Cultural Extinction

Fears of Cultural Extinction on Louisiana's Gulf Coast

As BP’s deepwater well continues to discharge oil into the Gulf, the economic and public health effects are already being felt across coastal communities. But it’s likely this is only the beginning. From the bayous of southern Louisiana to the city of 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 Louisianans have lost their communities or their lives from the actions of corporations. 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 Advocates for Environmental Human Rights (AEHR) co-director Nathalie Walker. “There is no other culture like Louisiana’s coastal culture and we can only hope they wont be entirely erased.” Walker and co-director Monique Harden have made it their mission to fight the environmental consequences of Louisiana’s corporate polluters. They say this disaster represents an unparalleled catastrophe for the lives of people across the region, but they also see in it a continuation of an old 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 Southwest Louisiana town of Mossville, founded by African Americans in the 1790s. Located near Lake Charles, Mossville is only 5 square miles and holds 375 households. 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 southern Louisiana 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 the descendants of the participants of the 1811 Rebellion to End Slavery, the largest slave uprising in US history, was relocated by Shell in 2002, after residents had faced decades of toxic exposure. Morrisonville, established by free Africans in 1790, was bought out by Dow in 1989. Residents of Sunrise, inaugurated near Baton Rouge by former slaves in 1874, were paid to move as the result of a lawsuit against the Placid Refining Company. In the mid-1990s, Chemical producer Georgia Gulf Corporation poisoned and then acquired Revilletown, a town free Africans had started in the years after the civil war.

“We make the mistake of thinking this is something new,” says Harden. She adds that the historic treatment of these communities, as well as the lack of recovery that New Orleanians have seen since Katrina, makes her doubt the federal government will do what is necessary for Gulf recovery. “Since Obama got into office,” she says, “I have yet to see any action that reverses what Bush did after Katrina.”

Harden says Louisiana and the US must fundamentally transform our government’s relationships with corporations. “We’ve got to change the way we allow businesses to be in charge of our health and safety in this country,” she adds. As an example, Harden points to more stringent regulations in other countries, such as Norway, which requires companies to drill relief wells at the same time as any deepwater well.

Pointe-au-Chien

Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe is a small band of French speaking Native Americans along Bayou Pointe-au-Chien, south of Houma, on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast. Their ancestors settled here three hundred years ago, and for them, the ongoing oil geyser is 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 took advantage of the fact that people living on the coast were isolated by language and distance, and laid claim to their land. Over the past several decades, these companies have devastated these idyllic communities, creating about 10,000 miles of canals through forests, marshes, and homes. “They come in, they cut a little, and it keeps getting wider and wider,” says Donald Dardar, Theresa’s husband and part of the tribe’s leadership. “They didn’t care where they cut.”

The canals have brought salt water, killing trees and plants and speeding erosion. According to Gulf Restoration Network, Louisiana loses about a football field of land every 45 minutes, and almost half of that land loss is as a result of these canals. 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 government have refused to officially recognize them as a tribe, which would offer some protection of their land rights.

So late last month, when oil started washing up on the shores of nearby Lake Chien and fishing season was cancelled before it had even begun, members of Pointe-au-Chien took 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,” said Theresa. “It was 17 years before they could get shrimp.” And, she noted bitterly, this disaster is already much larger than the Valdez, with no end in sight.

BP has promised payouts to those who lose work from the oil, but few trust the company to make good on their promise, and even if they did, they doubt any settlement could make up for what will be lost. “It doesn’t matter how much money they give you,” says Theresa. “If we don’t have our shrimp, fish, crabs and oysters.”

“It’s not just a way of life, its our food,” she added. “It’s the loss of our livelihood and culture.”

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 Monique Harden of AEHR. “That is just scary as hell. I’ve been having nightmares about it.”

As the oil continues to flow, people feel both helpless and apocalyptic; depressed and angered. Residents who have just rebuilt from the 2005 hurricanes watch the oil wash up on shore with a building dread. “I never thought I’d be in a situation where I wanted another Katrina,” says Harden. “But I’d rather Katrina than this.”

Drilling Economy

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 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 water, along a path where once the road continued but now the encroaching waters have taken over.

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, about 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.” Billiot is still repairing her home from the 2005 flooding, including raising it up a full 19 feet above the ground. She wonders if that will be enough, if there is anything they can do to make themselves safe and hold onto their culture.

