December 6, 2006
The biggest problem facing South Louisiana is that there is neither general consensus nor any specific plan about how to protect the coast. There is no vision about what or how much is to be preserved. Nor where. If we hope to protect the communities of the coast and the city of New Orleans, we will need a plan. Unfortunately in the carnival of greed and corruption which seems to be the modus operendi of Louisiana politics, we have not even been able to pose the fundamental questions in a meaningful manner. The process is governed by a free-for-all in which 18 port authorities, multiple levee boards and every cracker jack from the Sabine River to Lake Borne is trying to catch as many beads as possible as they are thrown from the parade float of the Corps of Engineers.
For the time being, we are operating under the premise that the maximum amount of human habitation and infrastructure investment should be maintained. This we can do, but only for a limited time. It is evident that sooner or later, space will have to be ceded to the threat of flooding. It is foolish to believe that we can control Mother Nature with engineering projects that will become more and more ambitious and more and more costly. We can indeed follow this path provided there is enough money. With enough money, we could grow tomatoes on the moon. But how long will the federal government maintain its commitment to massive engineering projects in South Louisiana. The answer does not even depend upon the political will of the citizens most effected, but on decisions that will be made in the U.S. Congress. Louisiana does not have the means to create much less maintain the colossal engineering projects which are actually being considered. This begs the question: how long will the U.S. government be willing to foot the bill?
If, on the other hand, we start from the premise that what should be protected is the coast itself, we are dealing with a whole different set of parameters. According to this vision of the future, the natural processes should not be deterred, but supported. The structures that impede the natural currents and water trajectories should be dismantled. Land should be abandoned to create protection zones against flooding. We should colonize the natural high ground and halt the drying of marshland for residential development and agricultural exploitation. We construct levees and protect only those areas that we are certain we can protect in the long long term. We protect the oil exploration infrastructure (see, I’m not a total anti-oil freak). We protect the shellfish and finfish breeding areas (marshlands). We protect navigation canals and refill the abandoned exploration canals. (The oil industry should be held accountable for restoring what it has destroyed).
The first thing that we need is a map, actually two maps: Map 1 is that of the coastal ecosystem that we hope to preserve, and Map 2 is the human habitation within Map 1. But to have these maps, we will need new mapmakers. Currently the ecosystem of South Louisiana is in the hands of civil engineers. From the top of the pyramid (the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) down to the bottom (local Levee Boards) the whole structure is controlled by civil engineers. They are supported by the local politicians and are effectively autonomous. Although there is nothing resembling a “master map” of Southern Louisiana, there exists hundreds of other maps of civil engineering projects. The future of the coast and of its communities is traced on those maps. The protection of the natural environment is not a consideration in any of these projects. It is even less of a priority. There is a plan called “Coast 2050”, but this, like every other project is in the hands of the engineers.
I have nothing against engineers, but I do not believe that our collective future should be confided to a class of people whose professional objective is to build bigger and bigger things. In the fight to save South Louisiana, the engineering vision has to be subservient to the scientific reality and to an enlightened public will (bonne chance). However, science is not as reassuring as engineering. Scientific knowledge is always evolving, and often apparently contradictory. Engineering, on the other hand, appears infallible: build the right thing and all our problems will be solved. The truth of the matter, however, is that engineering has created as many or more problems than it has solved (Mississippi River levees, oil exploration canals,etc.)
Science is rarely if ever as seemingly absolute as engineering. Example: scientists tell us that to restore the marshland, the water of the Mississippi will have to be diverted into the marsh, thus bringing much needed sediment. Other scientists, however, decry the dangerous effects of diverting (liberating) the heavily polluted waters of the Mississippi with its cocktail of heavy metals, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. This witches brew is already responsible for a dead zone off the mouth of the river the size of Delaware. Even though different scientists tell us different things, we need to hear all of the scientific evidence in order to make the best possible decision in light of all of the scientific evidence.
Before Katrina arrived to destroy it all, there was an experiment installed at Carnarvon on the Mississippi. Scientists were attempting to determine the amount of filtration necessary to eliminate toxic substances and chemical fertilizers from the river water in order to release relatively pure water and its sediments into the marsh. It is evident that toxic substances contained in the river are harmful to the marsh. But all that means is that these substances should be removed before allowing the water into the wetlands, not that the river water should never be allowed into the marsh. The different scientific views do not cancel each other, they need simply to be reconciled. Not as simple as building a levee, but certainly more effective in the long run.
