Indigenous Food Sovereignty Movements Are Taking Back Ancestral Land
From fishing rights off Nova Scotia, to grazing in Oklahoma and salmon habitats on the Klamath River, tribal groups are reclaiming their land and foodways.
By Melissa Montalvo March 31, 2021
The first day of commercial fishing in 2019 on the Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of the Yurok Tribe)
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Last November, escalating tensions between the Mi’kmaq First Nations people exercising their fishing rights and commercial fishermen in Nova Scotia resulted in an unexpected finale: A coalition of Mi’kmaq tribes bought 50 percent of Clearwater Seafoods, effectively giving them control of the billion-dollar company and one of the largest seafood businesses in North America.
The Mi’kmaq people, who compose 13 distinct nations in Nova Scotia alone, have relied on fishing for tens of thousands of years and were granted treaty rights to a “moderate livelihood” by Canada’s Supreme Court. Despite these protections, the Mi’kmaq faced resistance, hostility, and even violence from commercial fishermen when exercising their rights.
By becoming majority owners of Clearwater Seafoods, the Mi’kmaq gained full ownership of Clearwater’s offshore fishing licenses, which allow them to harvest lobster, scallop, crab, and clams in a large area extending from the Georges Bank to the Laurentian Channel off Cape Breton. Tribal leaders hope the purchase guarantees the food security and economic sustainability of Mi’kmaq communities for generations.
Indigenous food sovereignty activists across the world stood in solidarity with the Mi’kmaq and applauded their unexpected victory. The deal represents a growing trend: Indigenous people are regaining access to—and control of—their traditional foodways.
For centuries, Native Americans in the United States have endured countless atrocities, from massacre to forced removal from their ancestral lands by the federal government. This separation from the land is inextricably tied to the loss of traditional foodways, culture, and history.
Now, there is growing momentum behind the Indigenous food sovereignty movement. Over the past few decades, Native American tribes in the U.S. have been fighting for the return of ancestral lands for access to traditional foodways through organizing and advocacy work, coalition building, and legal procedure—and increasingly seeing success.
In recent years, the Wiyot Tribe in Northern California secured ownership of its ancestral lands and is working to restore its marine habitats; the nearby Yurok Tribe fought for the removal of dams along the Klamath River and has plans to reconnect with salmon, its traditional food source; and the Quapaw Nation in Oklahoma has cleaned up contaminated land to make way for agriculture and cattle businesses.
“A big part of [land reclamation] is for food sovereignty,” stressed Frankie Myers, vice chairman of the Yurok Tribe. “We depend on the land to eat, to gain protein. It’s what our bodies were accustomed to, it’s what we as a people are accustomed to—working out in the landscape. It’s where we feel home. It’s good for our mental health. Oftentimes, folks have to be reminded that [food] is our original medicine.”
At the heart of the tribes’ different approaches to food sovereignty is a shared common goal: reclaiming ancestral lands for habitat restoration, access to healthy, culturally relevant diets, and economic opportunity.
In Eureka, an Unprecedented Land Return—and the Restoration of Marine Habitats
Between California’s northern coastline and the redwood forests, the Wiyot Tribe has practiced its way of life for centuries, celebrating ceremonial dances on Tuluwat Island, its place of origin. The island sits in the Arcata Bay of the present-day city of Eureka and provided access to essential nourishment, including oysters, clams, mussels, and fish.
A historical photo of Tuluwat Island, before the Wiyot Tribe began reclamation work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)
“For us, it’s a giant Costco. Everything that we needed was right there,” explained Ted Hernandez, Wiyot tribal chairman and cultural director, in a recent interview.
That was until 1860, when gold-rush era settlers ambushed and massacred between 80 and 250 Wiyots peacefully gathered on Tuluwat Island for a renewal ceremony. The surviving Wiyots were forced off the island and moved to Fort Humboldt, where Wiyots say that nearly half of the tribe died of exposure and starvation. They were then forcibly relocated to reservations at Klamath, Hoopa, Smith River, and Round Valley. In the early 1900s, a local church group bought land to house the Wiyots on what is known today as the Old Reservation. But after briefly losing federal recognition and a lack of potable water, the tribe moved to the Table Bluff Reservation, where it currently resides.
In 2000, after an acre and a half of the ancestral Tuluwat Island went up for sale, tribal elder Cheryl Seidner organized fundraisers to buy it for $106,000. This purchase gave the tribe momentum and hope that it could secure more land. Seidner led the Wiyots in negotiations with Eureka city leaders, and the city agreed to return most of the island to the tribe in 2019.
“With Tuluwat, it’s the first example of a city ever repatriating land to a tribe, which I think is great—but it’s also pretty sad that that never happens,” said Adam Canter, a natural resource specialist for the Wiyot Tribe.
Since then, the Wiyot people have used local community partners, volunteers, and state and federal resources to clean up the island, which was left in toxic disarray after years as the site of a shipyard for non-Native commercial fishermen. “There was a huge [Environmental Protection Agency] cleanup there,” said Canter, who leads the restoration effort. “The soil was contaminated with dioxins and pentachlorophenol oils, and all kinds of bad stuff.”
Tuluwat Island in 2011, after the Wiyot Tribe began restoration work. (Photo courtesy of the Wiyot Tribe)
But this hasn’t deterred the Wiyots, who are 600 members strong and have a vision of restoring the crucial marine and land habitats that have for so long nourished the tribe. The Wiyots hope to improve health outcomes for tribal members and create a sustainable food system that emphasizes food sovereignty and security. “Now we’re in the process of completing that healing process by bringing back the traditional plants that were . . . in the waterways so our eels, and our oysters can grow back in the bay,” explained Hernandez. “And once that’s complete, then we can start the healing process for the whole world. But in order for us to do that, we need our traditional foods.”
In her role as natural resource technician-in-training, Wiyot tribal member Hilanea Wilkinson is working on removing invasive species and reintroducing native, edible plants to the island. She sees her work as even more urgent in light of the ongoing pandemic. “It has really shed light on the need for sustainable food for lots of reservations and Native communities—all communities,” she said. “Native communities are in more rural areas and don’t have easily accessible grocery stores.”
The Wiyot Tribe is also bolstering its food sovereignty movement through education. Currently, it’s fundraising to build the Food Sovereignty Lab & Cultural Workshop in partnership with Humboldt State University’s (HSU) Native American Studies program. The goal is to indigenize the HSU campus and inspire future generations of Indigenous botanists and biologists who can help preserve Native American communities’ food security and sovereignty.
California’s Largest Tribe Restores Crucial Salmon Habitats
About 100 miles north of the Wiyot, the Yurok Tribe, California’s largest, is working to restore once-thriving salmon populations, which are culturally and spiritually significant in addition to being a major food source.
The Yurok people reside along the Klamath River, which was once a bustling artery that connected Northern California tribes and provided a food system of salmon, berries, elk, and acorns. Since the construction of the Klamath River Dams in the early 1900s for hydroelectric power and farmland irrigation, the salmon populations have been devastated to near-extinction. Most notorious was the Klamath River Fish Kill of 2002, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 34,000 salmon died from infection in a disaster caused by warm water temperatures and low dam water flow rates (Some counts say as many as 70,000 salmon died.)
Dwayne Davis, a Yurok Fisheries Department watershed restorationist, planted hundreds of trees for a salmon habitat restoration project on the lower Klamath River. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais/Yurok Tribe)
Since the early 2000s, the tribe has built coalitions with local community groups and advocated for dam removal to state and federal authorities. They recently celebrated a historic agreement to remove four obsolete dams along the Klamath River (Iron Gate, Copco 1 and Copco 2 in California, and J.C. Boyle in Oregon) to clear the river and revive the traditional salmon runs.
If all goes according to plan, the four dams will be officially decommissioned by 2023 in what would be the world’s largest dam removal project.
“We know from generations past that if we let the salmon die, then we follow along with [them],” said Myers. “The median [household] income on the upper reservation where I live is $11,000. The protein that salmon provides is actual sustenance people need to live.” (In California, the median household income is $75,235, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.)
While awaiting the final green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on dam removal, the Yurok Tribe is collaborating with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Fish, and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and California Department of Water Resources to build the Blue Creek salmon sanctuary—a permanently protected portion of the salmon’s river habitat—and restore native plants to the area.
They’ve also secured control of more than 60,000 acres of ancestral lands, through both direct purchase and a land transfer from Western Rivers Conservancy.
Building a beaver dam analogue on Yurok land. (Photo courtesy of Matt Mais, Yurok Tribe)
Ultimately, the Yurok Tribe hopes to become a fully sovereign nation that can sustain its people, both physically and economically, from the Klamath River and its salmon. “There is a way to survive and live and thrive here in the basin that isn’t just hunter-gatherer,” Myers said. “Because we used to have . . . an economy that was also based on salmon, and we feel like we could get there again.”
Restoring a Toxic Wasteland for Cattle Grazing and Agriculture
Across the country, in Northeast Oklahoma, the Quapaw Tribe has been working on land cleanup for its own food sovereignty initiatives. The Quapaw, or O-Gah-Pah (meaning “downstream people”), were a plains tribe that inhabited present-day Arkansas along the Mississippi River. When the Quapaw were moved to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in 1834, they could no longer practice their traditional hunting and gathering, according to Devon Mihesuah, co-editor of Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States. Out of necessity, they became ranchers, like many others relegated to reservations.
In the 1890s, lead and zinc were discovered on Quapaw land. In the documentary “Tar Creek,” Quapaw members described how the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Department of the Interior often leased this land to mining companies without tribal approval, or through coercion. These companies mined lead and zinc to supply the war efforts until the 1970s. The mines, now long-abandoned, have polluted local water and land, leading to developmental delays in Indigenous and non-Indigenous children.
While the local residents of the nearby towns all received buyouts to relocate, the Quapaw people are still on their land and determined to make it hospitable again. The tribe secured a contract with the EPA more than a decade ago to remediate the land at the Tar Creek Superfund Site and repurpose the land for agriculture. The tribe has also seen recent success protecting tribal land sovereignty in Oklahoma.
“We are reclaiming it little by little and regaining land. And we’re doing whatever we can [to] remediate and put it back into ag use,” says Mitchell Albright, Quapaw tribe member and agriculture director.
Today, the restored land is used for more than 1,000 cattle and bison grazing under the Quapaw Cattle Company. The Quapaw have also been able to grow row crops (canola, non-GMO corn, soybeans, and wheat primarily used for animal feed) on restored lands, and they have built greenhouses to grow heirloom, pesticide-free vegetables. In 2017, the Quapaw Tribe also opened the country’s first tribally owned, USDA-approved cattle processing plant.