A brown rabbit hops across her backyard, and Billiot describes the dolphins and porpoises she has seen swimming nearby. Walking along the bayou here, where generations of people have lived off the land and fought to protect their territory from corporate theft, you begin to sense the gravity of what will be lost.

Theresa believes that the government and oil companies are looking for an excuse to permanently displace the tribe. She believes 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,” says Dardar. “It’s scary because I don’t know where we’re going to go.”

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and his reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans has been published and broadcast in outlets including Die Zeit (in Germany), Clarin (in Argentina), Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now!. He can be reached at: neworleans@leftturn.org. Read other articles by Jordan, or visit Jordan's website.

28 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Max Shields said on June 15th, 2010 at 9:50am #

    Western and mostly USA greed has begun the process of creating, the Wester hemisphere’s version of the Dead Sea – the Dead Gulf. This stream of oil has no end in sight. Uninhabitable by human or another other life form except to drive through by boat or fly over it, this will be the legacy of the industrial revolution run amok.

  2. bozh said on June 15th, 2010 at 9:51am #

    yes, privately-owned govts don`t listen even to second class citizens let alone 5th or 6th! tnx

  3. Don Hawkins said on June 15th, 2010 at 10:12am #

    Watching CNBC and the deepwater drillers are out performing today a wall street term. Out performing and what a performance in the Gulf. Appears we are in act one of a three act play. Out performing mad I tell you mad.

  4. Deadbeat said on June 15th, 2010 at 12:06pm #

    This is how the Capitalist system works. Profits before people.

  5. ajohnstone said on June 15th, 2010 at 12:40pm #

    Henry Waxman – “We found a pattern.Every time they had a decision to make they decided to cut corners; to do things faster than they otherwise should have been done; to do it less expensively and the consequence of this, as one independent expert told us, was horribly negligent…Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense…BP chose the more risky casing option, apparently because the liner option would have cost $7 to $10 million more and taken longer…BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure.”

    Capitalism, with its emphasis on profit and short-term considerations, provides fertile ground for accidents and disasters of various kinds. It also means that any accidents which do happen are likely to be more serious and harmful than would otherwise be the case. Cutting corners and ignoring safety matters is part and parcel of a profit-oriented system. Governmental regulation can affect the level of accidents, but the desire for profits favours the cutting of corners, so the possibility always remain.Capitalists must remain flexible enough to take risks that may brings greater rewards in the interest of profit.This competitive aspect of capitalism nullifies any real prospect of solving the problem through the law.
    Deepwater Horizon was just “an unfortunate accident” arising from the normal functioning of the system. And although one might think that it would therefore be natural to question and challenge a system that accepts this lunacy as “an unfortunate accident”, nothing could be further from the minds of the media or commentators .

  6. cruxpuppy said on June 21st, 2010 at 7:51pm #

    This is not an attack on the poor, minority, or indigenous. It is a catastrophe that will destroy the marine ecosystem and take down property values in the entire coastal region and spark a universal migration away from the Gulf. Wellhead pressure is 20,000+ psi and the flow is 4 million gallons per day, minimum estimate. The well can’t be capped, otherwise it would have been done already. The VOC’s from this crude are extraordinarily toxic. People will soon get sick in large numbers. A 20 bn escrow fund won’t cover it and donations of Larry King Live are a mere palliative for the investor class in Pensacola. When they start coughing, they’ll stop smiling about how nice it is to come together.

    There is a concerted effort to hide from this catastrophic event. If you’ve got a $600,000 beach house in Gulf Breeze, the only culture your money an buy, you don’ want to hear about it and the media will oblige you.

    You’re looking at this thing through a keyhole, Mr. Flaherty.

  7. lichen said on June 21st, 2010 at 10:21pm #

    Dogmatic marxists who wish to exploit the oil spill for a new communist revolution are really deluded. This can be stopped directly, without having to go through “capitalism.” Personally, regardless of the economic system, I am against mining. We could all making mining illegal, right now.

  8. Deadbeat said on June 21st, 2010 at 10:39pm #

    lichen writes …

    Dogmatic marxists who wish to exploit the oil spill for a new communist revolution are really deluded

    Marxism is not dogma but anti-marxist like lichen is dogmatic to maintain Capitalist production while pretending to be concerned about the environment. This is the kind of rhetoric that has corrupted the Left for decades — fake left throw right.

