|Caretakers of the Land|
by Meg Hewings, The Dominion
November 16th, 2008
MONTRÉAL–All is not quiet on the western front.
For the Western Shoshone, an indigenous nation with an unceded Treaty covering a large swath of 60 million acres of ancestral territory stretching across Nevada, California, Idaho and Utah, their traditional homeland is better described as a war zone.
Not only has the US government used Shoshone lands to test hundreds of nuclear weapons, dispose of thousands of metric tonnes of radioactive waste, and proposed Yucca Mountain as a national dumpsite for (even more) deadly nuclear waste; modern corporate gold mining, including many Canadian operations, now threatens to gouge the heart right out of Western Shoshone territory.
“Two years ago they counted over 260,000 abandoned mines in Nevada – and that’s not counting new ones opening up,” says Larson Bill, Vice-Chairman for the South Fork Shoshone community and Community Organizer for the Western Shoshone Defense Project (WSDP), established to protect, preserve and restore Shoshone – or as they are also known, Newe – rights and lands for present and future generations.
Despite their small staff, the Defense Project’s office is abuzz with activity, work and noise on this day, as most. Even so, Bill manages to remain measured and thoughtful on the phone as he explains the tribe’s latest struggle.
These days he and the WSDP are busy trying to stop the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US government from permitting Canadian-owned Barrick Gold Corporation, now the world’s largest gold-mining company, from mining on or any nearer to Mt. Tenabo, a sacred mountain to the Western Shoshone and fundamental to Newe worship.
“Mt. Tenabo, the proposed site for Barrick’s latest expansion project, is home to Shoshone creation stories,” says Julie Cavanaugh-Bill (formerly Fishel), lawyer for the WSDP. What the mining company is planning is akin to razing churches or mosques, according to the WSDP.
The structure for a sweat lodge sitting at the base of sacred Mt Tenabo, threatened by Cortez expansion proposed by Canadian-owned Barrick Gold. Photo: Sandra Cuffe
The Shoshone, who consider themselves caretakers of their land, have long accused the US, and now the Canadian government, of systematically ignoring their case in favour of multinational corporations whose interests, they argue, lie in bottom lines and not the environment.
“Proposed mining operations and expansions are trying to make northeastern Nevada – which is Shoshone country – a land with holes in it over a mile deep. This will expose nature to acid drainage. Nothing will survive in it for thousands of years. They are pretty much going to ruin the land,” says Bill.
While Barrick Gold is slated to advance their project in the Cortez Hills in late 2008, a 30-day comment period, during which Shoshone and non-natives who live in affected areas can raise grievances, closed at the end of October. It kept Cavanaugh-Bill and the Defense project busy.
If history dictates, however, chances are slim the Shoshone will be able to halt Barrick’s new open-pit gold mining and processing operation, despite the environmental impacts, which are almost unimaginable in scope. The new plant will destroy 5,000 acres of Pinyon Forest, a staple Newe food source, create a new open-pit cyanide heap leach mine on the southern flank of the mountain, and include new heap leach pads. It will increase dewatering and underground detonations. The Betze mine, also operated by Barrick Gold, already threatens the Rock Creek area, with a dewatering rate that has reached upwards of 70,000 gallons per minute – consistent with other mining activities in the area. Mt. Tenabo is worth $8 billion to the gold-mining industries.
While Barrick admits that its projects have an environmental impact, the company maintains that it has put in place environmental protection and management systems to deal with waste, and held frequent dialogue meetings with members of Nevada’s Western Shoshone communities.
This is not enough, according to Newe leader, revered activist and grandmother, Carrie Dann. “Land is sacred to Western Shoshone – it represents life. To take our land is to take our life,” says Dann in the 2007 documentary Our Land Our Life. “I look at that as spiritual genocide against the Shoshone who think of Earth as their mother ... It's a spiritual death.”
The fallout from years of fighting to protect Shoshone land has been a physical and real death too, resulting in loss of land, animals, identity and place.
Dann has often claimed she became an activist by default, when the US accused her and her sister Mary, both Newe grandmothers, of “trespassing” on “federal land.” For decades, Dann and the Western Shoshone have maintained that the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, supreme law of the land, clearly recognized Shoshone title over these ancestral lands and that federal agencies have simply ignored and violated their rights ever since.
One morning in September 2002, the BLM (under orders from Washington) mounted an operation in which helicopters, trucks and a cavalcade of armed agents in bulletproof vests rounded up and confiscated some 200 head of cattle and 400 wild horses on the Dann's property. While the US argued the grandmothers’ horses were “degrading the land” by “overgrazing,” a more likely reason, as Cavanaugh-Bill argues in Our Land, Our Life, was that their range sat squarely on some of the world’s most valuable real estate. Crescent Valley is the second-largest gold producing region on Earth. Only a few months after the roundup, Cortez Gold declared it had “struck gold” in the area. Cavanaugh-Bill calls this one of the biggest “land swindles” in modern history.
It’s also why the existence of mining companies on the territories, many of which are Canadian-owned, seems all the more egregious to Dann and the WSDP.
At the time of the 2002 raid – one of three such raids – on the Dann’s ranch, the Newe had exhausted all domestic legal options to prevent the US government from continuing their systematic land grabs. Exasperated by being bullied, Carrie Dann, Cavanaugh-Bill and other Shoshone leaders finally decided to take their fight to an international court. The case was brought before an 18-member panel of experts at the UN, set up to monitor global compliance with the 1969 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).
