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Fragile Indigenous Gulf Tribes Face Uncertain Future

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About 100 people attended a recent forum in Dulac, Louisiana to discuss the crisis caused by the BP oil spill. Already, most of the fishing grounds that this community depends on for food and work are closed because of oil contamination.

Inside the building, plastic tables and chairs were arranged in a massive square, as dozens of indigenous people from five countries took their seats.

“It just didn’t start with this big BP spill. It’s been going on for decades and decades and decades,” said the host of the forum, Thomas Dardar, principal chief of the United Houma nation.

Louisiana’s wetlands have been deteriorating steadily since the 1930s as a result of the canals dug by the oil companies.

Oil and gas extraction have also caused the land to sink in some places, but nothing of this magnitude has ever hit the Gulf coast and residents here are worried about what it means for a people who live off the land – and the water.

Tribal council Representative Lora Ann Chaison is upset that her community may never be able to fish or shrimp in the Gulf again.

“I have a hard time dealing with this and so I don’t know the answer,” she told the group. “I don’t know if anybody knows the answer but I know that no one can get a straight answer.”
Marine biologist Riki Ott (holding microphone) has been studying the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill for the last 20 years.
Marine biologist Riki Ott (holding microphone) has been studying the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill for the last 20 years.

Lessons from the Alaskan coast

These communities are looking to people like Riki Ott to give them a straight answer about how the oil will affect them.

Ott has a PhD in marine biology and makes her living commercial fishing in Alaska. She has been studying the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill for the last 20 years.

“The morning of March 24, we woke up with a tanker wreck, 11 million gallons [40 million liters], we were told. The oil industry under-estimated, made it smaller than what it was, and we have the same thing is happening here,” said Ott. “We have this contingency plan that the industry has that says how they are going to clean up after an accident, and we all see here the same as Alaska. It works a lot better on paper then in practice.”

When the spill first washed ashore on Alaskan beaches, Exxon told the natives there would be no long-term harm from the oil. Ott says that was not true.

“And we said we would wait until the pink salmon eggs grow up to become adults, they have babies and their babies grow up to be adults. Four years we waited. Four years, the whole eco system collapsed,” she said. “The herring collapsed. The salmon. Everything that ate the herring, the whole ecosystem collapsed in four years.”

According to Ott, the herring population has still not recovered to the level it was before the spill. “Scientists say it will take 50 years for the oil to leave our beaches and another one hundred years for the clams to come back.”

A lawsuit against Exxon was appealed up to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the company ended up paying $507 million – about one-tenth of the original jury award – for damages to the environment and local economy.


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