The trials of land and water protectors in a world on fire

“Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems … humans cannot.”

Art from Our Future: How Kids Are Taking Action by Janet Wilson (Second Story Press)

On June 20th, Jessica Reznicek was sentenced in U.S. federal court in Iowa to serve 8 years in prison and pay more than $3 million in restitution. She and another activist, Ruby Montoya, pleaded guilty to the charge of damaging an energy facility, the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL), between March and May of 2017. Montaya is still awaiting sentencing.

As reported by the Des Moines Register, “Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger also concluded that a terrorism sentencing enhancement could apply because Reznicek tried to stop the flow of oil, retaliated for decisions by state and federal governments to approve the project and wanted to prevent the government from approving future projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.” 

Reznicek is a member of the Catholic Workers movement, which she joined after participating in the Occupy encampments in New York and Des Moines in 2011.  The Catholic Workers were co-founded by legendary activist Dorothy Day in 1933 and are not affiliated with the church but are dedicated to voluntary poverty and non-violence. They have been at the forefront of many movements and volunteer efforts for decades. 

The women met at a camp in southeast Iowa called Mississippi Stand that Reznicek, now 39, started at the end of August, 2016 in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux fighting DAPL in North Dakota, but she and Montoya soon came to the conclusion that what they were doing was not enough to stop the pipeline and decided on direct action.

Despite their acts of sabotage, which included burning equipment and damaging at least four pipeline valves with oxyacetylene torches, Reznicek and Montoya were frustrated when Bakken shale oil from North Dakota began to flow through Iowa on its way to Illinois, putting at least three major water sources as well as indigenous burial grounds and sacred places at risk. 

Perhaps hoping to inspire others to take similar action, in July of that year the pair assembled about 20 reporters in front of the Iowa Utilities Board in Des Moines that provided DAPL’s permits and took turns reading a statement admitting to their non-violent acts of vandalism. They then proceeded to use a crowbar to remove letters from the Board’s sign.

Both were arrested for damaging the sign, but it would take two years for the inevitable federal charges to come. Interestingly, as reported by the Intercept in 2019, the two activists were subjects of investigation by the private security contractor, Tigerswan, who were working for Energy Transfer Partners, DAPL’s owners, long before the activists (at least officially) appeared on U.S. federal law enforcement’s radar. 

One can easily argue against their actions in that they put both themselves and the firefighters who had to respond to them at risk, but their initial legal argument before 8 other charges were dropped was built around the ‘necessity defense’. Their assertion being that the risks that were represented by the pipeline to the land and water along its long route made their interventions to prevent a catastrophic spill reasonable. 

As Reznicek expressed it to Democracy Now in 2017, “And we never at all threatened human life. We never at all—and, actually, we’re acting in an effort to save human life, to save our planet, to save our resources.”

Calling the property destruction engaged in by these activists ‘terrorism’ as authorities have is an insult to the victims of those who want only kill and maim the innocent for political reasons.

After Reznicek was sentenced, FBI Special Agent in Charge Kowel was quoted making this charge in a press release, saying, “Protecting the American people from terrorism – both international and domestic – remains the FBI’s number one priority. We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to bring domestic terrorists like Jessica Reznicek to justice. Her sentence today should be a deterrent to anyone who intends to commit violence through an act of domestic terrorism.”

As many in progressive media noted after the verdict, land and water defenders, especially those engaged in direct action, are often called this by authorities but those who despoil the world are usually held up as icons of ‘progress’. Despite a court order that the oil should stop flowing through the Dakota Access pipeline in January, as the project didn’t have the required permits, it never stopped. No one has been arrested for this and the Biden Administration refused to intervene.

The most recent legal battle over DAPL came to an end on June 22nd, when U.S. District Judge James Boasberg declined to shut the pipeline down pending an environmental review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scheduled for release in March of next year. 

Just as Resnicek and Montoya’s actions were inspired by the example of indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, in recent years we have seen these communities at the forefront of the climate movement throughout the world.

In late April of 2015, I wrote a story about the dangers facing land and water defenders that featured Berta Caceres, an indigenous activist who had just won the prestigious Goldman Prize for her efforts in fighting a massive Agua Zerca dam project in Honduras.  At the time, her efforts as General Coordinator of Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) had seen foreign financing in jeopardy of being pulled from the project and it seemed like she and her activist colleagues might achieve their aim of protecting the Gualcarque river from ‘development’. 

Less than a year later, on March 2nd, 2016, Caceres was murdered in her home. Within days, the Dutch development bank FMO and a similar Finnish institution, Finnfund, stopped providing funds for the project and a year later withdrew from it altogether. 

Four of those involved in the murder were sentenced to decades in prison in late 2019 but it still seemed that the man accused of ordering the assassination might go free, as oligarchs accused of crimes in the Central American nation rarely face justice. Thankfully, on July 5th , the executive in charge of the dam project, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, president and CEO of the Honduran electricity company DESA, was found guilty of ordering her murder after a three month trial. He faces up to 30 years in prison for the crime. 

While it will not bring the brave water and land protector back, it was a small measure of justice for Caceres, who has been an inspiration for so many in Honduras and beyond. As explained by her daughter, Laura Zuniga Caceres, the activist and, tragically, her murder, shone a bright light not only on indigenous and environmental justice struggles but also the violence and femicide faced by women in her country.

Writing of a camp, Viva Berta’, which was set up outside the court prior to the decision, she quotes the organizations who set it up, “with this camp, we feminist women, activists, defenders of life, will maintain a permanent presence during the trial being held in the Supreme Court of Justice to obtain #JusticiaParaBerta and punishment for the masterminds behind the crime.” 

Recent weeks have brought more proof that we need to heed the warnings of these land and water defenders. While we have seen ever greater numbers of wildfires in the North American west, this is the first year I can recall them in June in the Pacific northwest. Hundreds of people died when a heat dome descended over the region in late June and the town of Lytton in British Columbia, Canada recorded the highest temperature it’s ever recorded, 115.8 F (46.6 C), before it was destroyed in a wildfire that some described as like a “blow torch”

A recently leaked draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) puts the need for action bluntly, warning, “Life on Earth can recover from a drastic climate shift by evolving into new species and creating new ecosystems … humans cannot.” 

Just as the activists in this story tried to tell us for years, there is no more time to wait.


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