With rural geography, the Quapaw know the difficulties in transporting mainstream foods to their tribe. That’s why their priority is self-sufficiency, along with cultural preservation and job creation.
Through their farm, they supply the casino and restaurants located on the reservation. They also boast a coffee roaster, craft beer production, and a strong honeybee pollination program. Albright recalls that when he took over as ag director around eight years ago, there were around 15 employees. Today, there are upwards of 100.
“There’s gonna be a time—maybe not in our lifetime, but at some point—[when] maybe you can’t go to Walmart or your local grocery store and get what you need to survive,” Albright said. “And that’s what I love about Native people when they come together. They come up with ideas [that] can feed our people.”
The Future of Indigenous Food Sovereignty
Myers sees the land reclamation work of his and other tribes as more pressing than ever in light of climate change. “[We are at] the frontlines of this war to reclaim our history, our land, our culture . . . We have a system that can not only be saved but restored. And not just kept from going extinct, but being able to flourish in abundance. We’re ready for some victories.”
Deb Haaland speaks to a consituent in Sept. 2020. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Deb Haaland’s office)
The confirmation of Secretary Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) to lead the Department of the Interior is a huge symbol of hope to the nation’s 574 federally recognized tribes. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, Haaland has firsthand understanding of Indigenous issues such as land sovereignty. Although the #LandBack movement wants Haaland to endorse land reparations for Indigenous people, and she has so far refrained from doing so, Myers and others say her confirmation is enormously significant.
Myers is optimistic about the way forward. “We’ve gone a few hundred years never having anyone in that seat that understood the tribes from a member’s perspective. And now we do,” he said. “Regardless of what happens, things are going to get better because there’s an understanding that was never there before.”
This article was updated to correct the spelling of the Quapah phonetical and to update the name of Western Rivers Conservancy.
Melissa Montalvo is a freelance writer who primarily focuses on the food and agriculture industry, cantinas, and all things Mexico.
‘No community should suffer this’: Florida’s toxic breach was decades in the making
Paola Rosa-Aquino April 11, 2021
It’s been a week since a significant leak at a long-abandoned fertilizer plant in the Tampa Bay area threatened the surrounding groundwater, soil, and local water supplies.
Last weekend, officials ordered more than 300 families living near the 676-acre Piney Point plant site in Manatee county to evacuate. The sheriff even emptied out his jail’s first floor of inmates in case a “20-foot wall of water” came rolling their way.
By Monday, local officials said they thought the crisis had been averted; they lifted evacuation orders on Tuesday afternoon. But what they meant was that imminent catastrophe had been postponed. The long-term, slow-moving crisis of toxicity, decades in the making, remains – and is echoed at dozens of radioactive ponds across the state.
“We’re nowhere near out of the woods yet on this – there’s a long way to go,” says Glen Compton of ManaSota-88, an environmental non-profit that has been urging officials for decades to do something about the industrial waste pile.
Piney Point has a long history of polluting the water and air around it, dating to when the plant was built in 1966, Compton says. Just two years later, in 1968, Compton founded ManaSota-88 to oppose the site’s phosphate mining. (“The 88 stood for 1988 because we were supposed to solve all the problems within 20 years,” Compton says. “So now, the 88 stands for 2088.”)
Within a year of Piney Point being built, its original owners – a subsidiary of Borden, the glue and milk company – were caught dumping waste into nearby Bishop Harbor, a marine estuary that flows into Tampa Bay. The plant repeatedly changed hands throughout the years, all the while continuing causing numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents.
In 1989, for instance, a 23,000-gallon leak of sulfuric acid from a holding tank forced the evacuation of hundreds of people.
After the owner went bankrupt, the Piney Point fertilizer plant was shut down in 2001. But the waste from more than three decades of phosphate mining still sits in massive piles at the site – the environmental equivalent of a ticking time bomb. An intense storm could easily send overflow, for instance.
Before phosphate can be used to help crops grow in fertilizer, it goes through a polluting chemical process. Phosphate ore mined from the soil is treated to create phosphoric acid – a main component of fertilizer. Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste left over. For every ton of desirable phosphoric acid produced for fertilizer, more than five tons of phosphogypsum waste remains.
The fertilizer industry that produced that waste then dumps it in large piles known as “gyp stacks” – mountains hundreds of feet tall and hundreds of acres wide. And at the top of these mountains are huge lagoons, containing hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater that is highly acidic and radioactive with heavy metal contaminants. A breach at another stack in the state after a 2004 hurricane led to millions of gallons of polluted water being spilled into Tampa Bay.
This toxic industry has plagued the state for decades. Central Florida is the phosphate capital of the world; the state produces 80% of the phosphate mined in the US, as well 25% of the phosphate used around the world. An estimated 1 billion tons of phosphogypsum is housed in about two dozen stacks that dot the Florida landscape, some looming as high as 200ft, each with its own pond of acidic wastewater on top. And every year, about 30m more tons are added to them.
“Florida can’t keep ignoring the catastrophic risks of phosphate mining and its toxic waste products,” says Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “No community should have to suffer the consequence of this toxic legacy for some corporation’s short-term financial gain.”
According to Compton, what happens at Piney Point sets a precedent in Florida regarding industrial waste from phosphate mining. “Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong here,” he says.
About 223 million gallons remained in the leaking pond at Piney Point on Friday, according to the Florida department of environmental regulation; so far, about 215m gallons of wastewater have been pumped into Tampa Bay. Still, environmental advocates fear how the plant’s toxic stew might affect water quality: on Wednesday, the state agency said there were elevated levels of phosphorous detected where wastewater was being discharged.
Two additional stacks with wastewater containment ponds remain at Piney Point, and officials fear an unaddressed breach could lead to a sudden rush of water out of the other two stacks, which are more toxic and acidic. If that were to happen, Compton says, “we’d expect to see major impacts to Bishop Harbor, which is one of the prettiest places in the state of Florida”.
Should either of those stacks fail, he adds, the harbor “would be totally annihilated. It is really not too strong a term to use.” The nutrient-laden water could fuel algae blooms, endangering already vulnerable marine life.
At the end of Wednesday, with pumps still gushing out millions of gallons of wastewater, state senators passed an amendment that would allocate $3 million – what appears to be the first tranche of funds in a $200m plan to close and clean up the site – to dispose of the wastewater.
Compton says the plan entails building a well injection in order to get rid of the wastewater – an idea facing opposition from surrounding residents, national organizations, and anybody who has an interest in agriculture in the area. “When you put wastewater into the ground, you really have no idea where it goes next. There’s no 100% foolproof way to monitor which way the aquifer flows and where it ultimately ends up.”
The Piney Point site is shaping up to be a costly environmental catastrophe, and Compton thinks the fertilizer industry should be accountable for disposing of its waste, rather than passing the cost on to taxpayers. But even with talks of the fertilizer plant’s cleanup and closure on the horizon, he’s not optimistic the threat of pollution from its wastewater will soon disappear.
“There’s a local saying that if you go to a Manatee county commission meeting 50 years from now, there’s two things that’ll be on the agenda: sewage spills and Piney Point,” Compton adds. “This isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Yellen pushes minimum corporate taxes, ending fossil fuel breaks, to pay for infrastructure
David Lawder April 7, 2021
WASHINGTON, April 7 (Reuters) – U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on Wednesday fleshed out the details of a corporate tax hike plan linked to President Joe Biden’s infrastructure investment proposal, aiming to raise $2.5 trillion in new revenues over 15 years by deterring tax avoidance.
Yellen’s plan relies on negotiating a 21% global minimum corporate tax rate with major economies and a separate 15% minimum tax on ‘booked’ income aimed at the largest U.S. corporations. Dozens of big U.S. companies have used complex tax strategies to reduce their federal tax liabilities to zero.
Yellen said that promised boosts in U.S. capital investment by corporations and turbocharged growth failed to materialize after Republican tax legislation in 2017 cut the corporate rate to 21% from 35%.
Instead, the Trump-era cuts halved U.S. corporate tax collections as a share of economic output to 1% from its long-term 2% average, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The average for the 37 OECD member countries is 3.1%.
“Our tax revenues are already at their lowest level in a generation. And as they continue to drop lower we will have less money to invest in roads, bridges, broadband and R&D,” Yellen said.
The bulk of U.S. tax collections https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-taxes-revenue-explainer/explainer-the-4-trillion-u-s-government-relies-on-individual-taxpayers-idUSKBN26J30F are deducted from the regular paychecks of individual wage earners, but Biden has pledged not to raise any taxes on Americans earning less than $400,000 a year.
The Treasury plan seeks to end provisions in the 2017 tax cuts that Democrats say provide continued incentives for companies to shift investments, intellectual property and profits to lower-tax countries.
Its biggest target is revamping the 2017 tax act’s first stab at a minimum tax, the 10.5% Global Intangible Low-Taxed Income tax (GILTI). Treasury would eliminate a U.S. deduction for the first 10% of income from foreign assets and raise the GILTI minimum rate to 21%.
GILTI, which acts as a kind of “top-up” tax to offset lower rates in other countries, would be applied on a country-by-country basis, rather than a global average rate, which Democrats say encourages some use of tax havens. This change alone could raise $500 billion in revenue over a decade, Treasury said.
Treasury would also replace a separate 10% Base Erosion and Anti-abuse Tax (BEAT), aimed at preventing shifting profits to entities in tax havens, with a new 21% tax that aims to deny deductions on income from countries that do not agree to a global minimum tax. It is rebranding this as the SHIELD tax, for “Stopping Harmful Inversions and Ending Low-Tax Developments.”
A Treasury official told reporters that this new tax would act as an incentive for countries to agree to a global minimum tax by denying companies the benefits of using tax havens.
FOSSIL FUEL BREAKS
The Treasury plan also would eliminate a range of tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry, a move it said would raise revenues by $35 billion over 10 years. It will replace these with new clean energy tax incentives including for electric vehicles and efficient electric appliances.
Treasury also is proposing a new 15% alternative minimum tax for large corporations, based on booked income reported to shareholders, to ensure that they cannot use complex tax avoidance schemes to pay no taxes.
Treasury said it estimates that some 45 corporations would have seen an average $300 million additional annual tax liability under the proposed minimum, raising some $13.5 billion in new revenues.
