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Wed Jan 16, 2019, 01:03 PM

The women fighting a pipeline that could destroy precious wildlife Activists fight to stop constru

The women fighting a pipeline that could destroy precious wildlife

Activists fight to stop construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which endangers an ecosystem that is one of the most important bird habitats in the western hemisphere

Activists travel past the site where the Bayou Bridge pipeline will cross underneath the Atchafalaya river. Photograph: Joe Whittle for the Guardian

Deep within the humid green heart of the largest river swamp in North America, a battle is being waged over the future of the most precious resource of all: water. On one side of the conflict is a small band of rugged and ragtag activists led by Indigenous matriarchs. On the other side is the relentless machinery of the fossil fuel industry and all of its might. And at the center of the struggle is the Atchafalaya river, a 135 mile-long distributary of the Mississippi river that empties into the Gulf of Mexico. The activists gather at L’eau Est La Vie (water is life) Camp, a resistance encampment set up to resist the Bayou Bridge pipeline, which will cross directly through the river basin to connect shale crude from the Dakota Access pipeline to a refinery in St James, Louisiana. From there, it will be shipped primarily to China.

The “water protectors”, as they call themselves, are camped near the path of the pipeline. Many live locally, but others come from afar, often hailing from tribes affected by similar issues, such as the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Their efforts are focused on public protest to raise awareness, as well as direct actions to impede construction of the pipeline, which they say endangers the Atchafalaya hardwood forest and cypress-tupelo swamp, the largest in North America.

Found about an hour south of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, the Rockefeller wildlife refuge is home to one the US’s largest concentrations of alligators. Photograph: Joe Whittle for the Guardian

This ecosystem supports half of the continent’s migratory waterfowl and is one of the most important bird habitats in the western hemisphere. It’s also considered to be one of the most productive swamps on the planet – roughly 90% of the wild crawfish sold in Louisiana are caught here, making it the last stronghold of bayou Cajun fishing culture.
Advertisement High on the activists’ long list of concerns is the possibility of a devastating spill: data collected by Greenpeace from the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration indicates the pipeline’s owners, Sunoco and its parent company Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) experienced 527 spills from 2002 to the end of 2017. According to a Reuters analysis, it had the worst spill record of all US pipeline companies between 2010 and 2016.

In 2014, an ETP pipeline ruptured 160,000 gallons of crude into Caddo Lake, which flows into the Atchafalaya Basin. The incident devastated the local fishing season.
Caddo Lake Some tribal stories say that Caddo Lake is the origin place of the indigenous Caddo Tribe, which occupied the region until Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act extirpated them in the 1800s. Caddo songs tell of an earthquake and flood that formed the lake. Unaware of the approaching danger, some of their ancestors were washed underneath the flood while dancing and singing, and were said to have become fantastic water creatures. Today, the lake is habitat for an abundance of fish and wildlife, including many alligators and snapping turtles – its resident relics of the Reptile Age.

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