Scientists, however, do not enjoy the same level of support as civil engineers. They are supported essentially by universities and/or non-profit organizations. Engineers on the other hand, have the confidence and support of the politicians in power, and/or major corporations. There resources are relatively unlimited compared to that of the scientific community. For the future of South Louisiana, it is imperative that scientists be given a determining role in the choice of the projects to be undertaken, something which has never occurred. We must end the horse-trading which is at the heart of the process by which the Corps of Engineers dispenses its purse. This can only occur if the political class is motivated to make the necessary changes, which will occur only if the citizenry demands the same. Our leaders must accept the fact that the future of the community is more important than special interests, even if those interests are those of Exxon or Shell. Should this miracle occur, we will still be left with a huge financial problem.
The problem of the coast of Louisiana is an American problem. But, as we have seen in the wake of Katrina, it is very difficult to get Congress to address the issue. (Two examples: 1. One U.S. Congressman suggested that New Orleans be abandoned, and 2. The Jindal bill which would devote a portion of the off-shore tax revenue from oil exploration to the restoration of the coast was not presented during the current session of House of Representatives. On the other hand the U.S. Congress rushed to pass the so-called “Anti-terrorism” bill, allowing the President unprecedented power to detain and prosecute alleged terrorists and their supporters, what will surely be seen as one of the lowest points in the history of American democracy. Meanwhile New Orleans is wasting away.)
It is profoundly unjust that the citizens of New Orleans have to bear the brunt of the damages due a failure of the federal government. The levees that were breached and were responsible for the death of approximately 2000 Americans and the tremendous loss of property, were the responsibility of the U.S. government. As long as the fate of Louisiana is in the hands of the government in far off Washington D.C., we can expect more of the same indifference. The fact that Louisiana supplies more that a third of U.S oil production and more than half of its commercial fishing production does not seems to make much of a difference in the halls of national power.
The problems facing Louisiana are complex, and do not afford an easy solution. None the less, here are 10 suggestions which if implemented will go a long way to improving the chances that our grandchildren will still be able to live here. We need to put into place a unified plan which utilizes the force of Nature and treats her as an ally rather than an enemy. Only then, maybe, do we have a chance.
- Make the maps. Not simply a flood protection map, but a map describing clearly what we can reclaim, what we hope to save and what we are prepared to abandon.
- Re-evaluate the funding. There are several projects which are on the verge of financing which have never received close scrutiny and, which if implemented will have a tremendous impact on the city of New Orleans and all of South Louisiana (i.e. the Morganza Project, see report October, 2006). We need to re-evaluate everything that touches the coast with the maps (#1) in hand. Otherwise, the developers and the politicians will control our fate.
- Free the sediments. 50 years ago, 400 million tons of current born sediment flowed past New Orleans. Today, we are down to 80 million tons. These sediments are contained within the levee walls instead of spilling into the marsh and wind up in the Gulf of Mexico rather than rebuilding the wetlands. Every bit of sediment must be directed into the marsh.
- Free the rivers. Levees must be cut at strategic places and the natural currents permitted to flow. The price of restraining the rivers will ultimately prove too great.
- Eliminate chemical fertilizer. Chemical based agriculture is responsible for the pollution of the coast. It is time that the federal government (and the state government!) recognize this reality and impose controls.
- Heal the marsh. We have the technology to revitalize the wetlands. We need to use it.
- Stop coastal erosion. We know all to well the consequences of land loss. And yet, oil exploration canals are still being dredged and wetlands are being dried for residential development and agricultural exploitation. Each inch of wetlands lost will be hard to recover. We have to stop land loss immediately.
- Leave place for natural processes. Roads and railroads must be elevated. Floodways need to be opened. Oil installations, port facilities and oyster beds have to be consolidated. And areas must be placed off limits to development.
- Dare to think retreat. Residents of the coastal zone are in jeopardy. Oil exploration and port facilities can be maintained through insurance premiums, but this is not the case for residential development. As we are seeing, it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain insurance for low lying areas near the coast. It will be hard to abandon areas into which people have settled, but the cost of maintaining residential areas in flood plains will ultimately prove to be too high. We can do it ourselves or have Nature do it for us.
- Admit the reality of global warming. The Louisiana ostrich still has its head in the mud. Global warming needs to be recognized as a permanent reality if we are to plan effectively. Like it or not, tropical storms will be more frequent and more violent in the future. And the sea level will be higher. Both will have a significant impact on the coast.