  9. Deadbeat said on June 21st, 2010 at 10:41pm #

    The oil spill is an indictment of the Capitalist system. There is no way to hide it. People like lichen can only hope to “red bait” their way out of it.

  10. Max Shields said on June 22nd, 2010 at 4:29am #

    Anyone remember a little mishap referred by the name it occurred: Chernobyl (in the former Soviet Union)?

  11. bozh said on June 22nd, 2010 at 8:14am #

    Tragedies like chernobil, latest oil gush, bhopal have mnay causes. One of them is human lack of knowledge-unawareness of not knowing that-limitation of inventiveness.
    Other causes are fears, greed, dishonesty by govt or lack of supervision over oil drilling, devaluation of people and nature.

    Wantomness, greed, lust for control, bloodthirstiness, constant threats of warfare and warfare against socialist lands, forces socialists to rush things or try to acquire a N-bomb for protection.
    Cuba, SU, and korea illustrate what is happening and how much these peoples fear they greatest killers mankind has even known: ancient and modern ‘nobles’ and clergy!

  12. Max Shields said on June 22nd, 2010 at 9:07am #

    I’m less inclined to blame these matters on ignorance (lack-unwareness of not knowing that-limitatiion of inventiveness as you put it).

    Ideologues have a ready-made excuse for everything. Those who push oil drilling say the earth has an endless supply just waiting for us to suck it out of the ground. They say, much of this has manageable risk. What drives this is not our lack of understanding but our overriding desire to continue on this path of economic growth that cannot be obtained through alternative sources.

    The Soviet Union was on this path and took chances. Russia has continued and there have been many incidents all of which have devastating ecological impacts. This is not about Capitalism or Socialism but the underlying will to dominate regions, people and nature itself.

  13. Deadbeat said on June 22nd, 2010 at 9:50am #

    Anyone remember a little mishap referred by the name it occurred: Chernobyl (in the former Soviet Union)?

    Ah yes Max I remember in that bastion of STATE CAPITALISM. Can you tell me what makes you believe that the USSR was Socialism?

  14. Max Shields said on June 22nd, 2010 at 9:54am #

    Where did I say that the USSR practiced socialism? And since you are such a student of socialism where do we find a full scale example of a practicing socialist state?

  15. Deadbeat said on June 22nd, 2010 at 9:57am #

    Max Shields writes …

    The Soviet Union was on this path and took chances. Russia has continued and there have been many incidents all of which have devastating ecological impacts. This is not about Capitalism or Socialism but the underlying will to dominate regions, people and nature itself.

    The use of nuclear “energy” was an outgrowth of the threat from the USA’s use of nuclear weapon on Japan in 1945. This created an ARMS RACE. I guess you forgot all this Max or conveniently omit this from your rhetoric because it doesn’t fit into your own ideology.

    The so-called “peaceful” use of nuclear energy was an attempt to harness the potential for other sources of energy and to put a pretty face on this harmful substance. But if there was no Capitalist ARMS race started by the USA the nuclear genie would have stayed in the bottle.

  16. Deadbeat said on June 22nd, 2010 at 10:00am #

    Max Shields writes …

    Where did I say that the USSR practiced socialism? And since you are such a student of socialism where do we find a full scale example of a practicing socialist state?

    You didn’t state it Max you inferred it since your brought up the USSR in context to the BP spill being an indictment of Capitalism. And as you know Max, Socialism cannot function in a system of global Capitalism which is why Marx proclaim for the workers of the world to UNITE.

  17. Max Shields said on June 22nd, 2010 at 10:10am #

    Deadbeat you have no example of your idea of “real” socialism. All must fit into a prescribed model for it to exist at all. How wonderfully circular an argument you weave.

    I didn’t imply the Soviet Union was socialist but that it was distinctly different the US capitalism and that both ran into the issue of overreach in more ways than one – not least of which is the underpinnings of industrialization and a manic demand for economic growth.

  18. bozh said on June 22nd, 2010 at 10:28am #

    We ought to chuck away the word “ignorance”. Why? By its use we tacitly twocategorize knowledge.
    I am also this time avoiding to use the word “dichotomise”. Because some people don’t know what that word means.

    So knowledgexy71 { mine} wld be called “ignorance” and the knowledge2 of the critic evaluauted as knowledge1 or an universally known truth. Or even as necessary-desirable truth at a point in time!
    Not knowing4 is actually knowledge4.
    Some people use the word “pidgeonholing” for sorting events, ideas, etc.
    So, knowledge is pigeonholed as knowing and not knowing also being a knowing.

