I was terrified of the swamp. The silent stalk of water moccasins, the lives and stories lost beneath murky cypress groves. My people are from New Orleans and I do feel a soulful delight in Spanish moss, flat bottomed boats, boudin and fried catfish, but if I’m really honest; I had never slept in humid darkness that is anything but silent, or seen the way hundreds of spider eyes reflect a dim flashlight to become constellations just outside your tent. To the uninitiated like myself, swampland is nearly impenetrable, which is why the Atchafalaya Basin, which stretches across the Gulf Coast of Louisiana from Texas nearly to the Mississippi has been and continues to be a home and refuge to Houma, Chitimacha, and Chata people, escaped slaves, and just about anyone seeking to disappear from government violence and social coercion.
It is, like all of the earth, truly sacred land, a natural ally for justice, welcoming those who honor its intricacies with shelter and sustenance. It’s also federally protected wetlands, the estuary lungs of the region, and the largest remaining swamp in America.
Energy Transfer Partners, a Dallas oil and gas infrastructure company, named like a corporate front for blood guzzling vampires in a Blade sequel, has torn, cut, and bulldozed a 162-mile scar across this land to install the final piece of pipeline that connects fracked oil from the Dakotas to refineries in Cancer Alley. If the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) is the head of the black snake, then the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is the tail. After Trump forced through approvals for DAPL in 2017, and the last journalist checked out of the Prairie Winds Casino in Standing Rock, Water Protectors across the country were already gearing up to continue their work fighting against a bevy of new oil and natural gas pipeline projects.
Since the first day of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline construction, a group of indigenous activists, led by Cherri Foytlin and Anne White Hat, have been waging a guerrilla war across the swamp to slow and halt construction. They named their camp, initially hidden deep within the swamp itself, L’eau Est La Vie, a cajun nod to the Lakota Mni wičoni or “Water is Life.” By the time I arrived at camp in the fall of 2018, some Water Protectors had been living in and out of the swamp for over a year. They included seasoned native environmental activists who shared stories of their work against militarized borders, sex trafficking on native land, and their spiritual commitment to a lifetime of service. Others called themselves Trash Punks, brilliant queer femme led activists as comfortable changing the oil on a swamp boat as they were scaling a massive crane in sandals with a perfect red pedicure, before unfurling a hand painted banner from its zenith. Water Protectors were able to cause over 100 days of construction delays. The project was initially scheduled to be completed in 2017, but remains unfinished nearly two years later.
Eventually Cherri and her council were able to raise money to buy land outside the swamp to build a permanent camp and staging ground for tactical strikes and surveillance missions along the pipeline construction route. Camp then became a welcoming home and refuge, where visitors and guests, and those unable to withstand the incredible challenges of swamp life, could come to share skills and support the frontline warriors.
L’eau Est La Vie’s nonviolent direct action led to violent repressions and multiple felony charges while increasing the cost of Bayou Bridge project by millions of dollars. Water Protectors disrupted ETP shareholder meetings and locked themselves to the front gates of CEO Kelcy Warren’s mansion to send a clear message: New pipeline projects, which pose huge environmental risks, and further the chemical genocide against our least protected indigenous, Black and brown communities, will not be built without pushback and real bottom line consequences. Despite the sustained efforts of environmental groups, concerned citizens and L’eau Est La Vie, ETP has continued construction and recently claimed that it would be completed in early 2019. The Basin however, may have intervened to protect itself. February flooding has put many of the construction sites underwater and Cherri says the rising water will delay the completion of the pipeline “indefinitely.” Time will tell.
The Bayou Bridge project creates new threats to the already endangered Bayou and the predominantly Black community of St. James Parish. Not all pipelines will explode like the gas pipeline in Hidalgo, Mexico which killed 85 people in 2019. All pipelines do however leak, including the Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota which leaked 210,000 gallons in a single spill in 2017. A massive oil leak could destroy the fragile ecosystem of the Atchafalaya Basin, already enormously damaged by the pipeline construction itself.
Since the project was announced, residents of St. James have been pleading for an evacuation route in case of a major spill or explosion. They initially won a court order for Bayou Bridge construction to halt until a plan was completed, but ETP continued construction and has still not provided any way out for residents of the parish. Many residents already have limited mobility from health issues associated with their close proximity to the existing chemical and refinery plants that line the Mississippi.
Julie “Mama Julz “Richards, a Lakota Water Protector from the Pine Ridge indigenous reservation in South Dakota came to join L’eau Est La Vie to take a stand against meth and sex trafficking, both of which follow large scale pipeline projects like a dark hungry ghost. After I met Julz in Louisiana, I went to visit her at the Pine Ridge to see and support the work she is doing across the nation with her organization, Mothers Against Meth Alliance. Julz was the first woman to lock down to construction machinery at Standing Rock, and she locked down again to machinery halting construction for a day on the Bayou Bridge project.
“The L’eau Est La Vie camp was such good energy and you could feel the ancestors there with you. Just being there brought up my fighting warrior spirit. My stand for both of my lockdowns was to bring awareness to the man camps (built to house pipeline workers) and how the pipeline projects lead to meth use, which lead to sex trafficking and our missing and murdered indigenous relatives. It’s all connected. It’s really powerful because you know you are doing this for the future generations. Everything I do is for my grandchildren’s great-grandchildren to save our way of life, to save our water, to save our sisters. To bring the awareness that we lose our brothers and sisters everyday. Doing this work is a spiritual vow. Prison or death, whatever we have to do to rise up and save our future generations.”