by Dawn Paley
On a cool August morning, members of the Unist’hot’en Clan of the Wet’suwet’en Nation sit around an unfinished porch, sipping coffee, looking over the Morice River. A pathway connects the cabin to the river, where they fetch drinking water. Enbridge Pipelines Inc, wants to build two pipelines across the Morice River at that very site.
Sleepy campers drift onto the porch, in toques andsweaters to share coffee. The Wet’suwet’en had invited them onto Unist’hot’en territories for their second annual action camp, to help strategize about grassroots outreach and direct action to keep the pipelines companies out.
The Wet’suwet’en – steadfast in their resistance to oil pipelines, natural gas infrastructure, and mining on their territories – build relationships with allies based on trust and personal relationships, not institutional affiliations.
“Our actions used to involve people who presented themselves as supporters of the Enbridge opposition,” said Mel Bazil, a father of two from the Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan Nations. “But we can’t always trust the way some groups acquire money to oppose these projects.”
Relationships with some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) soured, as the groups failed to accept local community leadership, and expanded resistance to carbon trading or a proposed gas pipeline.
The land defenders leading discussions in the cabin by the river will not be silenced by messages made in San Francisco or Toronto. As members of a sovereign nation, their lands have never been sold or surrendered. They live under occupation, as do most indigenous nations in British Columbia. Their program is anti-colonial and anti-capitalist – a position few funded organizations appear willing to support.
In a trend throughout Canada and elsewhere, well-funded NGOs with political or centralized agendas have edged out community activist groups – indigenous or otherwise. “The rise of advocacy groups and NGOs has … accompanied the neo-liberal turn,” writes geographer David Harvey in Spaces of Global Capitalism. U.K. journalist Johann Hari calls foundation and corporate funded NGOs “the wrong kind of green.”
In Offsetting Resistance, Canadian writers Macdonald Stainsby and Dru Oja Jay argue that manufacturing a soft, pacified campaign against the Alberta tar sands has become a cash cow for some environmental NGOs, with “Abstract policy proposals … secret powerbrokers, hidden funding sources” that NGOs and corporate fronts are advancing. According to their research, the Pew Charitable Trusts – connected to tar sands operators Sunoco (Suncor) – distribute over $2 million a year to NGOs including Forest Ethics and the Pembina Institute.
Foundation-funded groups presume to negotiate with industry on behalf of indigenous people, environmental groups, and nature itself. For example, such groups negotiated the 2001 Great Bear Rainforest agreement, which preserved only 28 per cent of the coastal rainforest that indigenous and environmental groups had set out to protect.
“The Great Bear Rainforest was [the] first place where private collaborations between government, industry, and a few environmental groups gained preeminence over a public planning process,” said Anne Sherrod from the Valhalla Wilderness Society.
NGOs with money, media access, and industry-friendly messages have tended to marginalize grassroots organizers and indigenous communities to promote “winnable” issues. But grassroots groups are fighting back against corporate, co-opted environmentalism and greenwashing.
Last year, the climate action group Rising Tide wrote, “Mainstream environmental groups fixate on reducing carbon emissions above all environmental and social issues, predictably paving the way for … false solutions … Far from challenging the political system these NGOs have … become an appendage of it.”
From the cabin porch, sitting in the Enbridge pipeline right-of-way through Wet’suwet’en territory, environmental activism looks a lot different than it does inside a boardroom in Calgary. Today, the only significant challenges to economic and political forces that propose oil pipelines and tankers through British Columbia emanates from communities such as this one.
Reformist NGOs have shown that they will sell out nature and simple communities for prestige and cash. Real change will arise from our neighbours and grassroots allies whose vision of victory includes the end of exploitive capitalism and colonialism.
Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver.