As BP’s deepwater well continues to discharge oil into the Gulf of Mexico, the economic and public health effects are already being felt across coastal communities. But it is likely this is only the beginning. From the bayous of southern Louisiana to New Orleans, many fear this disaster represents not only environmental devastation, but also cultural extinction for peoples who have made their lives here for generations.
This is not the first time that corporations have destroyed the lives and communities of Louisianans. The land loss caused by oil companies has already displaced many who lived by the coast, and the pollution from treatment plants has poisoned communities across the state — especially in “cancer alley,” the corridor of industrial facilities along the Mississippi River south of Baton Rouge.
“The cultural losses as a consequence of the BP disaster are going to be astronomical,” says Nathalie Walker, co-director of the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. “There is no other culture like Louisiana’s coastal culture and we can only hope they won’t be entirely erased.” Walker and co-director Monique Harden say this disaster represents an unparalleled catastrophe for people across the region, but they also see it as part of a long-standing pattern of oil and chemical corporations displacing people of color from their homes.
Harden and Walker point out that at least five Louisiana towns — all majority African-American — have been eradicated due to corporate pollution in recent decades. The most recent is the southwestern town of Mossville, which was founded by freed African slaves in the 1790s. Located near Lake Charles, Mossville is home to 375 households within five square miles. Beginning in the 1930s, the state of Louisiana began authorizing industrial facilities to manufacture, process, store and discharge toxic and hazardous substances within Mossville. Fourteen facilities are now located in the small town, and 91 percent of residents have reported at least one health problem related to exposure to chemicals produced by the local industry.
The towns of Diamond, Morrisonville, Sunrise and Revilletown — all founded by former slaves — met similar fates. After years of chemical-related poisoning, the remaining residents have been relocated, and the corporations that drove them out now own their land. In most cases, only a cemetery remains, and former residents must pass through plant security to visit their relatives’ graves.
The town of Diamond, founded by descendants of the participants of the 1811 Rebellion to End Slavery, the largest slave uprising in U.S. history, was relocated by Shell in 2002 after residents had been exposed to toxic chemicals for decades. Morrisonville, established by former slaves in 1790, was bought out by Dow Chemical Company in 1989. Residents of Sunrise, inaugurated near Baton Rouge in 1874, were paid to move as the result of a lawsuit against the Placid Refining Company. In the mid-1990s, after years of complaints about the air quality, chemical and plastics producer Georgia Gulf Corporation acquired Revilletown, a town that freed Black families had started in the years after the Civil War.
“We make the mistake of thinking this is something new,” Harden says.
Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe is a small band of French-speaking Native Americans along Bayou Pointe-au-Chien, south of the town of Houma, on Louisiana’s Gulf coast. Their ancestors settled there some 300 years ago and current residents describe the ongoing oil geyser as just the latest step in a long history of displacement and disenfranchisement. “The oil companies never respected our elders,” explains community leader Theresa Dardar. “And they never did respect our land.”
In the early part of this century, the oil companies laid claim to land held by communities living on the coast that were isolated by language and distance. Over the past several decades, these companies have devastated these communities, creating about 10,000 miles of canals through forests, marshes and homes in their search for more oil reserves. “They come in, they cut a little, and it keeps getting wider and wider,” says Donald Dardar, Theresa’s husband and a member of the tribe’s leadership. The canals have allowed in salt water, which kills the forest and accelerates soil erosion.
Meanwhile, Pointe-au-Chien and other tribes have found they have little legal recourse. At least partly as a result of lobbying by oil companies, the state and federal governments have refused the tribe official recognition, which would offer some protection of their land rights.
So late in May, when oil started washing up on the shores of nearby Lake Chien and fishing season was canceled before it had even begun, members of Pointe-au-Chien saw the news as another nail in the coffin of the lifestyle they had been living for generations. On a recent Sunday, a few residents gathered at the Live Oak Baptist Church on the main road that runs through their community. They described feeling abandoned and abused by the government and corporations. They spoke of losing their language and traditions, in addition to their homes.
Sitting on a church pew, Theresa said they had met with indigenous natives from Alaska, who discussed their experience in the aftermath of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill. “We don’t know how long we’ll be without fishing,” Theresa says. “It was 17 years before they could get shrimp [in Alaska].” And, she noted bitterly, this disaster is already much larger than the Valdez.
BP has promised payouts to those who lose work from the oil, but Theresa is skeptical. “It doesn’t matter how much money they give you,” she says, “if we don’t have our shrimp, fish, crabs and oysters.” “It’s the loss of our livelihood and culture,” Theresa added.
The anxiety that Theresa expresses is also increasingly common in New Orleans, a city whose culture is inextricably linked to the Gulf. “How do you deal with this hemorrhaging in the bottom of the Gulf that seems endless?” asks environmental justice advocate Monique Harden. “That is just scary as hell. I’ve been having nightmares about it.”
Residents who have just rebuilt from the damage caused by the 2005 hurricanes watch the oil wash up on shore with a mounting dread. “I never thought I’d be in a situation where I wanted another Katrina,” Harden says. “But I’d rather Katrina than this.”
LOSS OF LAND AND CULTURE
Across the street from the church in Pointe-au-Chien is a bayou where frustrated fishers wait on their boats hoping against all odds that they will be able to use them this season. Behind the church is more water, and a couple of miles further down, the road ends in swamp. Dead oak trees, rotted by salt water, rise out of the canals. Telephone poles stick out of the encroaching water along a path where once the road continued.
The miles of swamp and barrier islands that stood between these homes and the Gulf used to slow hurricanes, and now the entire region has become much more vulnerable. Brenda Billiot, another local resident, gestured at her backyard, a few dozen yards of grass that fades into marshes and water. “This used to be land,” she says, “as far as you could see.”
Theresa believes that the government and oil companies are looking for an excuse to permanently displace the tribe. She thinks this latest disaster and the upcoming hurricane season may spell the end for their language and culture.
“I tell people, if we get another hurricane, take everything you want, because I don’t think they’ll let you back in,” Dardar says. “It’s scary because I don’t know where we’re going to go.”
This article was adapted from a longer version first published in the Louisiana Weekly. Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of Left Turn Magazine, and a staff member with the Louisiana Justice Institute. Flaherty’s new book, Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, will be released by Haymarket Books in July.