Standing Rock Fight Has Global Echoes

Much like the Sioux in North Dakota, indigenous people in Tibet and elsewhere are fighting attempts by industry and government to despoil the earth in the name of progress.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Last April, in North Dakota, the Lakota Sioux, on their own lands guaranteed by U.S. treaty, faced the onslaught of the $3.8 billion dollar Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), some 30 international banks, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. To produce a legal and democratic Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the Corps is supposed to consult the tribes. It did not. The Corps only sent a letter, then did not answer three requests for consultation from Sioux leader Dave Archambault III.

The Sioux launched a prayerful, nonviolent encampment to protect the sacred waters of Lake Oahe and the Missouri River. They also defended their ancestors’ grave stones and sacred markings on the rocks. As I learned when I visited their encampment last September, for indigenous people, water and the earth are sacred.

Since 2010, Sunoco Logistics (SXL.N), the chief partner in the DAPL, has had 200 leaks, more than any other oil company. DAPL is not only bad for the air, but can make the Missouri River undrinkable downstream. The Lakota are water protectors for all Americans.

Over the past year, over 200 tribes and many supporters joined in mass nonviolent action. As my wife and I saw on September 3, the water protectors were attacked by untrained police dogs. On the night of November 21 in subzero weather, water cannons, water icing as it flew, doused demonstrators. Sophia Wilansky, a New York river protector, hit by a concussion grenade, nearly had her arm severed. An investor in the Dakota Access Pipeline himself, Donald Trump is extending this cruelty. This past Wednesday, police arrested and did body-searches on 76 people. On Thursday, the Bureau of Indian Affairs invaded and began to demolish the Sacred Stone camp.

North Dakota Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier, Governor Jack Dalrymple, and Trump still dwell in the late 19th century. They brutally and mindlessly pursue “Manifest Destiny” against those they deem “savages.” They project onto others their own depravity.

But the #NODAPL protest has now spread to Iowa where more than 200 people have been arrested. It has spread to Denmark where nonviolent resistance has forced the Danish National Bank to withdraw its money from consortium funding. Even the Army Corps of Engineers has temporarily forbidden the Dakota Access consortium from drilling under Lake Oahe. To write a new Environmental Impact Statement, the Corps has opened a period of public commentary until February 20. Last month, in a stunning act of support and contrition, 4,000 veterans came to Standing Rock to apologize for the army’s genocide against indigenous people. Today Veterans Stand has sworn to engage in civil disobedience until DAPL is stopped.

Far away from most Americans in sparsely populated North Dakota, the tremendous struggle of the water protectors to preserve fresh and sacred waters for future generations has become a great international issue.

In Tibet, over the past several years, another distant, indigenous people have been waging a similar struggle against the occupying Chinese government. All of the 11 great rivers of Asia come down from Tibet. The Yarlung Tsangpo begins at Lake Mansarovar in the shadow of Mount Kailash, crosses Tibet east to west at great speed, and then turns down at the Great Bend near Arunachal Pradesh to plunge into the Yellow River, the Yangtze, the Indus, the Ganges, the Jamuna, the Mekong, and many others. It has greater depth and speed than all European rivers combined, greater than any rivers worldwide except the Amazon and the Congo.

Since 2006, a railway has connected isolated Tibet to mainland China, flooding the region with Han migrants and Chinese tourists. The railway has been an instrument of ethnic cleansing. Tibetans and Tibetan culture—the Dalai Lama attacked as a “splittist”—are a sideshow.

This past December in Dharamsala in the Indian Himalayas, I talked with Tenzin Tsundue, the great Tibetan poet and resistor. On January 16, 2002, Tsundue alone hid at the top of the Oberoi Towers Hotel in Mumbai when Chinese prime minister Zhu Rongji came to speak, and unfurled a red and yellow Tibetan flag. According to Tsundue, the indigenous people of the Bon religion listen intently to the winds in the high mountains. “The breath we take is living wind. It is one with the air surging in the mountains. Static air is just wind that does not move. It is all one wind; one cannot tell lies on the wind within and without.”

