“To look at the sea is to become what one is.”— Etal Adnan
“We have entered a new era of water. It is the era of what is to be a world-wide water revolution. Led by the people. Regular people like you and me who want nothing more than to have clean water for their children and a clean world for the next generations.”— Christi Belcourt
Heartbreaking scenes of blue waters around our coast turning brown, while water companies claim they’ve no option but to pour sewage into the sea continue to make headlines and mobilise growing protests. While searching for slogans suitable for placards for the recent SOS Whitstable demonstration against Southern Water’s horrific pollution, it was inspiring to come across the beautiful artworks of the Onaman Collective — renowned indigenous artists and environmentalists Christi Belcourt and Isaac Murdoch use their art to bring about social change, and generously make their beautiful designs freely available for like-minded campaigners: “All banners are free to download and use for all water and land protection actions by grassroots people. Permission is not granted for private companies or profit.”
As our editor, local author and activist Christopher Stone, says: “What I like about those posters, and about that group, is the linking together of the idea of revolution with the idea of sacredness. I think that’s what’s been lacking on the left, and what we really need: radical, compassionate politics, and a sense of the sacred.”
“The question is whether any civilisation can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilised.”— Rachel Carson
Indigenous peoples of the continent now known as Canada and North America have long provided inspiration for people elsewhere who do not subscribe to the colonial, racialised capitalist and patriarchal relationship to the earth that dominates our world, who oppose white and male supremacy. Those who reject the devastation caused by corporate profiteering, who know themselves to be dwelling in an ecosystem, as a part of nature, not separate from “the environment”, have been encouraged by indigenous resistance to the ongoing dispossession of their lands and water, and the genocidal history of settler colonialism, with its concomitant militarism and warmongering, which Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz graphically describes in An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the USA.
Recent examples of resistance include the Standing Rock uprising against the Dakota pipeline, and Land Back. An indigenous-led movement “with a rich and complex meaning,” in the words of Isaac Murdoch, “Land Back is people returning back and finding their place in those systems of life.
“Land Back requires that settlers work to repair the harm colonialism has done and continues to inflict on indigenous people by returning control over ancestral territories back to its stewards, allowing them to begin restoring their connection to ancestral lands in meaningful ways.”
The tenacity of peoples dealing daily with the legacies of European imperialism, affirming their rights and embodying steadfastness against occupation and corporate power is legendary. From Palestine to Pasifika, Aotearoa to the Amazon, the work of land and water protectors provides hope and models of action.
At times in western society, this has led to an ahistorical stereotyped, idealised image, another form of colonisation. Tommy Pico, a queer native American poet from the Kumeyaay nation says: ‘Talking about nature, specifically as a native American poet, it can become fodder for the ‘noble savage’ narrative.” Pico, who grew up in rural San Diego county on the Viejas Indian reservation, a place where “history is stolen like water,” writes in Nature Poem: “The closer his people were identified with the ‘natural world,’ he figures, the easier it was to mow them down like the underbrush.”
So it seemed to me that the Onaman Collective’s kind permission for the sharing of their images means we have an opportunity to express solidarity and common humanity over and above artificially created borders, with people striving for the same goals worldwide while avoiding cultural appropriation.
“Sanitation facilities must be hygienically safe to use and prevent human, animal and insect contact with human excreta.”—International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
“The shore is an ancient world … To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.”— Rachel Carson
Water, a part of the commons and access to which is a human right, as it should be the right of all beings who need it, is suffering pollution and misuse globally, as is seen in scandalous news such as that from Flint, Michigan. Not only is water commodified, it is weaponised by oppressive regimes, eg: in Israel’s military occupation as part of its subjugation of Palestinians. The African Water Commons Collective, the Pan-African Palestine Solidarity Network, the African Water Justice Network, South African BDS Coalition, the Blue Planet Project and the Grassroots Palestine Anti-Apartheid Wall Campaign recently hosted the webinar “End Water Apartheid! Together for Water Justice in Palestine and Africa.” The discussion contested the notion that Israeli water management technology, used to maintain water apartheid in Palestine, presents a solution to South Africa’s water crisis, and condemned the August 2022 visit to South Africa by Israeli water “experts”.
