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Tar sands exposed in Cochabamba

Earlier today the Council of Canadians joined the Indigenous Environmental Network in hosting a workshop, ‘Join the International Movement Against the Tar Sands.’ On the panel were Kimia Ghomeshi, G20 and Climate Organizer with the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, Susan Deranger, long-time activist and member of the Fort Chipewyan community, Maude Barlow, National Chairperson with the Council of Canadians, and Tom Goldtooth, Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network.

On the fourth floor of the Univalle campus where the Cochabamba Climate Conference is taking place, the panel led a compelling and informative discussion describing how the tar sands are truly a global threat. Workshop participants included some recognizable faces: Bob Lovelace, well known activist against uranium mining in Ontario, Ruth Caplan of the Alliance for Democracy, and a Greenpeace activist that was recently arrested for participating in a direct action targeting the tar sands. Also present were activists from the US, Europe and South America.

Hearing the impacts of the tar sands conveyed so passionately never fails to move me. ‘Canada’s Mordor,’ as Maude often refers to them, is symbolic of what is so terribly wrong with the Canadian government’s climate and broader environmental policies. Today’s news about energy projects being removed from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, placing environmental reviews in the hands of the Calgary-based oil and gas industry-friendly National Energy Board, is yet another example of this.

The tar sands are also a clear example of the failure of the Canadian and Albertan governments and corporations to respect indigenous rights. Susana gave first hand witness to this failure. She has seen too many members of her community die as a result of cancer. Dr. John O’Connor who has worked in Fort Chipewyan, helped to expose the unusual rates of cancer in the community (John has recently joined the Council of Canadians Board of Directors). In response, the Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons accused John of raising ‘undue alarm’ (you can read a recent article here about John’s story. You can also check out a recent study continuing to raise the alarm about the impacts of tar sands on human health here). Susana also spoke seeing fish with abnormal lumps and the lack of meaningful engagement with impacted communities on the part of the government and Canada’s failure to recognize the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Tom contextualized the tar sands in the historical pattern of energy projects being located on or near indigenous lands in Canada and the U.S. He spoke about living on one of a number of pipeline routes bringing vast amounts of tar sands to the U.S. and the struggle of communities along these routes to challenge expansion. This includes through legal measures and by building movements for environmental justice demanding the respect of indigenous rights. The IEN has been a central part of the opposition to the tar sands.

Clayton Thomas-Muller (Canadian Indigenous tar sands campaigner) is currently stuck in Oxford UK, waiting for a flight home after participating in successful campaign efforts challenging BP’s role in the tar sands. This tactic of putting increasing pressure both on governments and corporations invested in the tar sands such as BP and the Royal Bank has been widely covered in the news and is, beyond a doubt, having an impact. The campaign bringing forward an anti-tar sands resolution at the recent BP AGM (read a recent news story here) gained considerable support.

Maude focused on the water impacts of the tar sands. Water is the engine that fuels the tar sands economy. It takes 3 to 7 barrels of water to produce a single barrel of oil from the tar sands – depending on the method of extraction – and very little of the water used is returned to the natural cycle. 60% of Alberta’s wetlands have already been lost to agricultural development and an additional 22,786.4 hectares could be lost to proposed oil sands mining projects according to the Alberta Water Council.

Maude also explained how exports to US markets are a driving force behind tar sands development. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) provided the foundation for this destructive energy-trading relationship. Signed in 1994, NAFTA deregulated Canada’s oil and gas sector, removing restrictions on foreign ownership and undermining import and export restrictions. Canada is now the number one source of crude oil to the U.S., supplying more oil then Mexico, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. According the Canadian Association of Petroleum producers, the bulk of the 1.9 million barrels of oil exported to the U.S. every day in 2008 came from the tar sands. In particular, NAFTA’s proportional sharing clause and chapter 11, which curtail government’s capacity to limit exports and give corporations rights to sue governments, put the needed transition away from tar sands at risk.

Following the panelists we had an opportunity for questions and answers which included such topics as how we can mobilize more civil disobedience against the tar sands, how Canadians can hold their government to account, how the tar sands is related to REDD (a controversial UN project) and the need to challenge free trade agreements and protect our water resources. Many good contacts and connections were made – overall a successful exposure of ‘Canada’s Mordor’ in Cochabamba!