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Why Sacred Places Matter

Film series tells the stories of eight embattled indigenous communities around the world

This story originally appeared in Triple Pundit

In the last month, Native Hawaiians blockaded construction machinery headed for the top of sacred Mauna Kea, where a 30-meter telescope is to be built. Thirty-one people were arrested. In Arizona, members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe walked 45 miles to Oak Flats and occupied a ceremonial initiation site that the US Congress has handed over to a London-based mining company for a copper mine. In California, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe continues their fierce opposition to government plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam, which would flood Winnemem sacred sites.

photo of Chief Caleen SiskPhoto by Christopher McLeod Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe is fighting US government plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam.

Sacred places are alive in the hearts and minds of native people around the world. Mountains, springs, lakes, rivers, trees, groves, caves — these are sites of ceremony, inspiration and learning for human cultures throughout time. From Mt. Fuji to Uluru, from Taos Blue Lake to the Grand Canyon, sacred lands anchor peoples’ souls to earth.

The public relations push to proclaim national parks as “America’s Best Idea” missed an important historic fact: Sacred places are the oldest protected areas on the planet. This is an old idea. Perhaps it has been buried by monotheistic Christian ideals that instruct man to dominate nature, or capitalist market values that dictate extraction and profit off land that is bought and sold. But long before there was a “protected area movement” to counter environmental threats, there were culturally protected places on every continent. And there still are.

Photo of Sacred Land Film Project MemeBy Christopher McLeod As Standing on Sacred Ground continues to broadcast around the US,
the Sacred Land Film Project has mounted a social media campaign
to publicize the film series. The above meme has been especially popular,
with 56,000 views and 818 shares so far.

Sacred lands are more than esoteric, spiritual sanctuaries. These places protect biodiversity. The World Bank reports that indigenous people make up 4 percent of the world’s population and control 22 percent of the earth’s surface — and on that land is 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity. People whose connection to land goes back centuries …more

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Kinder Morgan Paid Pennsylvania Police Department to ‘Deter Protests’

ACLU calls arrangement “flat out unconstitutional”

Between June and October 2013, Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, paid a local Pennsylvania police department more than $50,000 to patrol a controversial pipeline upgrade. The company requested that the officers, though officially off-duty, be in uniform and marked cars. Kinder Morgan’s aim, according to documents obtained by Earth Island Journal, was to use law enforcement to “deter protests” in order to avoid “costly delays.” 

photo of Tennessee Gas PipelinePhoto by Delaware Riverkeeper Kinder Morgan sought off-duty police officers to “deter protests" and avoid delay of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline upgrade.

It’s unclear if the police department instructed its officers to explicitly “deter protests” but, if officers carried out Kinder Morgan’s request, their conduct would clearly violate the First Amendment rights of protesters. 

“It is politically and socially entirely inappropriate for a private company to be able to hire a police department and use its officers to try to intimidate protesters of one stripe or another,” says David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In a letter to the Eastern Pike Regional Police Department (EPRPD) dated May 1 2013, Duane Jones, Kinder Morgan’s corporate security manager, acknowledged the “controversial nature” of the pipeline project and requested that the local police “provide a visible presence to create a deterrent effect.” The officers began conducting patrols in June 2013 and were paid $54.80 an hour for their off-duty services. The patrols were terminated in October of that year.

The off duty officers were employed in addition to a 24/7 roving private security patrol.

Two weeks after Kinder Morgan sent the letter (described as a “letter of engagement for police services”), the Eastern Pike Regional Police Commission voted to accept Kinder Morgan’s proposal to contract with the department. In an email from the EPRPD to Off Duty Services, a Texas based private security company that administered the contract, the department said that its attorney would “cc you a copy of the contract.” In response to several public records requests, however, EPRPD has said that no contract exists.

 Chief of police Chad Steward declined to comment for this story and referred me to the commission’s solicitor, Thomas Mincer. Mincer also declined to comment.

“If they are actually being instructed to deter protest that’s not okay,” says Mary Catherine …more

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The Silencing of Hector Valenzuela

As the University of Hawai'i was cozying up to GMO giant Monsanto, one of the school's professors says that he was forced to tolerate a climate of 'bigotry, retaliation and hostility' for speaking out on risks of genetic engineering

This story originally appeared in Cascadia Times

The islands of Hawai`i are like a magnet attracting insects from all over the world. Bugs catch a ride on every ship headed to the islands, and state authorities often find bug species they’d never seen before. And the bugs stay.

As Hawai`i has no winter frost to beat back pests, over time this accumulation of bugs started to become a problem, especially for farmers. Their response: apply a heavy dose of chemicals

photo of strawberry papayaPhoto by Justin Ennis The University started to market seeds for a genetically modified type of papaya the same year Valenzuela lost his organic research project.

