From UN Climate Talks, Indigenous Activists Align with Standing Rock Protesters as Tensions Rise and Temperatures Fall

Read time: 8 mins
Woman in a red dress speaks in front of protesters holding signs.

Days before police resorted to using water cannons in freezing temperatures against Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) protesters, the international indigenous community was already decrying the treatment of Native Americans and environmental activists camped in Cannon Ball, North Dakota.

Kevin Hart, regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, said they were setting aside time at the United Nations climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, “to acknowledge our brothers and sisters across the medicine line in the United States at Standing Rock Sioux Nation.”

But he had far stronger words for the United States government and North Dakota law enforcement, calling their actions “human rights violations.” Yet at that point his references to the aggressive practices of militarized law enforcement in North Dakota predated law enforcement allegedly blasting protesters with water cannons, tear gas, a long range acoustic device, and concussion grenades on the freezing evening of November 20.

Prior to that escalation, the major tools of law enforcement had been security dogs (which have bitten protesters), rubber bullets, pepper spray, and strip searches. The unarmed, Native-led protesters say they are seeking to protect their water resources and sacred lands from the construction of an oil pipeline that would carry around half a million barrels of crude oil per day across the Missouri River.

Standing Rock Solidarity Permeates COP22 Climate Summit

Kevin Hart of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada

Kevin Hart, representing the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, denounced the treatment of Native Americans fighting the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, as well as the treatment of his own people, lands, and waters in Canada. Credit: Ashley Braun, DeSmog

From multilingual stories and chants shouted beneath the blazing Moroccan sun to the silent bodies lying on the floor of gleaming white corporate booths, international activists at the UN climate talks last week voiced support for Indigenous Peoples fighting for environmental protection and human rights around the world.

In a pair of back-to-back demonstrations on November 17, activists called attention first to efforts of the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters against the Dakota Access oil pipeline and then to the plight of peoples in the Safi and Imidir communities of Morocco — not far from the Marrakech climate summit — where two corporate sponsors of the UN talks were accused of environmental pollution and social injustices. 

These simultaneous actions symbolize indigenous and non-indigenous groups from both inside and outside of Morocco coming together to show the similarities of environmental atrocities communities around the world face,” said Kayla DeVault of Navajo Nation in a statement.

Between the crowd’s impassioned shouts of “We denounce corporate greed!” and “Idle no more!” a range of Indigenous representatives from Thailand and the Marshall Islands to Canada and New Zealand called attention to Native Americans protesting the pipeline construction near Cannon Ball, North Dakota. 

They also shared stories of their own people’s struggles for environmental justice, echoing the experiences of the Standing Rock Sioux. 

Journey to Standing Rock

Kayla DeVault and activists demonstrating in the OCP exhibit

Kayla DeVault, left, and activists staged an unsanctioned demonstration in support for Moroccan peoples fighting for clean water from within the exhibit of a UN climate talks sponsor accused of environmental pollution and injustice. Credit: Ashley Braun, DeSmog

After introducing herself in her people’s native language to the crowd of attendees at the climate talks, DeVault, a former environmental engineer with an oil company, revealed that she had visited the Standing Rock Sioux-led protests in North Dakota over Labor Day weekend. 

She was there when pipeline security forces let loose dogs and pepper spray on the crowds of mostly Native American protesters as bulldozers plowed up the earth in the same locations that the Standing Rock Sioux had notified the government were Native burial grounds. 

But the reason DeVault was in North Dakota in the first place began with her learning she would be part of the SustainUS youth delegation coming to the UN climate talks in Marrakech. That knowledge inspired her to do something after weeks of watching friends and Navajo leaders join the protests in North Dakota from the remoteness of Facebook.

I saw pictures of [Navajo Nation] President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez actually at Standing Rock, planting a Navajo Nation flag on the road leading into the Sacred Stone Camp. And I decided that I had to go up there,” DeVault told DeSmog.

When she started what ended up as an all-night drive to Standing Rock from Phoenix, Arizona, DeVault noted what she saw as a good omen as she drove out of town. 

There were so many rainbows, everywhere I looked, and that's a sign of blessed travels in the Navajo Nation,” said DeVault. “Something felt right about going, and I think that's part of why I didn't want to stop.”