    It is an entirely different issue that a pol or priest wld never tell u what s/he knows! Almost always they tell u what u already know or what a pol thinks u’d like to know.
    Hiding knowledege is also knowledge!

    Ab ideologues!
    Max means to say thinkers, i think. But ideating-thinking cannot be put in two pigeonholes. So why split it asunder into ignorance, stupidity, arrogance, stubborness, wrongheadedness, etc., as many people do but max may not; or at least not often.

    Recall that all wars, wife-child beatings, exploitation, devalaution of biota, etc. start with words and most of the time with words that present a fictive reality!

    Capitalism, zionism, marxism; calling people ignorant, arrogant, stupid, lazy, want-s’mthing-for-nothing, deadbeats, singers, actors, soldiers, govts, religion and so on are the words that always cause trouble of some sorts.

    For one thing they appear elementalistic; i.e., not part of same reality we all are parts of. An actor doesn’t just act! S/he does other things!
    I was going to say that i am a songwriter. That wld be lying. For one thing it took trns of people to produce me and our songs. Yes, they are partly mine but not wholy.
    So? My small brain does not grow to big for me! And we know what happens to most actors and singers! Many are screwed up beyond normal!
    In short, and in order to simplify, one only needs to match structure of language to the structure of reality.
    And surely and of apsolutely certain truth, nature does not make stupid or less deserving people.
    Is this that difficult to accept as true? And that pols-clergy never wld? tnx

  19. bozh said on June 22nd, 2010 at 10:56am #

    DB,
    How ab forgetting ab socialism? What communists in SU were doing is manaufacturing a more egalitarian society. But in SU and other socialist states, socialists either forgot or were unable to teach people sociability; sans which u can’t build an egalitarian society.
    In add’n in a country like yugoslavia, of which i know s’mthing, 99% of people were dishonest, individualistic as per their inheretance from millennial ‘patrician’ rule and misteaching and misguidance resulting in their unsanity or everybody against everbody else just like in israel or US.

    To teach people to care for one another, to stop stealing and lying may take decades or even centuries. We do not know that we are by now geneticly rendered unsane or otherwise incurable as long as we are ‘guided-tutored’ by clerico-noble class of life.
    And believe me slavs are just as nutty as any other people. It is a mad, mad world everywhere.
    And china may have big problems as well as long ABC is ignored. However, i do not know what is happening in china, vietnam, cuba, korea regarding making people more human.

    In short, idea that people shld be more egalitarian is not evil or wrong, but people are.
    Thus i suggest we not compare two entirely different events: people behaving and wishful thinking! tnx

  20. Don Hawkins said on June 22nd, 2010 at 11:36am #

    1:1 – In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
    1:2 – And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
    1:3 – And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
    1:4 – And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.

    Do more for others than you do for yourself. 1:1 – In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

  21. Don Hawkins said on June 22nd, 2010 at 11:51am #

    “It’s scary because I don’t know where we’re going to go.” Jordan if that was to happen the city would not be my first choice. Georgia South Georgia think farming.

  22. bozh said on June 22nd, 2010 at 12:45pm #

    In the beginingsx1 godx1 created the earth. But in the beginings1 universe1 or god1 created universe1.
    And the earth being globe1 begins in beijing, moscow, washingtown, rome, an igloo in labrador, i my yard.
    So, u get the picture? Neither the end nor begining can be found in nature. In reality end may be begining and begining the end and each in btwn gazillions of ends and beginings.

    In any case, let`s stop thinking ab this till the nature gives us huge brains; at least the size of an elephant`s body.
    But, don, u knew all this already! tnx

  23. lichen said on June 22nd, 2010 at 2:54pm #

    The oil spill is an indictment of oil; of fossil fuels, of digging up the remains of our ancestors and burning them. I say we stop oil directly, not via some abstract philosophy about “capitalism” when many anti-capitalists, shall we say, have no problem with oil drilling and other forms of environmental destruction. They are separate issues, and it is condescending and nasty to attempt to co-opt other issues and label them as your own (which are of course the most and only important ones.) I’ve said many times what my economic recommendations are, in detail.

  24. Deadbeat said on June 22nd, 2010 at 11:58pm #

    lichen writes …

    The oil spill is an indictment of oil; of fossil fuels, of digging up the remains of our ancestors and burning them.