A Hawai`i Department of Agriculture report from 1969 said Hawaiian farmers were using pesticides at a rate 10 times higher than the national average (in terms of pounds per acre).

In 1993, Dr. Hector Valenzuela, then a non-tenured professor of tropical plant and soil science at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa, began a long-term research project to determine whether it’s possible to grow crops in the state without synthetic pesticides. Valenzuela, who in 1990 received his Ph.D. in vegetable crops from the University of Florida, established the first long-term organic farming research project in Hawai`i and the Pacific region.

Valenzuela planted 50 varieties of vegetables — including tomato, daikon radish, bulb onion, cucumber, eggplant, zucchini, bush beans, pole beans, sweet potato and bell pepper — on 2.5 acres at the university’s Waimanalo Experiment Station located some 15 miles from the Manoa campus in the southeast corner of Oahu. With an enrollment of about 20,000, the Manoa campus, located near downtown Honolulu, is the largest of the 19 units in the University of Hawai`i system. The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) where Valenzuela teaches is the largest unit within the Manoa campus.

By 1999, he had initiated several long-term research projects at Waimanalo. The organic farming plots were his research laboratory.

But it all came to an end inexplicably in 1998 when Charles Laughlin, then the dean of CTAHR, shut down the organic farming research project. Valenzuela recalls the dean’s exact words: “You can no longer use those plots.” Laughlin had decided that a Japanese religious group would use them instead.

“I saw the removal of my field laboratory as an infringement of my academic freedom,” he says. “The college …more

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Fossil Fuels Are Subsidized by $10 million a minute, according to IMF study

'Shocking' $5.3 trillion subsidy estimate for 2015 'shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap'

By Damian Carrington

Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3 trillion a year, equivalent to $10 million a minute every day, according to a startling new estimate by the International Monetary Fund.

photo of Coal power plantPhoto by Robert S. Donovan, on Flickr The IMF, one of the world’s most respected financial institutions, said that ending subsidies for fossil fuels would cut global carbon emissions by 20 percent.

The IMF calls the revelation “shocking” and says the figure is an “extremely robust” estimate of the true cost of fossil fuels. The $5.3 trillion subsidy estimated for 2015 is greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments.

The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change.

Nicholas Stern, an eminent climate economist at the London School of Economics, said: “This very important analysis shatters the myth that fossil fuels are cheap by showing just how huge their real costs are. There is no justification for these enormous subsidies for fossil fuels, which distort markets and damages economies, particularly in poorer countries.”

Lord Stern said that even the IMF’s vast subsidy figure was a significant underestimate: “A more complete estimate of the costs due to climate change would show the implicit subsidies for fossil fuels are much bigger even than this report suggests.”

The IMF, one of the world’s most respected financial institutions, said that ending subsidies for fossil fuels would cut global carbon emissions by 20 percent. That would be a giant step towards taming global warming, an issue on which the world has made little progress to date.

Ending the subsidies would also slash the number of premature deaths from outdoor air pollution by 50 percent — about 1.6 million lives a year.

Furthermore, the IMF said the resources freed by ending fossil fuel subsidies could be an economic “game-changer” for many countries, by driving economic growth and poverty reduction through greater investment in infrastructure, health and education and also by cutting taxes that restrict growth.

graphicGraphic by more

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A River Revived

Lower Owens revival is the largest river restoration project in the history of the American West

I eased my standup paddleboard onto the placid, crystal clear waters, nary a drop out of place. From where I stood, the barren, sandy shoal was pock-marked with Tule elk spoor, but as soon as my paddle pierced through the royal blue water, the river came to life. A clutch of red-winged blackbirds clung to swaying cattails while a school of brown trout fanned out beneath me. Several western kingbirds fluttered above the shallow water, the river’s easy flow breathing life into a dry, dormant valley.

photo of a wide river running through grassland, mountains in the distance, a figure on a stand-up paddleboardall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more in a photo-essay

The revival of the 62-mile Lower Owens River in California is the largest river restoration project in the history of the American West. Residents of the Eastern Sierra have been waiting for nearly a century for its return, ever since the river was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 2013, and subsequently vanished from the Owens Valley. Finally in December 2006 – under court order – snowmelt from the high Eastern Sierra was redirected into the Lower Owens River, reinvigorating a landscape that had been bone dry for nearly 100 years.