Privatised water companies operating in England, like the fossil-fuel industry, follow the business model described by Whitstable-born Laura Clayson, a campaign manager at People and Planet whose activism does the town proud, as that of “deception, dispossession and destruction.”
Around this country’s coast and in its inland waterways, the health of our seas and rivers, flora and fauna, are endangered by cynical continual discharges of sewage. This is happening in the context of environmental devastation and threats of a worsening “war on nature” through corporate and governmental greed, indifference and ecocide, against which many organisations are allying. Not only are our beaches being rendered unusable for human recreational purposes, the damage to the ocean’s life is immeasurable. Without a healthy ocean the earth cannot survive, and the life in those waters is not for humans to destroy: it’s part of the delicately calibrated interconnected ecosystem of which we are just one part. Christi Belcourt again: “The sacred laws of this world are of respect and reciprocity. When we stop following them, we as a species are out of balance with the rest of the world.”
As Alex Chalk MP stated in a Parliamentary debate (Hansard, October 12): “Water is … the single most critical resource for any society. Without it, human civilisation, even existence, is impossible … there is a special duty on water companies to act in the public interest … the water companies are the unacceptable face of capitalism.” Mick Whitley MP said that “the blame for the unfolding ecological catastrophe lies squarely with the water monopolies which, since the privatisation of the water industry in 1989, have hiked up bills by 40 per cent on average in real terms while paying £57 billion in shareholder dividends that could have gone towards making much-needed improvements in infrastructure.”
The Financial Times (Sept 19) reported that “only £230 million of £1 billion injected into Southern Water last year was used to upgrade operations after its sale to Macquarie, an Australian asset manager (its previous owner was a consortium led by JP Morgan) … The rest has been used to reduce loans between the complex array of holding companies used by its former owners, who retain a 38 per cent stake.” Thus “one fifth of the … household bill goes to paying interest [on the company’s debts] rather than infrastructure improvements and services.” … Macquarie is best known for its decade-long ownership of England’s largest water and waste group, Thames Water, which it sold in 2017 “after increasing Thames’s debt, taking out dividends and paying little corporation tax. … Since 2005, the Australian asset manager bought more than £50bn of infrastructure in the UK, including South East Water.”
According to We Own It, Southern Water is privately owned through a series of holding companies by the company Greensands Holding Ltd. Greensands is in turn owned by a series of investment and infrastructure funds, including UBS Asset Management (UK), JP Morgan Asset Management (US), Whitehelm Capital (Australia) and Hermes Infrastructure Funds (UK), among others. Greensands is a consortium of investors representing infrastructure investment funds, pension funds and private equity to whom our situation in Whitstable may be of little interest. Nor does it appear to bother Macquarie, given the distance involved. However, like everywhere, Australia is suffering in the global environmental crisis, with coastal and marine habitats devastated by myriad waste materials, including sewage pollution. The voracious appetite of extractive corporate capitalism is destroying the very planet upon whose resources it depends for exploitation. This hits the world’s poorest people hardest. Laura Clayson stresses the need for solidarity with the “communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis … From the Ogoni people resisting the impacts of operations by companies such as Shell in the Niger delta, Nigeria, to the Wayuu people in Colombia resisting Glencore’s massive open-pit coal mine, Cerrejon.”
But eventually, this catastrophe will affect even the billionaires, chief executives, corrupt politicians, tax-evaders, complicit organisations and shareholders upon whom the irony of their ruthless actions seems lost. It is doubtful that there will be time for them to jet off to colonise another planet, as “time is running out to protect world’s oceans, conservationists say as UN treaty talks stall” (The Observer, August 27.)