Can we save South Louisiana and the city of New Orleans? We have two choices: attempt to do so, or to continue business as usual allowing oil companies, developers and their political henchmen to determine the future of the coast and of all of the people living on it. We can continue to treat Mother Nature as the enemy, and attempt to control her, or we can recognize her power, allowing her a place in our plans. To do so would mean accepting her terms. This means hard choices. However, is we choose to continue to battle Nature, we are committing ourselves to a struggle to the death against her. I am not a betting man, but if I were, my bet would be on Mother Nature.
November 1, 2006
This is the fourth in a four part series dealing with the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the human culture and natural environment of South Louisiana.
Many of the facts and much of the thinking were plagiarized from CAN WE SAVE NEW ORLEANS by Oliver Houck, published by the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, Spring 2006. It is the most well reasoned and best researched paper on the subject. The full text is available by clicking here.
Also of great interest is the NOLA.com Katrina timeline.
For photos of Katrina and Rita.
The Dutch have been fighting the North Sea for centuries. In the great debate concerning the protection of the city of New Orleans, their example is often cited. Politicians, researchers and civil engineers have made the pilgrimage from Louisiana to the Netherlands in an effort to understand their technology and its eventual implementation along the Gulf coast. But is the Dutch example one that should be followed half way around the world?
In 1953, a great hurricane decimated the Low Countries. 1800 people died. 50,000 houses were destroyed and more than 350,000 acres (100,000 hectares) were flooded. In the aftermath of the destruction, the Dutch decided that such a catastrophe would never again befall them. They began to fight the sea with a passion. The principal rivers were dammed upstream. Dikes were built in the estuaries reducing the length of the coastline but two thirds.
The project cost 18 billion dollars for the first forty years. They have not suffered a flood since. The system is designed to protect them for 500 years. At the same time, agricultural land was created inside the dikes. At first glance, it seems like a remarkable success: controlling the sea and creating fertile farmland in the process. But upon closer examination, the project is not the miracle promised.
More than half of the river estuaries along the Dutch coast have been destroyed and the rest are all in serious trouble. At the mouth of the two great rivers, the Meuse and the Rhine, the Grevelingen estuary was one of the most productive in Europe. Within two weeks of the completion of the dam, all of the mussels and all of the crustaceans were dead. An attempt was made to profit from the lake thus created by developing tourism on its shores. The water, however, is so contaminated that bathing is forbidden. The lake is covered by a toxic algae and the lake bottom is covered with a polluted sludge. The lake is dead. So much for tourism.
The same scenario repeats itself up and down the coast: dead estuaries outside the dikes and polluted lakes within. Movable gates were constructed in an attempt to recreate the tidal action but they reduced the sediment so much that islands are disappearing. Scientists are calling for the dismantling of the gates. The lesson of the Dutch experience is clear: as soon as we alter the natural processes of such a complex ecosystem as a river estuary, the resulting imbalance created a series of subsequent problems.
Even though the Dutch solution has been touted as a potential panacea for Louisiana, its application would be fraught with significant risk. First of all, the construction of barriers at the mouths of rivers as powerful as the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi is so challenging as to be impossible. On top of which, the Dutch coast is anchored on a sea bed much more stable than the muck and mud which lie off the Delta. The construction of levees poses considerable danger for the natural environment of South Louisiana. We are already suffering from the results of levee construction along the Mississippi in the form of land loss and habitat destruction. And then there is the question of who would pay for and maintain such a costly project.
The Netherlands don’t have a choice. They are obliged to fight the sea in order to survive. A large part of their country is 15 feet below sea level. For them, it’s a question of life or death. Not so for the USA of which Louisiana is but one relatively small and relatively poor state. As long as the petrochemical industry remains an important part of the economy, we can permit ourselves to imagine that the American government will make an effort to protect the Louisiana coast. But the construction of civil engineering project on the scale of building barriers across the Mississippi and Atchafalaya deltas and their maintenance forever, represents an ongoing investment that the USA might not be prepared to make. Given the lack of assistance from the federal government, which continues to characterize the reconstruction of the city of New Orleans and South Louisiana, the construction of estuary barriers and their maintenance for 50 or 100 years seems unlikely.