(Reporting by David Lawder, David Shepardson, Jarrett Renshaw and Tim Gardner; Editing by Heather Timmons, Andrea Ricci and Chizu Nomiyama)
‘Allergic reaction to US religious right’ fueling decline of religion, experts say
Adam Gabbatt April 5, 2021
Fewer than half of Americans belong to a house of worship, a new stud shows, but religion – and Christianity in particular – continues to have an outsize influence in US politics, especially because it is declining faster among Democrats than Republicans.
Just 47% of the US population are members of a church, mosque or synagogue, according to a survey by Gallup, down from 70% two decades ago – in part a result of millennials turning away from religion but also, experts say, a reaction to the swirling mix of rightwing politics and Christianity pursued by the Republican party.
This week the governor of Arkansas signed a law allowing doctors to refuse to treat LGBTQ people on religious grounds, and other states are exploring similar legislation.
Gallup began asking Americans about their church membership in 1937 – and for decades the number was always above 70%. That began to change in 2000, and the number has steadily dropped ever since.
Some of the decline is attributable to changing generations, with about 66% of people born before 1946 are still members of a church, compared with just 36% of millennials.
Among other groups Gallup reported, the decline in church membership stands out among self-identified Democrats and independents. The number of Democratic church members dropped by 25% over the 20-year period, with independents decreasing by 18%. Republican church members declined too, but only by 12%.
“Many Americans – especially young people – see religion as bound up with political conservatism, and the Republican party specifically,” Campbell said.
“Since that is not their party, or their politics, they do not want to identify as being religious. Young people are especially allergic to the perception that many – but by no means all – American religions are hostile to LGBTQ rights.”
Research by Campbell shows that a growing number of Americans have turned away from religion as politicians – particularly Republicans – have mixed religion with their politics. Campbell says there has always been an ebb and flow in American adherence to religion, but he thinks the current decline is likely to continue.
“I see no sign that the religious right, and Christian nationalism, is fading. Which in turn suggests that the allergic reaction will continue to be seen – and thus more and more Americans will turn away from religion,” he said.
The number of people who identify as non-religious has grown steadily in recent decades, according to Michele Margolis, associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania and author of From Politics to the Pews. More than 20% of all Americans are classed as “nones”, Margolis said, and more than a third of Americans under 30.
“That means non-identification is going to continue becoming a larger share of population over time as cohort replacement continues to occur,” Margolis said. But she agreed another factor is the rightwing’s infusion of politics with theism.
“As religion has been closed linked with conservative politics, we’ve had Democrats opting out of organized religion, or being less involved, and Republicans opting in,” she said.
Christian nationalists – who believe America was established as, and should remain, a Christian country – have pushed a range of measures to thrust their version of religion into American life.
You virtually have to wear religion on your sleeve in order to be elected
Annie Laurie Gaylor
In states including Louisiana, Arkansas and Florida, Republicans have introduced legislation which would variously hack away at LGTBQ rights, reproductive rights, challenge the ability of couples to adopt children, and see religion forced into classrooms.
“Do not make me NOT do what my God tells me I have to do,” said the Republican Montana congressman John Fuller, a supporter of the law.
Alison Gill, vice-president for legal and policy at American Atheists, who authored a report into the creep of Christian extremism in the US, warned that the drop-off in religious adherence in America could actually accelerate that effort, rather than slow it down.
“Surveys of those who identify with Christian nationalist beliefs consistently show that this group feels that they are subject to more discrimination and marginalization than any other group in society, including Islamic people, Black people, atheists, [and] Jewish people,” Gill said.
“They are experiencing their loss of prominence in American culture as an unacceptable attack on their beliefs – and this is driving much of the efforts we are seeing to cling on to power, undermine democracy, and fight for ‘religious freedom’ protections that apply only to them.”
The influence of religion over politics is stark, Gill said.
“America perceives itself to be a predominantly religious society, even if the facts no longer agree. Politicians often feel beholden to pronounce their religious faith – and are attacked for a perceived lack of it,” she said.
While the danger of a rightwing backlash is real, Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said that the Gallup data suggests the US is moving in a positive direction.
“We have this constitutional separation of church and state in America, and our constitution is godless, and it says you can’t have a religious test for public office, and yet you virtually have to wear religion on your sleeve in order to be elected,” Gaylor said.
“There is movement [away from religion], and we’re just delighted to see this. We think it’s great that Americans are finally waking up.”
Florida county fears “imminent” reservoir collapse
Li Cohen April 4, 2021
Some residents in Manatee County, Florida, were evacuated from their homes over Easter weekend as officials cited fears that a wastewater pond could collapse “at any time.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for the area on Saturday.
County officials said the pond, located at the former Piney Point phosphate processing plant, has a “significant leak,” according to CBS affiliate WTSP-TV. The Manatee County Public Safety Department told people near the plant to evacuate due to an “imminent uncontrolled release of wastewater.”
“A portion of the containment wall at the leak site shifted laterally,” said Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur, “signifying that structural collapse could occur at any time.”
Manatee County Public Safety Department initially sent out emergency evacuation notices on Friday for those who were within half a mile of Piney Point, and by 11 a.m. Saturday, evacuation orders were extended to people within one mile north of the reservoir’s stacks of phosphogypsum — a fertilizer waste product — and those within half a mile to the south of the site. Surrounding stretches of highway were also closed to traffic.
Related: Bacteria on Florida beaches proves deadly
Mandatory evacuations were extended an additional half mile west and one mile southwest of the site on Saturday evening. Manatee County Public Safety Department said that 316 households are within the full evacuation area.
The closure of U.S. 41 will be expanded south from Buckeye Road to Moccasin Wallow Road. Moccasin Wallow Road will be closed west of 38th Avenue East. There are an estimated 316 households in the evacuation area. Those households will all receive an emergency alert to evacuate.
Phosphogypsum is the “radioactive waste” left over from processing phosophate ore into a state that can be used for fertilizer, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
“In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and processed wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals,” the Center said in a statement on Saturday. “For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates 5 tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall.”
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said in a statement Saturday that the “public must heed that notice to avoid harm.”
Officials are on site conducting a controlled release of water, roughly 22,000 gallons a minute.
The water that is currently being pumped out by officials in order to avoid a full collapse is a mix of sea water from a local dredge project, storm water and rain runoff. The water has not been treated.
“The water meets water quality standards for marine waters with the exception of pH, total phosphorus, total nitrogen and total ammonia nitrogen,” the state said in a statement. “It is slightly acidic, but not at a level that is expected to be a concern, nor is it expected to be toxic.”
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried wrote a letter to DeSantis on Saturday urging an emergency session of the Florida cabinet to discuss the situation. She wrote that the leaking water is “contaminated, radioactive wastewater,” and noted that this leak is not the property’s first.
“For more than fifty years, this Central Florida mining operation has caused numerous human health and environmental disasters and incidents,” Fried wrote. “There have been numerous, well-documented failures — which continue today — of the property’s reservoir liner, including leaks, poor welds, holes, cracks and weaknesses that existed prior to purchase by the current owner, HRK Holdings, and exacerbated since.”
Video of a Manatee County Commissioners meeting provided insight into what happened prior to the leak. On Thursday afternoon, Jeff Barath, a representative for HRK Holdings, the company that owns the site, appeared emotionally distressed while briefing the Manatee County Commissioners about the situation.
“I’m very sorry,” he said. He told commissioners he had only slept a few hours that week because he was trying to fix the situation, and through tears, said he first noticed “increased conductivities within the site’s seepage collection system” 10 days prior on March 22. This system, he said, offers drainage around the gypsum stacks.
He said he immediately notified FDEP of his concerns.
“The water was changing around the seepage. We went into a very aggressive monitoring program,” he said, to find out where the seepage was coming from.
They discovered the south side of the stack system had “increased in conductivity” and that the acidity of the water, which is normally around a 4.6, had dropped to about a 3.5, which indicated an issue.
After a few days, the water chemistry had not improved and water flows were increasing from about 120 gallons a minute to more than 400 gallons per minute in less than 48 hours, Barath said. Last Saturday night, the flow rates increased to “rates that I could not even estimate to you,” he said.
Water was filling the stacks so quickly that the ground was starting to rise, Barath said. This “bulging” was temporarily stabilized but then extended hundreds of feet.
Barath submitted a report to the state on March 26, according to the state-run “Protecting Florida Together,” website, which was created by DeSantis to allow more transparency about state water issues.
“I was anticipating that the gypstack itself was destabilizing at a very rapid rate and recommended that we consider an emergency discharge,” he told commissioners. He said he feared that “overpressurizing” the system would result in “complete failure.”
“I’ve spent most of my days and nights constantly monitoring all aspects of this gypstack system and identifying failure points within it,” he said, noting that failure points were happening “constantly, I mean hourly.”
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection said that it ordered the company to “take immediate action” to prevent further leaks. On March 30, the department said that “pipes at the facility are repaired” and controlled discharges were initiated to prevent any pressure buildup.
However, based on Barath’s testimony at the meeting, the situation was far from over. He concluded his address by saying they were doing “everything possible to prevent a true catastrophe.”
On Friday, another leak was detected in the south containment area of the facility. Despite overnight work to attempt to stop this and other leaks, Manatee Director of Public Safety Jake Saur said on Saturday that the situation was “escalating.”
Town’s Water Contaminated With ‘Forever Chemicals’
Lewis Kendall April 2, 2021
On a bitterly cold afternoon earlier this year, the Haw River in North Carolina was running high—its water a bright ocher, thanks to heavy rainfall and snow melt.
Most of the water flowed south, where it would eventually connect with Jordan Lake and the rest of the Cape Fear River Basin, home to the cities of Greensboro, Durham, Fayetteville, and Wilmington, and a major source of drinking water for the eastern half of the state.
But some of it took a sharp turn, pumped up to the local water treatment plant where it was cleaned and filtered before continuing its journey, piped down the road and into a church in downtown Pittsboro, where Jim Vaughn had just finished helping hand out free lunches.
Vaughn, a retired electrical equipment salesman and longtime Pittsboro resident, had found a problem with the water coming out of the church’s tap: contamination with a group of chemicals that are linked to health concerns.
The chemicals have been around for more than 80 years, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the Environmental Protection Agency set an advisory limit for PFAS in drinking water—70 parts per trillion (ppt).
According to the test, the water coming from the Pittsboro church’s tap measured PFAS levels of 80 ppt.
The EPA is under considerable pressure to lower its limits on PFAS. For instance, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has proposed a total PFAS limit of 1 ppt in drinking water and groundwater.
CR’s scientists say the maximum allowed amount should be 5 ppt for a single PFAS chemical and 10 ppt for two or more. That is in line with the standards for bottled water that an industry group, the International Bottled Water Association, has its members adhere to.
