teeth with industrial ambition.  The levies starved the wetlands of fresh water flow and halted the needed deposits of river sediments.  Soon, as a consequence of the depleting sediments the marshlands began to sink and flood. Then came the oil industry in the 1920's and 1930's, cutting access canals and laying pipelines, which eliminated the natural barriers to saltwater flow and increased the salinization of the waters to a perilous degree. 

Today, due to all of this industrial engineering, a phenomenon known as saltwater intrusion poses a grave threat to the marshlands, which thrived for eons on the harmonious balance of Mississippi River fresh water and Gulf of Mexico salt water.  The oaks, palmetto, cyprus, and persimmons, which once flourished in the bayou, have died.  The marshlands continue to sink as a result of the extraction of crude oil from the depths of the earth. 

Over the last century, the wetland ecosystem of the Gulf has transformed from a stunningly pretty and pristine seafood estuary to a salty, sinking place - vulnerable to storms, hydrologically off-balance, and now contaminated with oil and toxic chemicals.  

How did this happen? 

I posed this very question to Michael Dardar, a leader of the Houma people, during a boat tour of the Bay of Baptiste.  He told me, "In Louisiana the oil industry creates the rules of the game. They don't need to justify themselves. They just play by their own rules."

The oil industry has a death-grip on Louisiana politics.  Over the last century the industry has managed to gut state environmental regulations to such a degree that essentially all oil-related waste is legally considered "non-toxic" in Louisiana.  This has helped make the state a dumping ground for oil-related refuse from across the country.  Filled with heavy metal and carcinogen-laced oil sludge, cargo trucks and trains barrel down the highways and railroads of America, aiming for their final destination; the territory of the Houma people, who have been living off the land and waters of the Louisiana coast for centuries.  Now their territory is pock-marked by oil pits and refuse heaps.  Toxic dust blows into the homes of the Houma people in the dry season, while poisons leach into the communities during the wet, stormy months.  

The Houma people have been fighting for legal recognition of their territory since shortly after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, when America paid 15 million dollars to the French for 828,800 square miles of land, encompassing 14 states.  Most recently, it has been the oil and gas industry that has served as the greatest obstacle to the federal recognition that the Houma have sought for nearly two centuries.  Lawyers for the industry have repeatedly petitioned the Bureau of Indian Affairs to deny the United Houma Nation federal recognition.  The unspoken reasoning: federal recognition would give the Houma more power to defend their own lands against oil industry abuse, and potentially create precedent for the Houma to hold the industry accountable for past profiteering and abuses of their land and rights.  

Words from the Bayou:

Just yesterday I received an email from Michael Dardar, the Houma leader who accompanied us on the boat tour of the contaminated Bay of Baptiste.  He expressed how heartened the Houma people were to have met with the Ecuadorians. He also included an essay that he had written, entitled:  The Beginnings of Sorrows:  The Houma People and The Resource Wars.  Written in blood and memories, the essay recounts the centuries of struggle of the Houma people and looks at other indigenous struggles over rights, resources, and land.houma.jpg

The first section, entitled Shadows of the Past, delves into the meaning of a recently-created symbol that goes by the same name. As Michael writes in the introduction:

"The Shakchi-Houma or Red Crawfish has always been and continues to be the emblem and icon of the Houma Nation. "Shadows of the Past" has become a different symbol for Houma people, a more personal one, telling our modern tale of conflict and survival.

Dardar quotes Louise Billiot, who designed the symbol, as she describes the meaning behind the red, yellow, black, and white banner:

"Yellow represents the morning sun when our fishermen, in boats, would leave home for their day's catch of seafood... black represents the evening sky when our fishermen would return home from the day's work on the water... the line between the two represents the horizon as it is seen out on the water with reality above and its reflection below... the white boat represents our Indian people's boats and pirogues used for shrimping, hunting and trapping... the larger red boat behind the smaller boat represent the recreation fishermen and the oil industry boats that have taken over the waters that provided the living for our families... the red diamond shape represents the riches of our lands taken since the oil companies invaded our waters... the shape of the white oil derrick inside the diamond represents the oil rigs that have cut into our homeland bringing salt water intrusion and coastal erosion." 

Oil, salt, a sinking marsh, and the sheer strength and resilience of the Houma people.  I have never been so saddened and inspired.  Over my life I have seen the way a soul can break under the weight of abuse, the way a spirit can succumb after years of destruction, the way hope can fade when a people are abandoned.  But in the bayou of southern Louisiana, I saw an unbreakable dignity - a spirit that declared: there is beauty in the world and it is worth fighting for. 

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Mitchell Anderson is the Corporate Campaigns Director for Amazon Watch.  He is currently in the northern Peruvian Amazon, set to head upriver to meet with the Achuar people of the Pastaza and Morona river basins, who are fighting to keep their territory free from oil companies.  Stay tuned for another dispatch from the frontlines of resistance.

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