By: Anthony Pahnke, vice president of Family Farm Defenders, and assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University in San Francisco.
Originally published by the Cap Times (Madison, WI) on Aug. 28th, 2021
People who grow and harvest food know the many ways nature communicates. For instance, if you plant corn but no cobs appear, then there’s probably a lack of nitrogen in the soil. Likewise, when your tomato plants turn yellow and die, you may have a problem with water.
These conversations show how a continuous dialogue takes place between farmers, ranchers and gatherers, and the land, water and air that connect us together in the food system.
Such a recognition, in the most basic way, is part of the lawsuit filed by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe against the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to halt Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline expansion. The expansion, which is underway and has been the focus of months of protests from Indigenous people and allies, would pump an estimated one million barrels of tar sands oil per day out of Alberta, Canada, through northern Minnesota to Superior for processing and export.
What makes the lawsuit worthy of our attention is that not only is the White Earth Band of Ojibwe a plaintiff, but so is Manoomin (otherwise known as wild rice). This legal move is derived from the rights of nature doctrine, evoked around the world to protect lakes, rivers and other non-human actors in nature. Recognizing wild rice as a plaintiff gives it a legal space with which it can communicate with everyone to make its case.
And what does wild rice tell us? It reminds us of the many challenges that climate change poses. For example, wild rice is integral to the Ojibwe’s food system. It is also part of traditions that predate the Euro-American court system that has allowed the expansion of Line 3. Wild rice also expresses to us that it needs water to grow, live and flourish. That the Ojibwe have filed their lawsuit with wild rice is to remind us that people also need water.
Yet the Minnesota DNR issued a permit of questionable legality to increase to amount of water needed to construct the pipeline from 500 million gallons to 5 billion. This move threatens the water source for the rice and its human neighbors.
Wild rice has more to tell us.
We are being told yet again that producing fossil fuels contributes to an energy system driving extreme weather patterns. Droughts, floods and hurricanes are not new. What has changed is their frequency, which is connected to the burning of fossil fuels. Moreover, tar sands companies are looking to become ‘net zero’ carbon emitters by 2050. That may appear good, even a way to rein in certain companies. Yet the devil is in the details.
‘Zero net emission’ is tantamount to allowing a company to pollute in one area while promoting environmentally friendly practices in another. This would allow tar sands companies to continue to extract their product in the most wasteful ways in one area while at the same time, planting trees in some faraway place.
Such a problem is found in the recently passed Growing Climate Solutions Act, which made its way through the Senate in June. This legislation, even as it professes to deal with climate change, actually provides agribusiness and fossil fuel companies leeway to dictate the direction of environmental and agricultural policy.
In this way, wild rice forces us to acknowledge that it grows not all over the world, but only in certain places, one of which is in northern Minnesota. For this reason, the Ojibwe made wild rice harvesting central to treaties that the nation made with the U.S. government in the 19th century. In these documents, the U.S. agreed to allow the Ojibwe to harvest wild rice on ceded lands. This is why the expansion of Line 3 threatens treaty rights.
Wild rice also has lots to say to President Joe Biden.
In what seemed a stark contrast to former President Donald Trump, Biden was going to seriously deal with climate change. The president nixed the Keystone pipeline, which would have sent tar sands oil through the southern U.S.
But now what? End one pipeline to let another one operate? That doesn’t make sense.
Some may note that Line 3 is nearing completion, and, so, the fight has been lost. But the reality is that pipeline accidents are frequent, which even after their construction, spill oil into the environment. As much has been seen in the Dakota Access pipeline, which is found to have leaks upon completion.
Wild rice is trying to tell us that Line 3 must come to a halt. If its construction reaches completion, then no oil should pulse through it. And if it were to turn operational, then no other pipelines should be constructed or renovated.
The point is that not only does wild rice have lots to say, but that nature has rights. To claim this is to recognize and respect nature. The question is if we are ready to acknowledge nature and engage in real communication with it so that we work together for our mutual benefit