    First the BP disaster is not a oil spill it is an oil spew. Second had BP not put profits before safety their would have been no accident. Oil has been used for centuries however the immense level of its use has to do with the continuous accumulation of profits and its concentration which then led to subsidies and bought off politicians. In other words oil firms used their immense profits to deter any more environmentally sound alternatives.

    I say we stop oil directly, not via some abstract philosophy about “capitalism” when many anti-capitalists, shall we say, have no problem with oil drilling and other forms of environmental destruction.

    As stated had BP not been allow to accumulate such immense profits and maintain those profits in private hands (which defines CAPITALISM) then there would have been a realistic chance for alternatives. But unfortunately for “environmentalist” like lichen naively believe (or maliciously encourage) that they can maintain the Capitalist system while simultaneously demand environmental preservation.

    They are separate issues, and it is condescending and nasty to attempt to co-opt other issues and label them as your own (which are of course the most and only important ones.) I’ve said many times what my economic recommendations are, in detail.

    They are in fact one in the same. BP’s drive for PROFITS and cutting safety operates within the structures and demands of the Capitalist system. That is contemptuous is trying mislead others that you can be BOTH a Capitalist and an Environmentalist. YOU CANNOT!!! Either you are a Capitalist and will sacrifice the environment for profits because profits matters first and foremost to Capitalism. Or you puts people and the environment FIRST. Putting people and the environment first NEVER happens under Capitalism.

  25. Hue Longer said on June 23rd, 2010 at 2:07am #

    Deadbeat said on June 22nd, 2010 at 11:58pm #

    “… Oil has been used for centuries however the immense level of its use has to do with the continuous accumulation of profits and its concentration which then led to subsidies and bought off politicians”.

    Fossil oil has only been in use and drilled since the the late mid 19th century–not even two centuries. It was all about money way way back then too when it was being used for night lamps and machine lubricant.

  26. Hue Longer said on June 23rd, 2010 at 2:16am #

    It’s hard to keep a sense of humor when one considers what is happening to the planet. I found the following on the Buffalo Beast site…

    Oil Spills: Scientific Consensus?
    Posted by admin On June – 1 – 2010

    I’m not convinced
    BY FORREST OAK

    Oak-Forrest2-120x120Good evening. I’m Forrest Oak.

    There’s a lot being made over this BP “oil spill” down in the Gulf. A lot of green-mongering. A lot of the same old Chicken Little routine we’ve seen coming out of the Gore-ista camp, for the last 700 years in this country. And, frankly, it’s just a whole mess of environmentalist bed-wetting.

    Is anyone asking the tough questions? I mean, besides me. I’m Forrest Oak. For instance, is there really scientific consensus that this “spill” exists? And if there is scientific consensus on its existence, can we say with absolute certainty that it is man-made? It seems a little egotistical to think that humans could affect their environment on such a large and catastrophic scale. Some things are just not within our power. Now, if God wants to release a million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico – if oil spills really exist – then that is within his divine power. But to suggest we could do that? Pure arrogance.

    No! To answer my question from earlier. No one is reporting on the scientific uncertainties of the oil spill except for me. I’m Forrest Oak. That’s because I’m not beholden to the corporate lobbyists. I’m not employed by any of the companies that stand to profit from “cleaning up” the “oil spill.” I’m not “employed” by anyone. I’m just a man blogging from a bus station. I’m Forrest Oak.

    “Oh, I’ve seen videos and photos,” you say. Videos can be faked. Photos can be altered. Ever hear of Photoshuup? It’s like Photoshop, but much cheaper. I own a copy. I’m Forrest Oak. And in just five minutes, look at the “oil spill” I created on the moon:

    moon-forrest oak

    Are you convinced? I wouldn’t be either. I’m Forrest Oak. I have a keen eye, for when someone’s pulling the wool over my eyes. It’s easy to see. It’s wool. And it’s right over your eyes. It’s being pulled over your eyes, too, America.

    So in conclusion, my bus is here. I’m Forrest Oak.

  27. mary said on June 23rd, 2010 at 2:20am #

    Is Forrest Oak related to Forrest Gump by any chance?

  28. Hue Longer said on June 23rd, 2010 at 6:11am #

    hello mary,

    I think Forest is related to DB

    (just kidding, DB…you know I love you)