Several Louisiana delegations have visited the Netherlands. Many a politician, engineer or journalist has returned praising the Dutch model. In the Netherlands, however, the great civil engineering projects are being abandoned. According to the Netherland Water Partnership Water Management and Flood Control (2005): “Only by ceding space can we hope to re-establish the situation. If we do not do so in an efficient and timely way, the sea will do it by catastrophe”. “Ceding space” clearly does not mean building higher dikes or digging deeper channels. Unfortunately many of the Louisiana politicians who have visited Holland have not learned the real lesson of the Dutch model.
What is necessary in Louisiana is a completely new way of perceiving the problem. Rather than attempt to control Mother Nature with tighter and tighter straight jackets, with more and higher levees, we need to carefully examine the ecological systems of South Louisiana. Our goal should be to maintain these systems and to adapt our living space to the natural environment. Hurricanes and floods will always be part of life along the Gulf coast. We need to integrate the coast itself in our efforts to protect human habitation. We need to give Nature enough space so that when the hurricanes and floods occur again, as they will inevitably do, our settlements and our lives are not jeopardized. We need to treat Nature not as an adversary but as an ally.
The question that is at the heart of the long term survival of the Louisiana coast and of its human culture is whether we have the political sense to cooperate with Nature, or whether we will repeat the mistakes of the last century and attempt to control Nature with bigger and bigger engineering projects? Will we once again be the victims of a planter mentality for which special interests and the exploitation of the natural environment for the enrichment of the few will determine the future of us all.
Next month: The final Katrina report, proposals and possible solutions.
October 4, 2006
This is the third in a four part series dealing with the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the human culture and natural environment of South Louisiana.
Many of the facts and much of the thinking were plagiarized from CAN WE SAVE NEW ORLEANS by Oliver Houck, published by the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, Spring 2006. It is the most well reasoned and best researched paper on the subject. The full text is available by clicking here.
Also of great interest is the NOLA.com Katrina timeline.
For photos of Katrina and Rita.
Hurricane Katrina was the best-predicted natural catastrophe in the history of Louisiana. Ever since Hurricane Betsy in 1964, it was well known that New Orleans was at risk for serious flooding in the event that a major tropical storm made a direct hit on the city. For decades it has been known that coastal erosion (2000 square miles, 3000 square kilometers over the last 50 years) is a serious environmental problem. It was common knowledge that the loss of wetlands increased significantly the danger to the city and to all of South Louisiana in the event of a major tidal surge. In order to maintain the protection barrier afforded by the marshes, all we needed to do was to leave them alone. Exactly what did not happen. Before Katrina, the price tag for restoring (partially) the wetlands and preventing further erosion was on the order of 14 billion. Since the storm, you can add another zero.
The maintenance of the levee system is part of a hodge-podge of conflicting interests and in so far as it is designed to protect human habitation, does not work. The process is political and therefore at the mercy of campaign contributions and those who can afford them, which in Louisiana means oil companies and developers. Special interests continue to supercede the long-term interests of the community. In addition, the responsibility for the levees is not clearly defined. We have a flood control program, a navigation program, a coastal development program, a wetlands restoration program, etc., none of which communicate with one another much less coordinate their efforts.
Hurricane Betsy sounded the alarm. Following the flooding in New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was mandated to protect the city in the event of a tidal surge coming from Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne: The Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity Hurricane Protection Project. There were two choices: either build bigger and stronger levees closer to the city, or build smaller levees and barriers at the Gulf entrance of the lakes. Originally the second plan was favored simply because it was thought to cost less.
The smaller levee-off shore barrier plan had the additional advantage of being supported by the developers. In the 1960s, New Orleans was in the midst of a development boom. The drying of cypress swamps to the East of the city and the construction of new residential neighborhoods (the ones hardest hit by the flooding of 2005) reached the lakeshore during this time. But what was a boon for developers was a catastrophe for the environment. On top of that, the construction of the barriers at the Rigolets (Gulf entrance to Lake Pontchartrain) would likely destroy the livelihood of thousands of fishing families who depended on the fish being able to freely enter the lake.
In 1982, the Corps of Engineers published its report. It chose the second option: the construction of bigger and stronger levees closer to the city. Not only was the plan more environmentally friendly, but it was discovered to be less costly as well. The project was to cost $757 million and was to be completed in 2015. When Katrina hit on August 31, 2005, more than 125 miles of levees including the levees along the interior canals (the ones that gave way) had been built. Since 1982, the budget of the project had been reduced from $15 to $20 million a year to between $5 and $7 million, due largely to the competition of other projects (Louisiana has received over 2 billion dollars from the Corps of Engineers over the last 5 years distributed between 18 port authorities and various other projects). Had the levees been able to withstand a Category 3 storm as they were intended to do, the city would not have flooded. Unfortunately, the levees were not up to the standards in place.