For the Bon, humans are a part of nature, Tsundue suggested, not beings to be revered separately. As they are for the Sioux, the mountains and waters are sacred to the Bon.

Over several decades the Chinese government has increasingly exploited Tibetan mineral resources, including copper, gold, chromium, silver, and lithium. It dumps tailings into the Yarlung Tsangpo, where the fish population has plummeted. In November 2012, Tsering Dhondup, 35, and Konchok Tsering, 18, set themselves on fire in protest against a gold mine—since then, the number of self-immolations has risen to 146. In 2009, Tibetans in Tawu County (western Szechwan), lay down in the road to stop tractors. In confrontations similar to those in North Dakota, soldiers wounded many protestors. In April 2012, five nomadic villages in Togde County, Qinghai Province voted down the government’s demand that they sell 50 percent of their animals and 60 percent of their land. They were forcibly resettled. Delayed by popular resistance, the huge Zangmu Dam on the upper reaches of the Tsangpo opened only in October 2015.

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In May 2016 hundreds of indigenous protectors in Minyak, Khom (Eastern Tibet) stopped lithium mining. After two days of protest, the authorities suspended the project “for environmental reasons.” For eight days in May and June, thousands in Amchok Amdo (Eastern Tibet) stopped the mining at a sacred mountain, Nyenchen Gong-ngon Lari. In early December, 20 Tibetans were arrested for protesting against damming the Mekong River in Dechen County, Yunnan Province.

According to its latest five-year plan, the Chinese government envisions a series of huge dams in Tibet. Unneeded by Tibetans (the electricity generated goes to China), these dams would dry out the high grass lands on which nomads graze yaks and sheep. (Ironically, high-altitude Tibet is a ripe candidate for solar power.)

The Chinese regime is forcibly destroying Tibet’s indigenous ways of life. It has cordoned nomads, without yaks, into small, concrete houses, left them no land to graze their animals, and isolated them from centers of education or medicine. Men, demoralized, sometimes spend days drinking or playing cards. Women, stripped of most activities except child care, are also unemployed. Such concrete cantonments mirror reservations in the 19th century United States.

It is thus a “Wild West” of cultural genocide succeeding physical genocide which Tibetans, who lie down against the tractors, resist. It is settler colonialism. And, as at Standing Rock, indigenous protest meets this predatory system head on.

Now Mao Tse-tung led ordinary farmers in the longest, most vigorous and against the odds revolution of the 20th century to defeat ferocious oppression by landlords as well as genocidal Japanese aggression in World War II. The Chinese Revolution relied on people who are normally excluded from the decisions of the powerful. On the Long March, their policies of aiding what they called “national minorities” won them life and death support. As a whole, Mao’s movement recalled the farmer rebellions that ended the dynasties of the past.

After winning, however, Mao was high on himself. Influenced by Soviet—and American—development policies, he imagined “a war of man against nature.” He advocated rapid damming of rivers. Because they threw larger numbers of people out of their homes and threatened those downstream (early dams often broke), these projects were not popular.

Yet today China has 26,000 dams, twice as many as the rest of the world combined. The collateral damage has been immense: The Three Gorges Dam alone destroyed an astounding 13 cities, 130 towns, and 1,350 villages, and displaced 1.3 million people. And the damage is not limited to China. The Power Construction Company of China—PowerChina—has more than 148 branches in 71 countries, including 54 branches in Africa and 74 in Asia. China’s banks have financed more than 300 dams in 60 African and Asian countries. Today’s builder bureaucrats have no clue about Mao’s democratic practice of soliciting support from ordinary people.

Official reporting suppresses protest. But in 2004, resisting eviction, tens of thousands of farmers overran the Pubugou dam on the Dado River, a tributary of the Yangtse. Hundreds were jailed and some murdered. In 2007, thousands of Chinese farmers protested against the Tiger Leaping Gorge Dam on the upper Yangtse. Yu Xiaogang, who founded the Kunming environmental group Green Watershed, helped lead these protests. Because of the seriousness of the environmental and human damage, Green Watershed is tolerated even by the government. Much current Tibetan thinking about anti-Chinese protest focuses on the downstream countries threatened by Chinese damming. But the moral and political focus could be inside China as well.