Vaughn, who wears a black cowboy hat with a multicolored feather stuck in the band, wasn’t particularly surprised at the high PFAS result from the Consumer Reports and Guardian testing. His lack of surprise was also likely due to North Carolina’s long history with PFAS. In the early 1970s, the chemical company DuPont began operating a manufacturing facility that discharged PFAS into the Cape Fear River.
“There’s a feeling of helplessness,” Vaughn says. “Is there something we can do about it? Is there something that the town will do about it? Or will we let it ride and try to ignore it?”
Knowingly or unknowingly, he says, communities like Pittsboro are used to getting “dumped on.”
For more than 90 years Duke Energy operated a large coal-fired power plant in the nearby community of Moncure (population 709), right where the Haw and Deep rivers converge to become the Cape Fear. The area is now the site of a coal ash disposal pit, which is being filled with as much as 12 million tons of slag, powder, and other residual byproducts of burning coal. Multiple tests have revealed elevated levels of metals and other contaminants in groundwater near the site.
The PFAS contamination of Cape Fear River has been a source of controversy for years. A 2007 EPA study found evidence of PFAS contamination downstream from the plant and throughout the Cape Fear River Basin, including high concentrations near the Fort Bragg and Pope Field military bases. In 2016, researchers discovered contamination farther downstream, as well as in local drinking water, a revelation that spawned a spat of news coverage.
Since then the state has engaged in a back and forth with the offending companies over the issue. In 2017, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality blocked the DuPont plant (now operated by a DuPont offshoot, The Chemours Company) from discharging into the Cape Fear, and later entered into a consent order requiring that Chemours pay a $12 million fine.
Late last year the state filed a lawsuit against the companies, alleging that they “knowingly discharged vast quantities of PFAS into the air, water, sediments, and soils of . . . southeastern North Carolina.”
Asked to comment about the CR test finding in Pittsboro, Chemours spokesman Thom Sueta said in an email that the company had taken “numerous actions to reduce the emissions of fluorinated organic compounds (FOCs)—that includes PFAS,” and that its goal was to reduce them “by at least 99 percent” at its sites worldwide compared with a 2018 baseline.
Sueta said there were “many sources that impact the water quality of the Cape Fear River.” At its Fayetteville, N.C., site, Chemours has installed “a thermal oxidizer that is destroying more than 99.99 percent of FOC emissions from the processes directed to it” and there was “remediation work underway to address groundwater, including our seep treatment units,” Sueta said.
The highest concentrations of PFAS chemicals from the 2007 EPA study were found upstream of the Chemours plant, near Pittsboro.
That was one of the first indications that the problem might be more widespread than first thought, says Emily Sutton, at the Haw River Assembly, a nonprofit that focuses on the Haw. For Sutton, who serves as riverkeeper for the Haw and spends most of her time these days studying, thinking, and talking PFAS, the issue is threefold.
The first and often most pressing problem for locals like those in Pittsboro is the contamination in municipal drinking water. But solving this requires hugely expensive upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities (recently floated price tags for Pittsboro, a town of 4,200, range upwards of $20 million) or costly individual, in-home filtration systems. “We know that the drinking water in the town of Pittsboro is contaminated,” Sutton says. “People who are concerned are left to pay for a reverse osmosis system in their own home. That means that only people who can afford that luxury have safe drinking water.”
The second problem is identifying and stopping contamination at its source. According to Sutton, ongoing testing has revealed that much of the PFAS chemicals floating down the Haw and into Pittsboro originate from the nearby city of Burlington. Late last year, the Haw River Assembly helped forge an agreement with the city, compelling it to identify the local facilities or companies responsible for discharging PFAS.
More broadly, Sutton says, regulatory agencies in the U.S. need to reconsider their priorities. The current system favors the introduction of new chemicals, products, or processes, only later limiting or removing them after they’re proved to be harmful. Sutton would rather bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality operate under the precautionary principle—the idea that the onus lies with companies and producers to prove something is harmless before it is introduced into the environment.
PFAS chemicals are a perfect example, she adds, saying that of the some 5,000 compounds in the category, scientists can only test for roughly 30. “We can’t regulate these compounds one at a time,” Sutton says. “The science exists to demonstrate that (they) should be regulated as a class because they’re equally as harmful. It’s such an obvious step that we could take as a country to prioritize the health of our communities rather than the profit of industries.”
Officials in the town insist that they are doing everything they can to improve the water quality. Chris Kennedy, the town manager for Pittsboro, told the Guardian that that while the town was not a contributor to PFAS, it was “still diligently working towards removing PFAS from our potable water supply.” Kennedy said the town was in the process of installing infrastructure that will remove at least 90 percent of PFAS by the end of the year and that it was taking steps where it could “to reduce contamination into the Haw River, which will provide the best results long term.”
Pittsboro itself stands at a crossroads. A new 7,100-acre mixed-use development is set to add as many as 60,000 people to the town. That kind of rapid growth is likely to squeeze low-income residents and exacerbate public health disparities that already exist in the community, says Jennifer Platt, a Pittsboro resident and adjunct professor of public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Platt, who has a 12-year-old son, installed a home filtration system after she first learned about the PFAS contamination, calling it “not affordable but mandatory.” But she also recognizes that many residents don’t have the means to do what she did.
“Here it’s about equity in terms of who understands the problem with the water and who’s able to deal with it,” the 51-year-old says.
Platt is part of the local Water Quality Task Force, which recently recommended that the town build a centralized water station—fitted with a reverse osmosis filtration system—where residents could access clean water. She adds that she would like to see the money from lawsuits against PFAS polluters redistributed to affected residents to subsidize filtration systems or bottled water.
But while she is optimistic now that the ball is rolling, the whole ordeal has highlighted the failures of government and regulatory agencies to keep people safe, particularly those in more marginalized areas, Platt says.
“Our national policies are not geared toward protecting us,” she says. “Poorer communities are bearing the brunt of our pollution. What we have to do now is to continue to mitigate the problem as best as we can until we have a permanent solution.”
Editor’s Note: Reporting in North Carolina for the Guardian was supported by the Water Foundation.
There’s another pandemic under our noses, and it kills 8.7m people year
Rebecca Solnit April 2, 2021
Photograph: Jeff Zehnder/Alamy
It is undeniably horrific that more than 2.8 million people have died of Covid-19 in the past 15 months. In roughly the same period, however, more than three times as many likely died of air pollution. This should disturb us for two reasons. One is the sheer number of air pollution deaths – 8.7 million a year, according to a recent study – and another is how invisible those deaths are, how accepted, how unquestioned. The coronavirus was a terrifying and novel threat, which made its dangers something much of the world rallied to try to limit. It was unacceptable – though by shades and degrees, many places came to accept it, by deciding to let the poor and marginalized take the brunt of sickness and death and displacement and to let medical workers get crushed by the workload.
We have learned to ignore other forms of death and destruction, by which I mean we have normalized them as a kind of moral background noise. This is, as much as anything, the obstacle to addressing chronic problems, from gender violence to climate change. What if we treated those 8.7 million annual deaths from air pollution as an emergency and a crisis – and recognized that respiratory impact from particulates is only a small part of the devastating impact of burning fossil fuels? For the pandemic we succeeded in immobilizing large populations, radically reducing air traffic, and changing the way many of us live, as well as releasing vast sums of money as aid to people financially devastated by the crisis. We could do that for climate change, and we must – but the first obstacle is the lack of a sense of urgency, the second making people understand that things could be different.
I have devoted much of my writing over the past 15 years to trying to foreground two normalized phenomena, violence against women and climate change. For all of us working to bring public attention to these crises, a major part of the problem is trying to get people engaged with something that is part of the status quo. We are designed to respond with alarm to something that just happened, that breaches norms, but not to things that have been going on for decades or centuries. The first task of most human rights and environmental movements is to make the invisible visible and to make what has long been accepted unacceptable. This has of course been done to some extent, with coal-burning power plants and with fracking in some places, but not with the overall causes of climate chaos.
The first obstacle is the lack of a sense of urgency, the second making people understand that things could be different
Climate change is invisible, in everyday political consciousness, because it occurs on a scale too vast in time and space to see with the naked eye and because it concerns imperceptible phenomena such as atmospheric composition. We can only see its effects – as cherry blossoms in Kyoto, Japan, peaking earlier this year than at any time since records began being kept in 812 AD, and even there the beauty of flowers is gloriously visible while the disturbance of seasonal patterns is dry data that is easy to miss. Other effects are often overlooked or denied – there were California wildfires before climate change, but they are bigger, stronger, faster, in a longer fire season now, and recognizing that also requires paying attention to data.
Among the striking phenomena of the early weeks of the pandemic were air quality and birdsong. In the quiet as human activity halted, many people reported hearing birds singing, and across the world air pollution levels dropped dramatically. In some places in India, the Himalayas were visible again, as they had not been for decades, meaning that one of the subtle losses of pollution was vistas. According to CNBC, at the outset of the pandemic, “New Delhi recorded a 60% fall of PM2.5 from 2019 levels, Seoul registered a 54% drop, while the fall in China’s Wuhan came in at 44%.” Returning to normal means drowning out the birds and blurring out the mountains and accepting 8.7 million air pollution deaths a year.
Those deaths have been normalized; they need to be denormalized. One way to do so is by drawing attention to the cumulative effect and the quantifiable results. Another is to map out how things could be different – in the case of climate change, this means reminding people that there is no status quo, but a world being dramatically transformed, and that only bold action will limit the extremes of this change. The energy landscape is also undergoing dramatic change: the coal industry has collapsed in many parts of the world, the oil and gas industry are in decline. Renewables are proliferating because they are steadily becoming more and more effective, efficient and increasingly cheaper than fossil-fuel generated power. A lot of attention was paid to whatever actions might have caused Covid-19 to cross from animals to humans, but the actions that take fossil fuel out of the ground to produce that pollution that kills 8.7 million annually, along with acidifying oceans and climate chaos, should be considered far more outrageous a transgression against public health and safety.