“It’s looking incredibly healthy,” said Mike Prather, outreach coordinator and former president of the Owens Valley Committee. “It looks like the river was shot in the arm with vitamins.”

photo of a kingbird on a branchChuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more in a photo-essay

The replenished river is already attracting wildlife. Bobcats, minks, coyotes and ospreys have been sighted, herds of Tule elk are in the vicinity, a great horned owl gazed back at me from its cottonwood perch and as I paddled the river’s easy flow, tree frogs croaked hidden in the thick stocks of reeds. Over 400 bird species have been documented in the Owens Valley since restoration began, and the rejuvenated Lower Owens will become a major stopover for a bevy of migrating bird species. 

Despite the progress, river ecologist Mark Hill, lead scientist at the Ecosystem Sciences Foundation in Idaho, says …more

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Seattle Activists Throw ‘Unwelcome Party’ for Arctic-Bound Shell Oil Rig

Off the coast of Seattle yesterday, Royal Dutch Shell docked the “Polar Pioneer,” an oil rig attempting to make its way up to Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. In response, a fleet of 20 kayaks – manned by local environmental activists and the Duwamish Tribe – rowed out to throw it an “unwelcome party,” defying a 500-foot police and Coast Guard mandated “safety zone” around the rig.

Arctic Destroyer Arrives in Port Angelesphoto by Backbone Campaign, on Flickr

“It’s been an exciting time to work with so many diverse groups and to see people move quickly,” Cassady Sharp of the Shell No! coalition told the Seattle Times. “But at the end of day, nobody wants Shell in Seattle or drilling in Alaska.”

The Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5, which is privately owned and operates under a separate governance structure from the city, is currently leased out to the company Foss Maritime. Since last year, Foss has been pushing for Shell and other fossil fuel corporations to be able to use the space, and promised $13.17 million for the 50-acre deal. When the Obama administration (conditionally) approved Arctic drilling earlier this week, Shell took advantage of the decision by pulling into the port. Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, however, has rejected a municipal permit for the company to dock and perform maintenance on the rig, with Mayor Ed Murray saying that Shell could face daily fines for failing to comply with city orders.

In a show of some bravado, Foss spokesman Pat Queary told the press that, “The port asked us nicely to not come while the legal thing was being resolved, which they knew we couldn’t do and are not doing.”

The kayaks are part of a multi-pronged strategy to stop the Polar Pioneer, another aspect of which is a lawsuit currently moving through courts, and has already delayed the rig’s advancement north for the summer, when it is scheduled to begin drilling. Linking up in the water, kayakers unveiled a banner reading “Arctic Drilling = Climate Change.”

Rising hundreds of feet above the water, the rig is – to say the least – an eyesore in Seattle’s Elliot Bay. It is also, of course, an unwelcome piece of fossil fuel infrastructure …more

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Why Edward Abbey Still Matters

The author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang is branded a misanthrope and a hypocrite. The truth is more interesting.

There seems to be a good deal of interest in Edward Abbey these days. Two new books — All The Wild That Remains  by David Gessner and Finding Abbey by Sean Prentiss — explore the life and legacy of the writer and wilderness firebrand. Next month, they’ll be joined by Abbey in America, a multi-author collection of personal and scholarly reflections on Abbey’s continuing influence (full disclosure: I’m one of those doing the reflecting).

photo of Edward AbbeyPhoto by Mark Klett, 1988 Ed Abbey in Grand Gulch, Utah.

This little burst of attention to Abbey shouldn’t be that surprising. He’s been at the center of conversations (and more often than not, arguments) about wilderness preservation and environmental politics since the publication of his 1968 classic, Desert Solitaire, a captivating mix of nature writing, environmentalist polemics, and autobiographical musings. His raucous 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, about a group of environmental merry pranksters and saboteurs running wild in the American Southwest, would further cement Abbey’s reputation (for better or worse).

Given that Desert Solitaire is often mentioned in the same breath as Thoreau’s Walden and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, the renewed interest in the prickly avatar of the desert Southwest makes some sense. But, at the same time, the Abbey renaissance is fighting some newly powerful intellectual and political currents within American environmentalism. 

It boils down to first principles: Abbey’s ideal of wilderness as a realmbeyond the human” was the bedrock of his philosophical approach to the wild. It’s a vision in which the wilderness provides an alternative set of values, an ethos counter to the uniformity, artificiality, and technological control of modern life. The wild provided an opportunity for a type of freedom and experience, he believed, that just wasn’t available in more overtly humanized and technological environments. But appreciation of the wilderness was for Abbey also a deeply moral act, an expression, he writes, of “loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see.”

Beyond the human. It was a foundational belief for Abbey, but many scientists and environmentalists today would argue that it reflects an outmoded, even reactionary image of the wild as we push deeper …more

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