So much for the history. What about the future? The question has no easy answer particularly since there is no overall vision of what South Louisiana is supposed to look like in 50 years. There is no report, no agency, no law, and sadly, no map to guide us forward. Which in and of itself would not be so bad were we not losing the 20 to 25 square miles of coast (down from 50 square miles, 80 square kilometers in the 1980s) every year. The country that our grandchildren will inherit will be as much created by what we do not do as by what we do.
For the city of New Orleans, the question is simple: how do we protect the city from flooding. Unfortunately the answer is very very costly. Levees will have to be constructed to resist Category 5 storms and there will need be enough surrounding coast to prevent the city from falling into the Gulf of Mexico.
The future of the city is indelibly linked to that of the entire coastal region and that’s where the question becomes more complicated. There are essentially two choices: 1. Give the priority to oil exploration and the urbanization of the coast in order to exploit the natural resources and to promote industrial and residential development without restriction (this is pretty much what we’ve had up to now), or 2. Give the priority to the protection of the coast itself. This is the only option that allows us to imagine that the city of New Orleans and the smaller towns of the coastal zone (not only the towns of St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes, but also Houma and Thibodeaux) will exist in one hundred (fifty?) years. The problem with this option is that it depends on something that is very very rare in Louisiana: a plan.
In the absence of a clear set of established priorities, it will be business as usual and the real estate developers, the Levee Boards, the 18 Port Authorities will attempt to garner the maximum amount of attention from the Corps of Engineers to implement their specific projects. The future of the coast and of all South Louisiana will thereby be controlled by a hodge podge of competing interests, none of which have any concern beyond making as much money as quickly as possible.
In the disarray that followed the humanitarian crisis of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the environmental questions have all but been abandoned. South Louisiana is attempting to rebuild lives, houses, communities and to regain the “normal” way of life. Reconstruction is the priority. In this confused and confusing situation, there is a project which has flown under the radar and yet its importance to every man, woman, child and nutrea rat in South Louisiana cannot be exaggerated. Something called the Morganza Project.
The Morganza Project proposes to construct a levee wall from Butte La Rose (St. Martin Parish) descending to the Gulf of Mexico and from there back up to Houma, a total of 72 miles (more than 100 kilometers) in all. The cost of the project is estimated at $40.5 million but, if implemented, will most certainly be the double. 3,743 acres of wetlands will be destroyed outright and an additional 270,000 will be impacted and significantly.
Flood gates are included in the plan in order maintain hydraulic communication between the marshes inside the levee wall and those outside, but it is most probable that the natural currents and drainage will be destroyed. Not so speak of sediments, fish and plankton. There is nothing in the plan that takes into account the underground currents of the aquifer. How they will be altered is anybody’s guess.
If this project is realized, the day after the levees are completed, the construction cranes will arrive and the drying of the marshes will begin. The Morganza Project is only part of an ambitious civil engineering project which proposes to establish a sort of Maginot Line (the defenses which were supposed to keep the Germans out of France in WWII) from the Pearl River to Morgan City.
We only have to remember back to September 2005 to see the risks inherent in wide scale construction on marshland (Lakeview, Gentilly, New Orleans East, St. Bernard Parish, the 9th Ward) in the event of a levee break. Hurricane Katrina was less than a Category 3 when she hit New Orleans. According to everybody, hurricanes in the near future will be more frequent and more violent.
If the Morganza Project is realized, the land north of the levee wall will resemble greatly that part of New Orleans destroyed by Katrina. What will happen to the marshland South of the levee is unknown, but between global warming and coastal erosion it might not last for very long. Especially since the levees will act as an impenetrable hydraulic barrier. Not to mention the cost of maintaining such a colossal dike.
The alternative is to begin at the other end. Instead of attempting to put a straight jacket on Mother Nature and to control radically the coastal ecosystem with a series of levees isolating the interior from the surrounding marsh thus breaking the natural ebb and flow into and out of the wetlands, how about protecting the communities of South Louisiana with a similar system to that which is designed to protect New Orleans: ring levees. Instead of diking the entire region, why not protect the natural high ground? This does not mean that we will wind up in the Middle-Ages, living behind our castle walls. But we need to realistically asses what we can protect and what we can not protect. Only with a long-term point of view that takes into account the natural environmental processes can we harmonize human activity with the coastal wetlands and the natural hydraulic currents on which they depend. If we choose not to incorporate these natural processes but rather to attempt to overpower Mother Nature (remember 1917) the coast and its people will not survive
Next month: the Netherlands and alternatives for the future.