We know PR statements from water companies are untrustworthy, that they deliberately pour pollution into our water to avoid investing in infrastructure and maintenance, sewage monitors are faulty or not installed (The Guardian, August 22 ) or their findings misreported, potential whistleblowers are stifled, dishonest information is given out by duplicitous companies, the Environment Agency is defunded and vested interests continue to trump safety and health. As more comes to light about this criminally irresponsible, selfish behaviour, it is clear it is worsening, to the extent that France and Belgium are having to complain that EU coasts and industries are being affected (Politico.eu, 22 August 22.)
Clearly Surfers Against Sewage are right that “the privatised water industry sees the public as a cash cow to line the pockets of their shareholders while abusing our coastline and rivers with effluent they should have treated” (The Guardian, September 6.) And obviously, as Navendu Mishra MP, said: “The simple solution to this crisis is public ownership of water.”
Presciently, the passionate Irish naturalist Dara McAnulty blogged about Brexit in 2016: “We have a duty to care about what happens to our environment. If we don’t have ecosystems that work and are viable, then everything, including the human race, will pay the price. All our protected species, our areas of special scientific interest are underpinned by EU nature directives; there is already evidence to suggests that there is deregulation pressure in the UK, so what happens if we leave?” Sadly, this anticipated correctly the destruction of environmental protective regulation we are threatened with today, when a bonfire of such legislation is the goal of many a callous and arrogant politician. This threat has not gone away with the resignation of Rees-Mogg, as is obvious at the time of writing with the Tory government breaching its own Environment Act.
Yet again, campaigning citizens here are leading the way in working against these outrages, to protect the Earth with civil disobedience, protests, boycotts of water bills, divestment campaigns, volunteer water-quality monitoring, lobbying, petitioning for renationalisation, while dealing with the greenwashing farce of intergovernmental procedures such as Cop27.
Mutual aid, collaboration and the internationalism of linking our movements with others worldwide fighting for climate justice hold exciting principles to practise and learn from and develop.
“Decolonisation and ‘the equitable distribution of land’ is simultaneously about native sovereignty, self-determination, and rights; and about the Earth and its resources being sustained, cared for, and lived with symbiotically. Colonisation disrupted the communal responsibility to land inherent in indigenous nationhood, and turned land into a private commodity for wealth extraction and accumulation. Therefore, a decolonial lens of returning land to indigenous nations, not just individuals, is necessary to avoid reproducing those dynamics.”
While Land Back originates in and is primarily an urgent quest for justice for colonised peoples, the movement also issues an invitation that many others could respond to: everyone who recognises the urgency of the moment — people alienated from western society’s paradigm of land and property ownership, who wish for its transformation, for the fair redistribution of resources, the end of state violence, elimination of poverty, racism and misogyny, a shift in the relationship between humans and the other beings with whom we share the Earth, and the very survival of our planet. Solidarity among those with shared values and dreams, outside the narrowness of current political and economic systems, is integral to the realisation of those dreams.
PS: Several books are cited in this article. If you like the sound of any of them, please support our independent Whitstable shop Harbour Books! Or if you need to use postal delivery, please try the radical women’s co-op News From Nowhere or Hive.
Funds from purchasing merchandise from the Onaman Collective, such as their lovely T-shirts, goes “directly to supporting our language, arts and culture camp for youth and elders called Nimkii Aazhibikong. Guided by elders, it is a camp for cultural resurgence of sustainable indigenous practices and restoration of traditional indigenous land and resource protection and management.”
To see all of the Onaman Collective’s posters, and to download please go to: http://onamancollective.com/murdoch-belcourt-banner-downloads/
Frankie Green lives in Whitstable and has been taking part in various political activities since the 1960s: anti-apartheid movement, the Vietnam war, the Gay Liberation Front, the Women’s Liberation Movement and Palestine Solidarity Campaign. She helps run a feminist music archive and collects stuff on a blog.
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