The Dakota Access Pipeline Project is an underground oil pipeline of about 1 900 km length, which aims at connecting the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota and Patoka, Illinois, U.S. Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the multi-billion project, asserts that the pipeline will transport domestically produced crude oil from the north to refining markets in the south in a cost-effective and environmentally-sensitive manner. The oil will be designated to local markets only, thus enhancing the energy independence of the country. The company claims to have received all federal and state permits, following extensive prior consultation with potentially affected actors. The construction of the pipeline began in early August 2016 and is scheduled to complete by the end of 2016.
With the beginning of the construction of the pipeline in August, protesters started gathering at the banks of the Cannonball River, on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. Despite claims of previous consultations, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation Tribe affirm that such consultations did not take place. They have raised concerns about the pipeline passing on indigenous land, through sacred indigenous grounds and potentially threatening oil spills in riverways used for drinking water by over 8 000 tribal members. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U. S. Department of Interior, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation have backed the concerns of the affected indigenous communities recognizing the lack of proper prior consultations and citing the potential risks for the environment. Representatives of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has also supported the plight of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, suggesting that the affected communities must have been consulted prior to any legislative and administrative measures on their land (in accordance with Article 19 from UNDRIP).
With over 4000 protesters from over 100 indigenous nations from the U.S. and Canada, the protest camp is the largest gathering of Native Americans in more than 100 years, in what some look at as “the tipping point” in Native American – US government relations. In mid-August constructed in North Dakota halted under threats from protesters. Energy Transfer Partners announced that the construction continues at other sites along the pipeline’s route. U.S. law enforcement was brought on site to keep the situation under control and a number of protesters were arrested. Amnesty International sent observers to monitor the law enforcement response. Early in September, company workers attached protesters with pepper spray and dogs.
The protest against the building of the pipeline has gathered unprecedented international support and solidarity.
The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe have filed a case at the Federal Supreme Court against the construction of the pipeline. The decision of the court has denied the attempts to stop the construction process in September and in the past weeks, construction has accelerated amid erupted violence between protesters and state forces. The chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has spoken in front of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, and representatives of the UN permanent forum on indigenous issues have been collecting testimonies from protesters concerning human rights violations.
The current encroachment on indigenous land and disregard of indigenous rights over land and its resources on the territory of the US is not a recent phenomenon. What makes the current protests different is the huge wave of solidarity they have gathered from across the globe. There exist a number of lines of investigation. Here are several ideas:
- A research project can contextualize the current controversy through making an in-depth overview of the history of land treaties between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe (and/or other tribes) and the U.S. government.
- Mineral extraction on indigenous land has been taking place for a long time. Evaluation of environmental reports on the Dakota Access Pipeline can be compared to reports and outcomes from other similar cases (e.g. tar sands oil fields in Canada)
- The pipeline is said to pass though sacred sites of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. A research project can detail these sites and present them in a broader picture of indigenous resistance.