As colonial encroachment expanded, Houma people, the southern neighbors of the Caddo, moved further south into the remote swamps of the Atchafalaya near the Atakapaw, Choctaw and Chitimacha peoples. There, they evaded forced removals due to their inaccessible locations. Those conditions also brought escaped slaves into bayou communities, along with exiled Acadian French settlers from Canada. The amalgam of ethnicities and cultures led to what is known today as Cajun culture.
…In 1994, Exxon began dumping sludge in a waste dump installed next to the mostly Houma community of Grand Bois, Louisiana, making residents sick.
…The state-appointed toxicologist demonstrated a litany of health issues affecting residents, such as breathing, kidney and eye problems, skin rashes, birth defects, learning disabilities, cancer and high lead levels. She cited environmental contaminants as the likely culprit yet ultimately, she did not testify in court to a conclusive link to the site.
…“The BP spill was a disaster for our communities,” says Friloux. “It shut down our livelihood and the ability to provide for our families.” It destroyed the shrimping industry which is vital to the local economy. Similarly, clear-cutting ancient cypress forest and the disruption of sediment patterns by dredging canals and trenches to lay pipeline has choked out the crawfish population.
…The refinery corridor along the Mississippi river in St James – where the pipeline would end – is known as “cancer alley”. The mostly African American community is surrounded by refineries, and reports many of the same health issues seen in Grand Bois. No evacuation route exists should disaster strike, and the only bridge across the river was recently damaged by a barge carrying oil industry construction equipment, which closed the bridge for two months. Hemmed in on all sides by industry and the Mississippi, residents were forced to drive 40 miles round-trip to get essential supplies and to commute across the river for work.
“Forty-one percent of the United States’ water drains through our mighty river,” says Verdin. “The Mississippi Delta is a power point for the planet, a place where water comes to be purified. Yet we are a sacrifice zone.”
…The common ETP practice when a landowner refuses a buyout is to file an expropriation claim, then begin construction on the assumption it will be approved. In one instance however, the claim was not filed before construction began.
The landowners invited activists to set up camp on their property and mount resistance actions. Officers then arrested the activists, who were on land they had written permission to be on (trespassing on pipeline domain is a felony punishable by five years in prison according to a “critical infrastructure” law recently passed in Louisiana).
Construction of the pipeline is now complete on the disputed property, and 18 felony charges remain pending.
…Foytlin became an environmentalist when she volunteered on the BP spill clean up. “I remember pulling a dying pelican out of the water covered in oil, and thinking that pelican didn’t have a voice and neither did the fisherfolk I was with – who were on their knees crying like children”, she says.
“Our goal is to create space where justice can be found”, she says. “Initially, we had three objectives besides stopping the pipeline. First, to establish an evacuation route for St James (the state says it is evaluating options). Second, to lift up the needs of the Atchafalaya Basin. Third, is to activate a group of people to make a better future for themselves.”
They recently added another goal: to bring light to the brutal tactics being used to attempt to intimidate them into submission.
…“Intimidation works,” she says, “but witnessing courage is like an immunization to that fear. That’s who we are at L’eau Est La Vie.”