In China, the authoritarian regime stays in power only through ensuring rapid economic development. Yet Beijing’s air is unbreathable. The sun does not shine. Before the 2008 Olympics, to make things semi-bearable, cars had to be stopped for six months; still, athletes had to wear masks. As in smog-ridden New Delhi, clean air is not to be found.

In response, China has built an electric metro system in Beijing. It has launched 10 green cities. As I saw in July 2013, staring through the window of a rapid train from Liaoning to Beijing, farm house roofs often have solar panels. In part, China seeks to conquer the world economically for solar panels and green energy. That would also save future generations. Ahead of Germany, China is, admirably, a leader in this process.

But under a pretext of weaning off coal, China’s vast system of hydropower dams preys on indigenous people. Internally and externally, Chinese settler colonialism enacts or abets physical and cultural genocide towards indigenous peoples. ChinaPower’s conduct exactly parallels that of the predatory builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as the 30 international banks funding the project.

As with the DAPL, these secretive, anti-democratic projects threaten the environment: no water to drink, no clean air to breathe. Unless the vast Chinese damming is scaled back, it will overwhelm the green development the Chinese government otherwise seeks.

Tibetan resistors are thus water-protectors. Further, they defend what is good in Chinese efforts at green industrialization.

At the roof of the world or the “third pole,” Tibet’s glaciers unleash the Yarlung Tsangpo. But according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the glaciers are melting at twice the rate they did 30 years ago. What happens to the people of Asia if the great river abates?

China’s Yellow River comes down from the Tsangpo, as does the Brahmaputra in India, the Indus in Pakistan. The Yellow River is drying out. Millions of Chinese are left without adequate drinking water.

Far away in Beijing, bureaucrats made a curious decision. Against gravity, they plan to turn the Yangtse River back upstream and refill the Yellow River. This bizarre Promethean effort is unlikely to work.

But even Chinese officials and their children must drink the water, breathe the air…

Just as the 200 tribes at Standing Rock defend the Missouri for the people of the United States, Tibetans are the water-protectors for the Chinese.

Tibetans fight a rapacity fiercer even than the racist, occupying power fought by indigenous Americans in North Dakota. But seemingly strong like Tunisia and Egypt before the outburst of Arab Spring, China will not remain a tyranny forever. When economic growth slows, food prices soar or rivers dry out, there will, likely, also be a “Chinese spring.” Mirroring the new worldwide solidarity with the Lakota, Tibetan water protectors could now, gradually, through demonstrations and word of mouth, make a deep impact on ordinary Chinese, for instance on millions who have lost the Yellow River. Perhaps a Tibetan spring may accompany a Chinese spring.

Chinese dam construction preys mainly on indigenous areas. Though supposedly required by a 2003 Chinese law, PowerChina compiles no Environmental Impact Assessments. Mirroring DAPL, PowerChina strikes secretly, swiftly, importing bands of Chinese migrant workers to throw up dams.

China’s neo-colonialism features vast numbers of resource-draining, seemingly “public” projects abroad which serve no common good. Preying on indigenous people, the dams in Tibet—and the Dakota Access Pipeline—are the templates for these policies. In Burma, for example, ChinaPower seeks to dam the Salween against the indigenous Karen and Kachin. Since 2010, a Kachin army has bombed the headquarters of the Chinese project and forced the indefinite suspension of the Myritsone Dam.

In a supreme gesture of environmental contempt for others, the Keystone XL Consortium recently suborned even the new Trudeau administration in Canada to revive a pipeline, previously halted by massive protest from below, through indigenous Canadian and American territory, to ship dirty tar sands oil via Texas to China. Trump and the oil industry-stoked. science-denying Republican congressional majority may now succeed in giving even Chinese bureaucrats a good laugh.

Indigenous people are water-protectors. Here and on the roof of the world, we owe them a debt of gratitude.