In what became a precedent-setting case for aboriginal land claim rights the world over, the Shoshone proved their moral high-ground: the UN committee condemned the US government for violating the tribe’s rights and urged the US to immediately stop any further actions against the Western Shoshone, including legislative efforts to privatize their land.
The US government has flatly refused to act, rejecting the concerns raised by the UN CERD. As a consequence, corporate activity in Nevada is only growing and many of the companies in operation, including Nevada Pacific Bond, Barrick Gold, Bravo Venture Group, Great Basin Gold and GoldCorp, as well as smaller junior companies that do prospecting, are now registered in Canada.
When the Shoshone returned in early 2007 to issue a second plea to CERD--this time accusing Canadian corporations of being unlawfully involved in exploiting indigenous lands in the US--the UN again sided with the Shoshone. The UN committee ruled that Canadian corporations were involved in illegal exploitation and human rights violations and demanded immediate legal steps be taken to regulate Canadian transnational activities and their effects on indigenous peoples abroad.
Despite this berating, Canada too has failed to regulate transnational mining companies in violation of human rights. Instead, adding insult to injury last year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government refused to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
“How can a foreign country come into another nation and start tearing up their lands without their approval or consent? This has been a practice since colonial days. [Canada] still believes in the rape of resources,” says Bill, adding that outdated legislation such as the 1872 General Mining Law, regulating hard rock mining on public lands, facilitates the resource exploitation and the distortion of the Newe Treaty with the US.
“The US and Canada say they don’t need to abide by these rules. Even though they portray themselves as [democracies and] protectors of human rights, they did not sign [the UN Declaration]. We hold this against Canada. They are still practising colonial ways of acquiring land and taking indigenous people’s resources,” says Bill, who also argues there’s been scant reporting on the subject of Barrick Gold in Canada.
In May 2007, Bill took formal statements to Barrick Gold’s shareholders, including over 18,000 signatures from people who oppose mining on Mt. Tenabo and in Horse Canyon. He hoped to paint the devastating picture of environmental damage Barrick mines have wreaked on Newe land, resources and customary uses.
As Cavanaugh-Bill said to Oxfam America, prior to the meeting: “We want to ask if they have an official corporate position on mining in areas of known and existing human rights violations. ... What we want to do with these questions is to encourage the company to recognize the pressing need for reform in the way it does business on Shoshone lands.”
While the AGM was beamed around the world via a live webcast, when the indigenous delegates who had spoken checked the Internet they found that the webcast ended with the speech by Peter Munk, the company’s Chairman, and that their statements and questions had been censored – including the voice of Larson Bill.
Without stricter regulatory standards and government intervention, Bill argues, Canadian mining operations will continue to operate in the area with impunity. He adds that the “dialogue process” the company established with members of the Western Shoshone has only proved frustrating.
“[Barrick] buy[s] up all the ranches in the Shoshone area near their mines, so they don’t have to deal with public.” The company uses other persuasive tactics to weaken local opposition too, he says, like offering donations to certain communities and individuals in return for “signed consent.” In other words, they are “buying approval,” says Bill. “They said they wanted to start a dialogue with Shoshone communities, [but in the end] they made their own agenda and only wanted to talk about how much money they could give our communities when the real issues are the religious values of our land, our resources, and our treaty. They didn’t want to talk about that.”
His argument to shareholders who continue to invest in Barrick stock is simple: While mining isn’t all bad, a company that pollutes without paying a penalty operates on a flawed economic and ecological principle, and is a bad investment. “One single gold ring produces 20 tonnes of waste material and squanders fresh water resources. ... We have deer, antelope, birds and insects… There are water pockets and those springs are there for the animals. [Companies] come and pollute these springs and the animals have no place to go. They don’t think about the animals…”
Even while independent environmental studies and science now confirm what Shoshone traditional leaders have known all along – that poisons have infiltrated traditional water sources and are adversely affecting the health of the land, animals and humans – Barrick’s website continues to laud the company’s “Commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.”
Bill blames instincts that have been around since the days of early expansionism: unchecked greed and a retrograde notion that resources are somehow limitless.
“Gold is an epidemic. That disease we think of from the 1800s – where you’d kill your own brother for gold – it still exists today. It’s happening in different forms now: through the law and manipulation. But everyone comes out here to Nevada to line their pockets… Then they’re gone and we are left with the devastation and the cleanup.”
While the fate of the Shoshone and their ancestral lands still hangs in the balance, thanks to strong traditional leadership, the WSDP is now on the offensive. They have led what is quickly becoming a growing paradigm shift to make ecological sustainability the new essence of the planet’s economic engine.
This past July, the Defense project hosted the 15th Indigenous Environmental Network Protecting Mother Earth conference, an international seminar, on Western Shoshone territory. The conference tackled head-on the issue of Barrick and other corporations’ alleged gross violations of human rights perpetrated in indigenous communities around the globe. But it also involved strategizing about how to convince world leaders and their governments to act in the best interest of the planet’s health.
It’s a complex and urgent question for our global collective times, and one Shoshone traditional leadership has long held close to their heart.
“The earth is dying because of the way people act,” says Carrie Dann in Our Land, Our Life, her voice catching as she pleads: “You are killing the earth... Consumers are producers of gold. We as indigenous people are yelling: ‘Stop that – you are killing the earth. You are killing the mother of all life – for God’s sake. Will you wake up and listen to what we are saying and that is treat her with tender loving care because she is our only mother.’”
Meg Hewings is Assistant Editor, News, at the Hour in Montréal.