Oil sands activist Melina Laboucan-Massimo: ‘What you do to the land you do to yourself’

Melina Laboucan-Massimo, Climate campaigner with Greenpeace Canada and member of the Cree First Nation, on oil sands operations in northern Alberta, threats to her homeland, and the planned Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Houston, Texas.

Q: US-president Barack Obama has to decide before the end of the year if TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline can go forward. Which effects would the construction have?

Laboucan-Massimo: If this pipeline is built, the amount of tar sands that will be produced in Alberta is going to increase enormously. And thats problematic because we are already seeing unchecked tar sands development in Alberta. We are already hearing of contaminated water sources. We are already seeing the boreal forest being destroyed and the woodland caribou disappear from the areas where tar sands development takes place. It’s not a thriving, living ecosystem anymore. Also, there is a potential risk for leaks and spills all along the pipeline corridor, and TransCanada does not seem to be able to guarantee that a spill won’t happen. Part of the Keystone-Pipeline has already been built, and we have seen 12 spills already in its first year of operation.

Q: What’s wrong with producing oil out of Alberta’s oil sands?

Laboucan-Massimo: Oil from the tar sands is an unconventional fossil fuel. It is a lot harder to reach than conventional oil. It takes more energy, more water and results in more carbon emissions than conventional fossil fuel sources. The ecological footprint is huge. The oil companies have only developed about three percent out of the land they are seeking to exploit. If they develop as much as they want to, that is gonna be very problematic for the way that people live here.

Q: You were born in this area. As a person connected to the land – how do you feel about the oil sands industry?

Laboucan-Massimo: It really hurts my heart to see the effects on the land, the animals, the people and the water. Our cultural fabric is based off this land. My Dads side of my family was very connected to the land. They lived off the land, they hunted, they fished, they trapped, they lived in a more symbiotic relationship with the earth. Before colonization, the earth was in a pristine condition for a reason. The indigenous people that lived here had a deep understand and respect for the land. They had traditional ecological knowledge. They knew that what you do to the land you do to yourself. What we see now, however, is a disconnection between people and the earth. People cannot access certain parts of their traditional territories anymore because they are being cut off by the leases that are given out to multinational oil corporations who don’t have the same regard for the land as the people that have lived their for thousands of years.

Q: What kind of impact do you see on the people?

Laboucan-Massimo: People have called this resource a curse, and for good reason. There are serious health issues like respiratory illnesses, emphysema or asthma, and also elevated rates of certain cancers. We are not only seeing it in the people, we are seeing it in the animals too. People have found fishes in the Athabasca River that have tumors on them, that have crooked spines. Food, which was once extremely healthy, is now becoming contaminated.

Q: But local people benefit a lot from the oil exploration.

Laboucan-Massimo: I don’t agree with that, I see a lot of inequity. The community that I was born into for example still has no running water. Also, a lot of schools are being underresourced in the communities to this day. The industry likes to say ‘we provide jobs’, but how long will those jobs last? If it is a construction job, the job will be over when the plants are all set and done. Fact is: Its just a wage. You are getting paid to essentially destroy your children’s future. You are getting paid to be around toxic chemicals. You are getting paid to potentially have health effects in the future and to destroy the very land that your ancestors lived upon. Billions of dollars are taken out of resources from our traditional territories, and yet, this development is not benefiting the people that actually live here. It is benefiting the companies. And their people don’t live here. They don’t have to live out the consequences of the destruction of the land.

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