My hope for a post-pandemic world is that the old excuses for doing nothing about climate – that it is impossible to change the status quo and too expensive to do so – have been stripped away. In response to the pandemic, we in the US have spent trillions of dollars and changed how we live and work. We need the will to do the same for the climate crisis. The Biden administration has taken some encouraging steps but more is needed, both here and internationally. With a drawdown on carbon emissions and a move toward cleaner power, we could have a world with more birdsong and views of mountains and fewer pollution deaths. But first we have to recognize both the problem and the possibilities.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. She is also the author of Men Explain Things to Me and The Mother of All Questions. Her most recent book is Recollections of My Nonexistence
The Battle To Protect One Of America’s Last Wild Landscapes
Stephen Robert Miller, On Assignment For HuffPost
In the Owyhee Canyonlands of southeastern Oregon, the world unfolds at hip height. Sagebrush, the backbone of this high desert landscape, mostly grows only about that tall, and so Brewer’s sparrows and green-tailed towhees spend their time there too. Mule deer and antelope saunter through with heads bowed to nip at tender buds, and circling red-tailed hawks keep their sharp eyes trained for movement in the twigs. Lower down, pygmy rabbits hop, threatened greater sage grouse court mates and complex relationships between soil, water and insects play out discreetly.
A person can stand in the pungent spray of the sagebrush sea and look over an entire universe that rarely rises higher than their elbow. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so overlooked.
Sagebrush-dominated ecosystems spread across more than 250,000 square miles of the American West, from Colorado to California, Washington down to Arizona, and 70% of it is publicly owned.
Despite this dominance, shrub and grasslands are some of the least-protected ecosystems in the country. Regal forests and snow-capped mountains are disproportionately represented in the nation’s wilderness protection programs, while sagebrush ecosystems have been cut to pieces by roads, developed for homes and fossil fuel extraction, mined, logged and heavily grazed by cattle. Today, sagebrush occupies only half its historic extent.
However, one gem of the sagebrush steppe still exists, largely untouched, in a rugged and remote corner of southeast Oregon. The Owyhee Canyonlands are home to 2.5 million acres of painted hills, basalt cliffs and free-flowing rivers. The area’s remoteness, its few roads and dark night skies have insulated hundreds of Indigenous ancestral sites and some 350 threatened animal and plant species in one of the largest intact landscapes remaining in the West.
“It’s the last best place in the Lower 48. There’s no other place like it,” said Corie Harlan, an environmental conservationist with the Oregon Natural Desert Association who has been working to win federal protection for the Owyhee. The region has spent the past 50 years engaged in a bitter and sometimes violent dispute between ranchers who depend on access to public land and conservationists who want it taken out of production.
For the first time in a long time, however, Harlan sees light on the horizon. As the impacts of development and climate change have mounted on the landscape, these opposing groups have been backed into the same corner. Now, they are close to finding their way out through an unlikely collaboration that could establish the largest national wilderness area in the contiguous U.S. and create a model for how to share what remains of this neglected landscape.
“This is an ecosystem that you need to tread lightly in,” said Diane Teeman, culture and heritage director for the Burns Paiute Tribe in Burns, Oregon. Her tribe is one of many Paiute and Shoshone tribes whose aboriginal lands encompass the Owyhee and much of the sageland in Oregon, Idaho and Nevada.
In spring, she continues a generations-old practice of collecting bitterroot, biscuitroot and medicinal plants and trapping Western marmot. “We have a reciprocal relationship with everything else,” she said. “I like to think that even the way we go about collecting things helps to improve those things.”
In the 1860s, the land began to change in ways the tribes couldn’t control. First, corporate ranching operations pushed thousands of cattle across the range, watering the animals in sacred springs and streams. Then towns took form, Teeman’s ancestors were pushed out of their homes, and settlers began fencing off property and rerouting streams to irrigate crops. Malheur County, which encompasses the Owyhee Canyonlands, was established in 1887. Although there are now also onion farmers, teachers, health care workers, Kraft Heinz manufacturing technicians, restaurateurs and budtenders, ranchers have long dominated the region’s economy, leaving their mark on its culture and landscape.
Elias Eiguren’s great-grandfather emigrated from Spain’s Basque country and purchased 3,000 acres of ranchland near Jordan Valley the same year the United States entered World War I. Today, Eiguren and his family raise hay and cattle on 700 of those original acres. In March, he is preparing to turn the animals loose for summer grazing on 40,000 acres of public land he leases from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). First, calves will be branded, castrated and vaccinated. “Then we open the gate and kick them out,” he said.
For ranchers, access to public grazing land is essential. Malheur is the poorest county in Oregon, and town economies often depend on ranching. About 94% of the county is rangeland, mostly managed by the BLM for multiple uses, which includes ranching, logging, mining, recreating, as well as maintaining natural and cultural resources. Cows don’t tread lightly, however. Intense grazing erodes soil and beats up brush, and as environmental sentiments have grown alongside interest in outdoor recreation, conservationists have gained traction arguing that public land should be protected rather than offered up for use by private enterprise.
“Those ideas are clashing,” Eiguren said. In 2016, they came to a deadly crescendo about 100 miles due west of Owyhee Canyon, when a group of far-right extremists occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge over — at least superficially — grazing rights. The confrontation was just the most visible example of disagreements that had been plaguing the region for generations.
A few months earlier, Portland, Oregon-based Keen Footwear had launched a campaign to pressure then-President Barack Obama into designating 2.5 million acres of the Owyhee region as a national monument. Conservationists had been pushing for some kind of formal protection to supersede the current patchwork of flimsy federal oversight. A monument designation would also highlight the swift waters, open skies and winding trails of the Owyhee at a time when outdoor recreation was emerging as an influential economic force. But the monument never had broad support.
Locals complained that recreation dollars would flow past their communities, tribes were concerned their access to sacred places may be restricted, and even conservationists like Harlan worried that a monument would pile too much attention onto a vulnerable landscape.
“We never said we wanted a national monument,” Harlan recounted. She would have preferred a wilderness designation for the land — the strongest federal protection — and wild and scenic river status for the waters, but “at the end the day, this landscape needs to be protected,” she said, so ONDA supported it.
To ranchers, the prospect of a national monument presented an imminent economic as well as existential threat.
“It was folks who don’t live in the area inserting themselves in the conversation without being practical about what was happening on the ground,” Eiguren said. He quickly joined the Owyhee Basin Stewardship Coalition for the sole purpose of blocking the proposal.
About a month after the last of the Malheur refuge occupiers had given up their standoff, Malheur County residents overwhelmingly rejected the idea of an Owyhee Canyonlands National Monument in a symbolic vote intended to guide the president’s hand. Their message was heard; Obama established 26 monuments under the Antiquities Act, but none in the Owyhee.
For Eiguren, who by this point recognized that environmentalists would not be going away, it was a short-lived victory that left him contemplating the next step. “We fought off what we don’t want,” he said, “but what the hell is it that we do want?”
While these arguments have been dragging on, the land itself has been changing, sinking deeper into a prolonged drought. Air has become hotter, soil has baked, snowpack has diminished and stream water temperature has risen — all of which is in line with scientific models of climate change.
The Paiute and Shoshone have seen how these changes affect species they depend on, especially native trout. “I’m troubled by what seems like a degradation of the ecosystem’s health,” Teeman said. “So many of those plants and animals that we have a relationship with are disappearing. The soil and overall health looks like it’s deteriorating.”
Many tribes have invested in natural restoration to remove invasive weeds, cut back encroaching juniper, return bends to streams that were straightened for irrigation and plant shade trees to cool the water. Their efforts are preserving the most valuable pockets of intact habitat, but by far, the most unavoidable examples of change are the large and violently intense wildfires.
Fire is nothing new here. Sagebrush and other steppe species depend on it, and tribes have used it to manage the land. In recent years, though, wildfires driven by heavy fuel loads and extreme aridity have grown larger and more intense, outpacing the historic fire regime. Tearing across the landscape at 30 miles an hour, they carbonize old-growth sagebrush, decimate bird and rabbit populations and pave the way for invasive weeds like cheatgrass and medusahead rye, which rise from their ashes. These diminish sage-dependent habitat while adding fuel to future fires.
Eiguren recalls the Long Draw Fire of 2012 with particular horror. The firestorm began with a lightning strike in early July and tore across more than 550,000 acres in just over a week. Some Malheur County ranchers lost a third of their herds and were forced to euthanize many more injured animals. Just a month later, the Holloway Fire burned another 430,000 acres spanning the Oregon-Nevada border. And the fires have kept coming: About 108,000 acres burned in 2013; then 290,000 in 2014; 126,000 in 2015 and another 46,000 in 2016. Last year, 53,000 acres burned in Malheur County.
For Eiguren, it has all been proof of something ranchers already know: drought and a century of heavy grazing have left them exposed. “The problem is we’ve been doing the same thing for so long that we’ve changed the landscape and made it susceptible to giant wildfires and open to infestation by invasives,” he said.
In 2019, buoyed by their successful quashing of the national monument, Malheur’s ranchers came to the table with a compromise. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) mediated conversations with conservationists to finally settle the question of how to manage and protect 2.5 million acres of Oregon’s high desert.
Ranchers agreed to preserve more than a million acres of the Owhyee as national wilderness, in the resulting Malheur Community Empowerment for the Owyhee Act. The rest would be managed by the BLM with unusually flexible grazing permits that allow cattle to run on shoulder seasons (by switching up grazing patterns they hope to quell wildfires and invasive plants) and with an exclusion under the National Environmental Policy Act intended to decouple local decision-making from elephantine federal bureaucracy.
“The nature of compromise means that you’re trying new and somewhat uncomfortable approaches,” Harlan said, noting that some environmentalists scoff at the exemption, which ranchers see as critical. “These are groups that were going toe-to-toe three years ago. We think that trying is a better path forward than the gridlock we’ve experienced.”
Eiguren hopes the bill, should it pass through Congress on its second attempt (a first attempt stalled in 2020), will settle some of the acrimony that has tarnished his relationship with environmental nonprofits over the years. “They look at a cattleman as someone who wants to steal every blade of grass that they can,” he said. “If the land is healthy, then our families and communities will be healthy and our businesses will continue to thrive.”
There is another reason to put this debate in the Owyhee to rest, and it can’t be measured in pasture yields, recreation dollars or ecosystem assessments. The proposed protection area harbors at least 500 known archaeological sites built and occupied by Teeman’s ancestors. An archaeologist by training, she recognizes their value as windows into the past, but says that only scratches the surface.
“The tribe has its own values and considerations, because we have a completely different worldview than the mainstream cattle rancher and mainstream conservationist,” she said. The tribe’s primary goal is to protect its ancestors, who exist in these ancient petroglyphs and rock structures. And she worries that grazing and recreation will be prioritized in ways that aren’t conducive to maintaining the tribe’s relationships with the land.
“We have a responsibility to help other things that aren’t recognized as having personhood,” she said. “Are we doing a good enough job of speaking for those that can’t speak for themselves?”