In Marrakech, DeVault wore a traditional Navajo dress in vibrant red, cinched with a silver-and-turquoise belt, as she spoke about arriving at the Standing Rock encampment in North Dakota on the morning of September 3. 

She showed up just in time to share a morning meal with the people there who call themselves “water protectors” and join them in a peaceful march to the pipeline construction site, where they discovered the bulldozers, and later, the security forces and their dogs, which she said seemed to be waiting for them.

From North Dakota to Morocco

Activists with signs in support of Standing Rock and Moroccans fighting for clean water.

Men in suits attempted to shoo away the unsanctioned protest of OCP, a French phosphate company and UN climate talks sponsor, within its exhibit at the climate summit in Marrakech. Activists were showing support of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as well as Moroccans fighting for clean water. Credit: Ashley Braun, DeSmog

DeVault’s experience in North Dakota left a strong impression on her which colored her experience attending the international climate summit in Morocco. 

I can’t make a speech about Standing Rock without at least mentioning for a minute there are issues happening here [in Morocco] as well,” said DeVault to the crowd at the climate talks. “There’s issues happening just 300 kilometers south of here in Imidir where people have had a very similar camp for the last five years.”

Morocco’s Amazir people, an agricultural society reliant on a system of ancient irrigation canals, have been protesting the exploitation of their water source at Imidir by a Managem silver mine south of Marrakech. Managem is a mining company and sponsor of the 2016 UN climate talks.

I see that as being the Moroccan Standing Rock,” said DeVault, who had the chance to visit the Imidir camp, set up around an industrial water valve, during her visit to Morocco.

They shut down the water pipeline and have occupied that space for about five years and even did a solidarity action for Standing Rock in the weeks before we arrived — just seeing that incredible similarity and how so much of it was about protecting access to clean water, protecting all of the components of your culture and of your community, and being able to enforce your rights to sovereignty.”

Inspired by the visit to Imidir, on November 17 DeVault and other activists proceeded from the Standing Rock solidarity demonstration within the negotiating zone at the UN climate talks to stage an unsanctioned protest at the public exhibits of Managem and Office Chérifien des Phosphates (OCP), a French phosphate company with a manufacturing plant in Safi on Morocco’s coast.

While unveiling signs reading “The World Stands with Safi” and “Sovereignty: #300kmSouth #NoDAPL,” activists fell to the floor within the slick, spacious corporate exhibits, feigning death as part of what they called a “die-in.” DeVault and the other activists again shared the situations at Imidir and also the people in the town of Safi, amidst cries of “Protect our water, not corporate greed!”

I visited Safi, the community that suffers from OCP’s unfettered pollution,” said Ryan Camero, a water rights activist from California, in a statement. “The phosphate fertilizers produced there result in toxic waste, destroying fish populations and decimating local fishery economies.”

He criticized what he considered corporate “greenwashing” by OCP, another sponsor of the climate talks, calling it “a horrifying parallel to the necessary conversations around greenwashing in the wake of the climate justice movement.” 

Global Solidarity

In a statement made from Standing Rock to those participating at the Marrakech climate talks, Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environment Network also invoked climate justice in the situation surrounding the Dakota Access pipeline.

It is part of ‘business as usual’ with the expansion of fossil fuel development on and near Indigenous lands. It is a climate justice issue,” said Goldtooth in a statement to those attending the climate talks.

Tristan Pearce, a geography professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia and expert on Indigenous Peoples’ engagement on climate issues, echoed a similar sentiment about the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s efforts.

We know as an international community that freshwater is highly sensitive to the effects of climate change. We have indigenous peoples in the U.S. that are fighting for the right to protect freshwater sources,” he told DeSmog.

If I was a decision-maker in the U.S., I would push the big pause button, and say, ‘You know what? Maybe we don’t have this right. Maybe we didn’t get this pipeline idea right…Although it might look good on paper right now, what could this look like in five, ten, 15, 20, and so many years ahead for freshwater and for the ability of people to live and prosper in this area?”

Main image: Kayla DeVault of Navajo Nation appeals to attendees of the UN climate talks in Marrakech to support the Standing Rock Sioux and others protecting clean water in North Dakota and Morocco. Credit: Ashley Braun, DeSmog

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