Water defenders: we must “join together to work for the defense of our earth”

Female Indigenous leaders from both B.C. and Peru spoke out on Thursday, Oct. 19, about the importance of defending our water from resource extraction operations. Their message was one of unity in protecting what one speaker called “our most precious resource.”

Speakers to the crowd gathered at the Brown Family House of Learning included Kamloops’ Tk’emlúp te Secwe̓pemc councillors Jeanette Jules, Viola Thomas, former Xeni Gwet’in chief Marilyn Baptiste and Peru’s Mari Luz Canaquiri Marayari, the president of the Kukama Woman’s Federation. Each woman told stories of resilience in combating corporate activities that endangered the environment of their homelands.

Mari Luz Canaquiri Marayari spoke through a translator, film-maker Stephanie Boyd, to tell a harrowing story about the dangers faced by her people in Peru. Marayari and Boyd said that in the past 20 years, there were 190 reported oil spills in Peru which have decimated fish populations in the Amazon and left the river water unsafe to drink – a disaster for the Kumama people who have traditionally lived off the river and its banks.

According to Marayari, oil companies have done little to clean up the spills, and without intervention, it’s only going to get worse.

Several companies, at least one of them Canadian-owned, are planning a huge water highway project on the Amazon River that will require widening and deepening the river to accommodate heavy freight traffic. Marayari said that these plans will further disrupt the areas where fish lay their eggs, as well as destroy the river banks where her people plant their crops.

“There won’t be any benefit for us from the water highway project,” she said. “The contract for the water highway will be for 30 years and the company will be able to do whatever they want on 5,000 metres of land on either side of the river.”

“That’s why we’re asking for unity to protect our river,” Marayari said. “I would like to suggest tonight that we join together to work for the defense of our earth.”

Boyd then directed the audience to a petition created to ask the Peruvian government to help provide safe drinking water and medical attention to affected communities, as well as to put into place processes that would force companies to consult with the local peoples prior commencing to these large scale projects.

Even with processes in place, it can still be difficult for Indigenous peoples to have their concerns taken seriously. These issues were highlighted by Marilyn Baptiste, the recipient of the 2015 International Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots environmental activism.

Baptiste advocated for the need to hold governments accountable when they put economic development before environmental protection. She relayed the difficulties of facing a system that was designed by the government to favour industry, saying, “the B.C. environmental assessment is not an assessment. It’s a rubber stamp.”

She spoke with admiration of the independent environmental review process that was put together by Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc board members. “We need to come together to support that Indigenous environmental assessment process, so that it can be the only process.”

Viola Thomas detailed how they had created this process. It combined western sciences with the wisdom of Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers and their purpose was to decide if the proposed Ajax mining operation would pose a threat to Pipsell and the surrounding area. The panel ultimately rejected the proposal.

Thomas said that humanity needs to stop seeing the land solely as a money-making resource.

“We don’t eat money,” she said.

Jeanette Jules, a keeper of knowledge, reiterated the importance of “looking after” water on a global scale by protecting it from resource extraction projects, saying “all of those things affect the clean drinking water that we have and when that gets affected, then it affects every single being on earth.”

She continued by discussing how local projects can have a global effect by way of clouds and the water cycle.

Jules also explained the traditional links between women and water in the Secwe̓pemc culture.

“It’s the woman’s responsibility to look after the water because we’re the ones who have that water within us when we carry life.”

The idea of water as sacred is also a theme within the Kumara culture.  Stephanie Boyd described how spiritual and practical matters interacted for indigenous Peruvians.

“The sacred importance of water for the Kukama is just as important as the environmental aspect,” Boyd said.

All of the speakers at the event called for unity, and showed their appreciation for the work of their peers through the exchange of gifts. The sentiment expressed by the women leaders was well summed by Bev Sellars in short film about the Pipsell cultural Heritage site: “The number one reconciliation for everybody, not just Indigenous people, is reconciliation with mother earth.”

To watch the short film on the Pipsell Heritage site in Kamloops or the trailer for a documentary on oils spills in Peru, go to stkemlups.ca/process or facebook.com/quiscaproducciones2010 respectively.