CORRECTION: This piece was amended to correct the location of the Malheur occupation. It was 100 miles due west of Owyhee Canyon and not east as originally stated.
Biden administration launches major push to expand offshore wind power
Initiative by Commerce, Energy, Interior and Transportation departments aims to tackle climate change while boosting union jobs
By Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis March 29, 2021
The White House on Monday detailed an ambitious plan to expand wind farms along the East Coast and jump-start the country’s nascent offshore wind industry, saying it hoped to trigger a massive clean-energy effort in the fight against climate change.
The plan would generate 30 gigawatts of offshore wind power by the end of the decade — enough to power more than 10 million American homes and cut 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. To accomplish that, the Biden administration said, it would speed permitting for projects off the East Coast, invest in research and development, provide low-interest loans to industry and fund changes to U.S. ports.
“We are ready to rock-and-roll,” national climate adviser Gina McCarthy told reporters in a phone call Monday. She framed the effort as being as much about jobs as about clean energy. Offshore wind power will generate “thousands of good-paying union jobs. This is all about creating great jobs in the ocean and in our port cities and in our heartland,” she said.
Administration officials said they would speed up offshore wind development by setting concrete deadlines for reviewing and approving permit applications; establish a new wind energy area in the waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast; invest $230 million to upgrade U.S. ports; and provide $3 billion in potential loans for the offshore wind industry through the Energy Department.
The program also instructs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to share data with Orsted, a Danish offshore wind development firm, about the U.S. waters where it holds leases. NOAA will grant $1 million to help study the impact of offshore wind operations on fishing operators as well as coastal communities.
The National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium, a joint project of the Energy Department and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, will give $8 million in research grants to 15 offshore wind research and development projects.
Unlike other renewable-energy sectors, offshore wind represents one of the most labor-friendly opportunities for U.S. workers because these projects require regular operations and maintenance support. It holds significant potential for creating the kind of high-paying renewable-energy jobs promised by the administration, although the projects typically employ fewer people than major fossil-fuel pipelines.
In November, Orsted signed an agreement with the North America’s Building Trades Unions to transition some of its workers into offshore wind, and the company has provided support to train members of the Masters, Mates and Pilots union.
Investing money in ports, moreover, can provide job opportunities in disadvantaged communities along the country’s coasts.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm called the Biden plan an example of “clean-energy patriotism” — investing in U.S. industries and U.S. workers.
“It does reflect this whole-of-government embrace,” said Granholm, who joined the call with McCarthy, along with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. “We all have a role to play.”
Raimondo, who as Rhode Island governor grew familiar with the only offshore wind farm operating along the East Coast, said that wind energy proves that environmentalism isn’t at odds with a strong economy. “That tired old view that you have to choose between meeting the needs of climate change and creating jobs is old-fashioned, failed thinking in the first place,” she said.
Although offshore wind represents the fastest-growing sector in renewable power, the country remains far behind Europe.
Europe already has 24 gigawatts of operational capacity, and Britain alone aims to have 40 gigawatts online by 2030, said Vegard Wiik Vollset, vice president of renewable energy at Rystad Energy, which analyzes the energy sector.
“Compared to Europe, the U.S. is very much in its infancy,” he said.
But wind power is poised to take off along the East Coast, with recent commitments from several states — Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Virginia — to buy at least 25,000 megawatts of offshore electricity by 2035, according to the American Clean Power Association.
As part of Monday’s announcement, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management said it will start preparing an environmental-impact statement for Ocean Wind, a New Jersey project that has 1,100 megawatts of capacity.
Although Ocean Wind has the potential to power 300,000 homes, it has generated controversy among some Ocean City, N.J., residents, who complain that a chain of turbines could spoil views and hamper tourism. The project would be built about 15 miles off the coast of southern New Jersey.
Jim Donofrio, executive director of the New Jersey-based Recreational Fishing Alliance, is among the opponents. He worries about long-term impacts on fisheries and argues that too many of the jobs related to the wind farms will be temporary. “New Jersey is ground zero,” Donofrio said in an interview. “Our intention is to beat them here and make an example of what needs to be done elsewhere to keep them out.”
But advocates such as Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said widespread misinformation exists about the potential impacts of the project. A massive wind farm just offshore can provide more reliable power to the region and better air quality, not to mention thousands of jobs tied to the industry, Tittel said. “The alternative for New Jersey will be more natural gas plants and more pipelines and more fracking,” he said.
Commercialfishing operators also have raised concerns about the impact of wind farms in the Atlantic Ocean, an area critical to the seafood industry.
David Frulla, a partner at the firm Kelley, Drye and Warren who represents the trade association for the Atlantic scallop fishery, said in an interview that his clients have warned federal officials for years about the risks posed by offshore wind development plans.
For example, the southeast tip of an area the administration has identified in the New York Bight called Hudson North intersects with a scallop fishing spot, he said. The eastern perimeter of a second area, Hudson South, is just at the edge of an important area for scallops, Frulla said. Altogether, he said, the scallop catch in the New York Bight is worth tens of millions of dollars a year.
“We were saying, ‘Don’t roll the dice,’ ” Frulla said. “They rolled the dice.”
The group Frulla represents, the Fisheries Survival Fund, has a case pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that challenges a decision by the Obama administration to auction offshore leases in the New York region without first doing a complete environmental analysis. In that instance, federal officials said they did not have to conduct a full analysis until a company has proposed a construction and operations plan.
By delaying the analysis by several years, Frulla said, the government made it almost impossible to block the project. “Essentially it’s a foregone conclusion,” he said. “There’s so much investment.”
Most environmental groups endorse offshore wind development, though Joel Merriman of the American Bird Conservancy said Monday that federal officials should analyze the impact on specific species. “This shows promise as a major step in combating climate change, but environmental impacts must be minimized,” he said.
President Donald Trump repeatedly disparaged wind energy, mostly referring to land-based wind turbines for killing birds and pulling down property values. But his administration held offshore lease sales in North Carolina and Massachusetts, and analyzed the Atlantic’s overall wind farm potential.
The Biden administration is moving ahead even faster. Earlier this month, the Interior Department approved an environmental review for Vineyard Wind, off the Massachusetts coast, which could become the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind project.
“For generations, we’ve put off the transition to green energy, and now we face a climate crisis,” Haaland told reporters. “It’s a crisis that doesn’t discriminate. … We must seize this tremendous opportunity.”
Darryl Fears contributed to this report.
Juliet Eilperin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior national affairs correspondent for The Washington Post, covering environmental and energy policy. She has written two books, “Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks” and “Fight Club Politics: How Partisanship is Poisoning the House of Representatives.”
Brady Dennis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning national reporter for The Washington Post, focusing on the environment and public health. He previously spent years covering the nation’s economy.
How the global demand for seafood is leading Chinese factories to pollute an African nation
Ian Urbina, The Outlaw Ocean Project. Contributor
Gunjur, a town of some fifteen thousand people, sits on the Atlantic coastline of southern Gambia, the smallest country on the African continent. During the day, its white-sand beaches are full of activity. Fishermen steer long, vibrantly painted wooden canoes, known as pirogues, toward the shore, where they transfer their still-fluttering catch to women waiting at the water’s edge. The fish are hauled off to nearby open-air markets in rusty metal wheelbarrows or in baskets balanced on heads. Small boys play soccer as tourists watch from lounge chairs. At nightfall, work ends and the beach is dotted with bonfires. There is drumming and kora lessons; men with oiled chests grapple in traditional wrestling matches.
Hike five minutes inland, and you’ll find a more tranquil setting: a wildlife reserve known as Bolong Fenyo. Established by the Gunjur community in 2008, the reserve is meant to protect seven hundred and ninety acres of beach, mangrove swamp, wetland, savannah, and an oblong lagoon. The lagoon, a half mile long and a few hundred yards wide, has been a lush habitat for a remarkable variety of migratory birds as well as humped-back dolphins, epaulet fruit bats, Nile crocodiles, and callithrix monkeys. A marvel of biodiversity, the reserve has been integral to the region’s ecological health—and, with hundreds of birders and other tourists visiting each year, to its economic health, too.
But on the morning of May 22, 2017, the Gunjur community discovered that the Bolong Fenyo lagoon had turned a cloudy crimson overnight, dotted with floating dead fish. “Everything is red,” one local reporter wrote, “and every living thing is dead.” Some residents wondered if the apocalyptic scene was an omen delivered in blood. More likely, ceriodaphnia, or water fleas, had turned the water red in response to sudden changes in pH or oxygen levels. Locals soon reported that many of the birds were no longer nesting near the lagoon.
A few residents filled bottles with water from the lagoon and brought them to the one person in town they thought might be able to help—Ahmed Manjang. Born and raised in Gunjur, Manjang now lives in Saudi Arabia, where he works as a senior microbiologist. He happened to be home visiting his extended family, and he collected his own samples for analysis, sending them to a laboratory in Germany. The results were alarming. The water contained double the amount of arsenic and forty times the amount of phosphates and nitrates deemed safe. The following spring, he wrote a letter to Gambia’s environmental minister, calling the death of the lagoon “an absolute disaster.” Pollution at these levels, Manjang concluded, could only have one source: illegally dumped waste from a Chinese fish-processing plant called Golden Lead, which operates on the edge of the reserve. Gambian environmental authorities fined the company twenty-five thousand dollars, an amount that Manjang described as “paltry and offensive.”
Golden Lead is one outpost of an ambitious Chinese economic and geopolitical agenda known as the Belt and Road Initiative, which the Chinese government has said is meant to build goodwill abroad, boost economic cooperation, and provide otherwise inaccessible development opportunities to poorer nations. As part of the initiative, China has become the largest foreign financier of infrastructure development in Africa, cornering the market on most of the continent’s road, pipeline, power plant and port projects. In 2017, China cancelled fourteen million dollars in Gambian debt and invested thirty-three million to develop agriculture and fisheries, including Golden Lead and two other fish-processing plants along the fifty-mile Gambian coast. The residents of Gunjur were told that Golden Lead would bring jobs, a fish market, and a newly paved, three-mile road through the heart of town.
Golden Lead and the other factories were rapidly built to meet an exploding global demand for fishmeal—a lucrative golden powder made by pulverizing and cooking fish. Exported to the United States, Europe, and Asia, fishmeal is used as a protein-rich supplement in the booming industry of fish farming, or aquaculture. West Africa is among the world’s fastest-growing producers of fishmeal: more than fifty processing plants operate along the shores of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, and Gambia. The volume of fish they consume is enormous: one plant in Gambia alone takes in more than seven thousand five hundred tons of fish a year, mostly of a local type of shad known as bonga—a silvery fish about ten inches long.
For the area’s local fishermen, most of whom toss their nets by hand from pirogues powered by small outboard motors, the rise of aquaculture has transformed their daily working conditions: hundreds of legal and illegal foreign fishing boats, including industrial trawlers and purse seiners, crisscross the waters off the Gambian coast, decimating the region’s fish stocks and jeopardizing local livelihoods.
At the Tanji fish market in summer of 2019, Abdul Sisai stood at a table offering four sickly-looking catfish for sale. The table swarmed with flies, the air was thick with smoke from nearby curing sheds, and menacing seagulls dive-bombed for scraps. Sisai said that bonga had been so plentiful two decades ago that in some markets it had been given away for free. Now it costs more than most local residents can afford. He supplements his income by selling trinkets near the tourist resorts in the evenings.
“Sibijan deben,” Sisai said in Mandinka, one of the major languages in Gambia. Locals use the phrase, which refers to the shade of the tall palm tree, to describe the effects of extractive export industries: the profits are enjoyed by people far from the source—the trunk. In the past several years, the price of bonga has increased exponentially, according to the Association for the Promotion and Empowerment of Marine Fishers, a Senegalese-based research-and-education group. Half the Gambian population lives below the international poverty line—and fish, primarily bonga, accounts for half of the country’s animal-protein needs.
After Golden Lead was fined, in 2019, it stopped releasing its toxic effluent directly into the lagoon. Instead, it ran a long wastewater pipe under a nearby public beach, dumping waste directly into the sea. Swimmers soon started complaining of rashes, the ocean grew thick with seaweed, and thousands of dead fish washed ashore, along with eels, rays, turtles, dolphins, and even whales. Residents burned scented candles and incense to combat the rancid odor coming from the fish meal plants, and tourists wore white masks. The stench of rotten fish clung to clothes, even after repeated washing.
Jojo Huang, the director of the plant, has said publicly that the facility follows all regulations and “does not pump chemicals into the sea.” The plant has benefited the town, she told The Guardian.
In March 2018, about a hundred and fifty local shopkeepers, youth and fishermen, wielding shovels and pickaxes, gathered on the beach to dig up the pipe and destroy it. Two months later, with the government’s approval, workers from Golden Lead installed a new pipe, this time planting a Chinese flag alongside it. The gesture carried colonialist overtones. One local called it “the new imperialism.”
Manjang was outraged. “It makes no sense!” he told me, when I visited him in Gunjur at his family compound, an enclosed three-acre plot with several simple brick houses and a garden of cassava, orange, and avocado trees. Behind Manjang’s thick-rimmed glasses, his gaze is gentle and direct as he speaks urgently about the perils facing Gambia’s environment. “The Chinese are exporting our bonga fish to feed it to their tilapia fish, which they’re shipping back here to Gambia to sell to us, more expensively—but only after it’s been pumped full of hormones and antibiotics.” Adding to the absurdity, he noted, is that tilapia are herbivores that normally eat algae and other sea plants, so they have to be trained to consume fish meal.
Manjang contacted environmentalists and journalists, along with Gambian lawmakers, but was soon warned by the Gambian trade minister that pushing the issue would only jeopardize foreign investment. Dr. Bamba Banja, the head of the Ministry of Fisheries and Water Resources, was dismissive, telling a local reporter that the awful stench was just “the smell of money.”
Global demand for seafood has doubled since the nineteen-sixties. Our appetite for fish has outpaced what we can sustainably catch: more than eighty per cent of the world’s wild fish stocks have collapsed or are unable to withstand more fishing. Aquaculture has emerged as an alternative—a shift, as the industry likes to say, from capture to culture.
The fastest-growing segment of global food production, the aquaculture industry is worth a hundred and sixty billion dollars and accounts for roughly half of the world’s fish consumption. Even as retail seafood sales at restaurants and hotels have plummeted during the pandemic, the dip has been offset in many places by the increase in people cooking fish at home. The United States imports eighty percent of its seafood, most of which is farmed. The bulk of that comes from China, by far the world’s largest producer, where fish are grown in sprawling landlocked pools or in pens offshore spanning several square miles.
Aquaculture has existed in rudimentary forms for centuries, and it does have some clear benefits over catching fish in the wild. It reduces the problem of bycatch—the thousands of tons of unwanted fish that are swept up each year by the gaping nets of industrial fishing boats, only to suffocate and be tossed back into the sea. And farming bivalves—oysters, clams, and mussels—promises a cheaper form of protein than traditional fishing for wild-caught species. In India and other parts of Asia, these farms have become a crucial source of jobs, especially for women. Aquaculture makes it easier for wholesalers to ensure that their supply chains are not indirectly supporting illegal fishing, environmental crimes, or forced labor. There’s potential for environmental benefits, too: with the right protocols, aquaculture uses less fresh water and arable land than most animal agriculture. Farmed seafood produces a quarter of the carbon emissions per pound that beef does, and two-thirds of what pork does.
Still, there are also hidden costs. When millions of fish are crowded together, they generate a lot of waste. If they’re penned in shallow coastal pools, the solid waste turns into a thick slime on the seafloor, smothering all plants and animals. Nitrogen and phosphorus levels spike in surrounding waters, causing algal blooms, killing wild fish, and driving away tourists. Bred to grow faster and bigger, the farmed fish sometimes escape their enclosures and threaten indigenous species.
Even so, it’s clear that if we are to feed the planet’s growing human population, which depends on animal protein, we will need to rely heavily on industrial aquaculture. Leading environmental groups have embraced this idea. In a 2019 report, the Nature Conservancy called for more investment in fish farms, arguing that by 2050 the industry should become our primary source of seafood. Many conservationists say that fish farming can be made even more sustainable with tighter oversight, improved methods for composting waste, and new technologies for recirculating the water in on-land pools. Some have pushed for aquaculture farms to be located farther from shore in deeper waters with faster and more diluting currents.
The biggest challenge to farming fish is feeding them. Food constitutes roughly seventy per cent of the industry’s overhead, and so far the only commercially viable source of feed is fish meal. Perversely, the aquaculture farms that produce some of the most popular seafood, such as carp, salmon, or European sea bass, actually consume more fish than they ship to supermarkets and restaurants. Before it gets to market, a “ranched” tuna can eat more than fifteen times its weight in free-roaming fish that has been converted to fishmeal. About a quarter of all fish caught globally at sea end up as fish meal, produced by factories like those on the Gambian coast. Researchers have identified various potential alternatives—including human sewage, seaweed, cassava waste, soldier-fly larvae, and single-cell proteins produced by viruses and bacteria—but none is being produced affordably at scale. So, for now, fish meal it is.
The result is a troubling paradox: the seafood industry is ostensibly trying to slow the rate of ocean depletion, but by farming the fish we eat most, it is draining the stock of many other fish—the ones that never make it to the aisles of Western supermarkets. Gambia exports much of its fish meal to China and Norway, where it fuels an abundant and inexpensive supply of farmed salmon for European and American consumption. Meanwhile, the fish Gambians themselves rely on for their survival are rapidly disappearing.
In September 2019, Gambian lawmakers gathered in the stately but neglected hall of the National Assembly for an annual meeting, where James Gomez, minister of the country’s fisheries and water resources, insisted that “Gambian fisheries are thriving. ” Industrial fishing boats and plants represent the largest employer of Gambians in the country, including hundreds of deckhands, factory workers, truck drivers, and industry regulators. When a lawmaker asked him about the criticisms of the three fish-meal plants, including their voracious consumption of bonga, Gomez refused to engage. “Boats are not taking more than a sustainable amount,” he said, adding that Gambian waters even have enough fish to sustain two more plants.
Under the best circumstances, estimating the health of a nation’s fish stock is a murky science. Marine researchers like to say that counting fish is like counting trees, except they’re mostly invisible—below the surface—and constantly moving. Ad Corten, a Dutch fishing biologist, told me that the task is even tougher in a place like West Africa, where countries lack the funding to properly analyze their stocks. The only reliable assessments of fish stocks in the area have focused on Mauritania, Corten said, and they show a sharp decline driven by the fish-meal industry. “Gambia is the worst of them all,” he said, noting that the fisheries ministry barely tracks how many fish are caught by licensed ships, much less the unlicensed ones. As fish stocks have been depleted, many wealthier nations have increased their marine policing, often by stepping up port inspections, imposing steep fines for violations, and using satellites to spot illicit activity at sea. They also have required industrial boats to carry mandatory observers and to install monitoring devices onboard. But Gambia, like many poorer countries, has historically lacked the political will, technical skill, and financial capacity to exert its authority offshore.
Still, though it has no police boats of its own, Gambia is trying to better protect its waters. In August 2019, I joined a secret patrol that the fisheries agency was conducting with the help of an international ocean conservation group called Sea Shepherd, which had brought—as surreptitiously as it could—a one-hundred-and-eighty-four-foot ship called the Sam Simon into the area. It’s equipped with extra fuel capacity, to allow for long patrols, and a doubly reinforced steel hull for ramming into other boats.
In Gambia, the nine miles of water closest to the shore have been reserved for local fishermen, but on any given day dozens of foreign trawlers are visible from the beach. Sea Shepherd’s mission was to find and board trespassers, or other vessels engaged in prohibited behaviors, such as shark finning or netting juvenile fish. In the past few years, the group has worked with African governments in Gabon, Liberia, Tanzania, Benin, and Namibia to conduct similar patrols. Some fisheries experts have criticized these collaborations as publicity stunts, but they have led to the arrest of more than fifty illegal fishing ships.
Barely a dozen local government officials had been informed about the Sea Shepherd mission. To avoid being spotted by fishermen, the group brought in several small speed boats at night and used them to spirit a dozen heavily armed Gambian Navy and fisheries officers out to the Sam Simon. We were joined on the patrol by two gruff private-security contractors from Israel, who were training the Gambian officers in military procedures for boarding ships. While we waited on the moonlit deck, one of the Gambian guards, dressed in a crisp blue-and-white camouflage uniform, showed me a music video on his phone by one of Gambia’s best-known rappers, ST Brikama Boyo. He translated the lyrics of a song, called “Fuwareyaa,” which means “poverty”: “People like us don’t have meat and the Chinese have taken our sea from us in Gunjur and now we don’t have fish.”
Three hours after we embarked, the foreign ships had all but vanished, in what appeared to be a coordinated flight from the forbidden waters. Sensing that word about the operation had gotten out, the Sam Simon’s captain changed plans. Instead of focusing on the smaller unlicensed ships close to land that were mostly from neighboring African countries, he would conduct surprise at-sea inspections of the fifty-five industrial ships that were licensed to be in Gambian waters. It was a bold move: marine officers would be boarding larger, well-financed ships, many of them with political connections in China and Gambia.
Less than an hour later, we pulled alongside the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010, a hundred-and-thirty-four-foot electric-blue trawler streaked with rust, operated by a Chinese company called Qingdao Tangfeng Ocean Fishery, a company that supplies all three of Gambia’s fish-meal plants. A team of eight Gambian officers from the Sam Simon boarded the ship, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. One officer was so nervous that he forgot the bullhorn he was assigned to carry. Another officer’s sunglasses fell into the sea as he leaped onto the deck.
Onboard the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 were seven Chinese officers and a crew of four Gambians and thirty-five Senegalese. The Gambian marine officers soon began grilling the ship’s captain, a short man named Shenzhong Qui who wore a shirt smeared with fish guts. Below deck, ten African crew members in yellow gloves and stained smocks stood shoulder to shoulder on either side of a conveyor belt, sorting bonga, mackerel, and whitefish into pans. Nearby, the floor-to-ceiling rows of freezers were barely cold. Roaches scurried up the walls and across the floor, where some fish had been stepped on and squashed.
I spoke to one of the workers who told me his name was Lamin Jarju and agreed to step away from the line to talk. Though no one could hear us above the deafening ca-thunk, ca-thunk of the conveyor, he lowered his voice before explaining that the ship had been fishing within the nine-mile zone until the captain received a radioed warning from nearby ships that a policing effort was under way.
When I asked Jarju why he was willing to reveal the ship’s violation, he said, “Follow me.” He led me up two levels to the roof of the wheel room, where the captain works. He showed me a large nest of crumpled newspapers, clothing, and blankets, where, he said, several crew members had been sleeping for the past several weeks, ever since the captain hired more workers than the ship could accommodate. “They treat us like dogs,” Jarju said.
When I returned to the deck, an argument was escalating. A Gambian Navy lieutenant named Modou Jallow had discovered that the ship’s fishing log book was blank. All captains are required to maintain log books and keep detailed diaries that document where they go, how long they work, what gear they use, and what they catch. The lieutenant had issued an arrest order for the infraction and was yelling in Chinese at Captain Qui, who was incandescent with rage. “No one keeps that!” he shouted.
He was not wrong. Paperwork violations are common, especially on fishing boats working along the coast of West Africa, where countries don’t always provide clear guidance about their rules. Fishing-boat captains tend to view log books as tools of bribe-seeking bureaucrats or as statistical cudgels of conservationists bent on closing fishing grounds.
But the lack of proper logs makes it almost impossible to determine how quickly Gambia’s waters are being depleted. Scientists rely on biological surveys, scientific modelling and mandatory reports from fish dealers on shore to assess fish stocks. And they use log books to determine fishing locations, depths, dates, gear descriptions, and “fishing effort”—how long nets or lines are in the water relative to the quantity of fish caught.
Jallow ordered the fishing Captain to steer his ship back to port, and the argument moved from the upper deck down to the engine room, where the Captain claimed he needed a few hours to fix a pipe—enough time, the Sam Simon crew suspected, for the Captain to contact his bosses in China and ask them to call in a favor with high-level Gambian officials. Jallow, sensing a stalling tactic, smacked the Captain in the face. “You will make the fix in an hour!” Jallow shouted, grabbing the Captain by the throat. “And I will watch you do it.” Twenty minutes later, the Lu Lao Yuan Yu 010 was en route to shore.
Over the next several weeks, the Sam Simon inspected fourteen foreign ships, most of them Chinese and licensed to fish in Gambian waters, and arrested thirteen of them. Under arrest, ships are typically detained in port for several weeks and fined anywhere from five thousand to fifty thousand dollars. All but one vessel was charged with lacking a proper fishing-log book, and many were also fined for improper living conditions and for violating a law that stipulates Gambians must comprise twenty per cent of shipping crews on industrial vessels in national waters. On one Chinese-owned vessel, there weren’t enough boots for the deckhands, and one Senegalese worker was pricked by a catfish whisker while wearing flip flops. His swollen foot, oozing from the puncture wound, looked like a rotting eggplant. On another ship, eight workers slept in a space meant for two, a four-foot-tall steel-sided compartment directly above the engine room and dangerously hot. When high waves crashed onboard, the water flooded the makeshift cabin, where, the workers said, an electrical power strip had twice almost electrocuted them.
Back in Banjul, one rainy afternoon I sought out Manneh, the local Gambian journalist and environmental advocate. We met in the white-tiled lobby of the Laico Atlantic hotel, decorated with fake potted plants and thick yellow drapes. Pachelbel’s Canon played in an endless loop in the background, accompanied by the plinking of water dripping from the ceiling into half a dozen buckets. Manneh had recently returned to Gambia after a year in Cyprus, where he had fled after his father and brother had been arrested for political activism against Yahya Jammeh, a brutal autocrat who was eventually forced from power in 2017. Manneh, who told me that he hoped to become President one day, offered to take me to the Golden Lead factory.
The next day, Manneh returned in a Toyota Corolla he had hired for the difficult drive. Most of the road from the hotel to Golden Lead was dirt, which recent rains had turned into a treacherous slalom course of deep and almost impassable craters. The trip was about thirty miles, and took nearly two hours. Over the din of a missing muffler, he prepared me for the visit. “Cameras away,” he cautioned. “No saying anything critical about fish meal.” Just a week before my arrival that some of the same fishermen who had pulled up the plant’s wastewater pipe had apparently switched sides, attacking a team of European researchers who had come to photograph the facility, pelting them with rocks and rotten fish. Though they opposed the dumping and resented the export of their fish, some locals did not want foreign media publicizing Gambia’s problems.
We finally pulled up at the entrance of the plant, five hundred yards from the beach, behind a ten-foot wall of white corrugated metal. An acrid stench, like burning orange peels and rotting meat, assaulted us as soon as we got out of the car. Between the factory and the beach was a muddy patch of land, studded with palm trees and strewn with litter, where fishermen were repairing their boats in thatched-roof huts. The day’s catch lay on a set of folding tables, where women were cleaning, smoking, and drying it for sale. One of the women wore a hijab dripping wet from the surf. When I asked her about the catch, she shot me a dour look and tipped her basket toward me. It was barely half-full. “We can’t compete,” she said. Pointing at the factory, she added, “It all goes there.”
The Golden Lead plant consists of several football-field-size concrete buildings, and sixteen silos, where dried fish meal and chemicals were stored. Fish meal is relatively simple to make, and the process is highly mechanized, which means that plants the size of Golden Lead need only about a dozen men on the floor at any given time. Video footage clandestinely taken by a fishmeal worker inside Golden Lead reveals the plant is cavernous, dusty, hot, and dark. Sweating profusely, several men shovel shiny heaps of bonga into a steel funnel. A conveyor belt carries the fish into a vat, where a giant churning screw grinds it into a gooey paste, and then into a long cylindrical oven, where oil is extracted from the goo. The remaining substance is pulverized into a fine powder and dumped onto the floor in the middle of the warehouse, where it accumulates into a ten-foot-tall golden mound. After the powder cools, workers shovel it into fifty-kilogram plastic sacks stacked floor to ceiling. A shipping container holds four hundred bags, and the men fill roughly twenty to forty containers a day.
Near the entrance of Golden Lead, a dozen or so young men hustled from shore to plant with baskets on their heads, brimming with bonga. Nearby, standing under several gangly palm trees, a forty-two-year-old fisherman named Ebrima Jallow explained that the women pay more for a single basket, but Golden Lead buys in bulk and often pays for twenty baskets in advance—in cash. “The women can’t do that,” he said.
A few hundred yards away, Dawda Jack Jabang, the fifty-seven-year-old owner of the Treehouse Lodge, a deserted beachfront hotel and restaurant, stood in a side courtyard staring at the breaking waves. “I spent two good years working on this place,” he told me. “And overnight Golden Lead destroyed my life.” Hotel bookings have plummeted, and the plant’s odor at times is so noxious that patrons leave his restaurant before finishing their meal.
Golden Lead has hurt more than helped the local economy, Jabang said. But what about all of those young men hauling their baskets of fish to the factory? Jabang waved the question away dismissively: “This is not the employment we want. They’re turning us into donkeys and monkeys.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the tenuousness of this employment landscape, as well as its corruption. In May, many of the migrant workers on fishing crews returned home to celebrate Eid just as borders were closing down. With workers unable to return to Gambia and new lockdown measures in place, Golden Lead and other plants suspended operation.
Or they were supposed to. Manneh obtained secret recordings in which Bamba Banja, of the Ministry of Fisheries, discussed bribes in exchange for allowing factories to operate during the lockdown. In October, Banja took a leave of absence after a police investigation found that, between 2018 and 2020, he had accepted ten thousand dollars in bribes from Chinese fisherman and companies, including Golden Lead.
On the day that I visited Golden Lead, I made my way down to the sprawling beach. I found Golden Lead’s new wastewater pipe, which was about 12 inches in diameter, already rusted, corroded and only slightly visible above the mounds of sand. The Chinese flag was gone. Kneeling down, I felt liquid flowing through it. Within minutes, a Gambian guard appeared and ordered me to leave the area.
The next day I headed to the country’s only international airport, located an hour away from the capital, Banjul, to catch my flight home. My luggage was light now that I’d thrown away the putrid-smelling clothes from my trip to the fish-meal plant. At one point during the drive, as we negotiated pothole after pothole, my taxi driver vented his frustration. “This,” he said, gesturing ahead of us, “is the road the fishmeal plant promised to pave.”
At the airport, I discovered my flight had been delayed by a flock of buzzards and gulls blocking the only runway. Several years earlier, the Gambian government had built a landfill close by, and scavenger birds descended in droves. While I waited among a dozen German and Australian tourists, I called Mustapha Manneh. I reached him at home, in the town of Kartong, seven miles from Gunjur..
Manneh told me he was standing in his front yard, looking out on a litter-strewn highway that connects the JXYG factory, a Chinese fish-meal plant, to Gambia’s largest port, in Banjul. In the few minutes we had been talking, he said, he had watched ten tractor-trailer trucks rattle by, kicking up thick clouds of dust as they went, each hauling a forty-foot-long shipping container full of fish meal. From Banjul, those containers would depart for Asia, Europe, and the United States.