September 6, 2006
This is the second in a four part series dealing with the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the human culture and natural environment of South Louisiana.
Many of the facts and much of the thinking were plagiarized from CAN WE SAVE NEW ORLEANS by Oliver Houck, published by the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, Spring 2006. It is the most well reasoned and best researched paper on the subject. The full text is available by clicking here.
Also of great interest is the NOLA.com Katrina timeline.
For photos of Katrina and Rita.
Until I saw the NOLA.com hurricane Katrina time-line, I thought that I understood how the city had been flooded: the protection levee of the 17th Street canal had been breached allowing the water to enter the “bowl”. I was astounded to discover what actually happened. It was quite a bit more complicated and even more awesome than I had thougt. In fact there were several breaches. As witnessed by the computer model, the floodwaters entered the city much like an invading army. In a campaign comparable to Napoleon’s best, the defenses of the city were assailed by numerous assaults arriving from everywhere. The force of the storm surge was too great, and the levees gave way, not at one, but at many places.
To better understand the levees that were supposed to have protected New Orleans from the waters of Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne as well as the Mississippi river, it is necessary to understand the agency responsible for their construction and maintenance: the US Army Corps of Engineers.
The Corps of Engineers was created by Congress at the beginning of the 19th century to assure navigation in the interior waters of the United States. Flood control has never been its primary focus. In the middle of the 19th century, the federal government ceded control of the protection levees to local Levee Boards in a ploy designed to calm the advocates of states’ rights and head off the Civil War. Not much of a strategy, but ever since the Civil War, politically appointed local committees have had an oversight capacity in dealing with the levees. The key word here is “appointed” as in political favoritism.
The relationship between the Levee Boards and the Corps of Engineers is not clearly defined, one of the several factors contributing to a mixed salad when it comes to flood control. The Levee Boards are fraught with nepotism and cronyism and are not reputed to be particularly effective. The primary responsibility of the Corps of Engineers, on the other hand, is not flood protection. Here is an example: In 1999, Congress approved a study to evaluate the costs associated with reinforcing the protection levees at New Orleans. The study was to determine what would be involved and what would be the costs of building up the levees in order to resist a Category 5 hurricane (Before September, 2005, the levees at New Orleans were supposed to be able to resist a Category 3 storm, the strength of Katrina when she arrived in town. The key word here is “supposed”). The proposed study had a budget of 12 million dollars. Six years after the appropriation when Katrina hit, the study had yet to begin. Looks like somebody fell asleep at the wheel. Or rather nobody was minding the store. Or better still, nobody knew who was supposed to be minding the store.
South Louisiana has a colossal quantity of navigable waterways. There are 18 ports along the river and along the coast. The two biggest complexes are Baton Rouge and New Orleans, but there are major facilities in New Iberia, Abbeville, Houma, Morgan City, Mermentau and Lake Charles. Additional facilities are located at Petit Anse, Tigre, Lacarpe, Dulac, Grand Caillou and Segnette. The US Corps of Engineers is responsible for the maintenance of all of these ports.
In 1879, following a series of catastrophic floods, the US government created the Mississippi River Commission as part of the Corps of Engineers. This agency is supposed to control the Mississippi and thus prevent floods. Since its creation, its over riding philosophy has been to build bigger and stronger levees, a strategy which has had disastrous consequences. By preventing the water borne sediments and the annual spring flood, the levees have been choking the marshes for over a hundred years. Without the annual sediments, the marsh cannot replenish itself. Combine that with the enormous quantity of canals constructed for oil exploration during the last 50 years, and the result has been an overall land loss of approximately 2000 square miles (3200 kilometers square) of the coast.
In 1917, following yet another disastrous flood, Congress mandated the Corps of Engineers to construct the ultimate levee system along the Mississippi river. 10 years later, the Corps finished the task and reported to Congress that the Mississippi was contained. The following spring, in 1917, the river broke through the levees creating the greatest natural disaster in the history of the country. More than 3 million people were displaced, fleeing the floodwaters from Memphis south. Following this catastrophe, the Corps was obliged to rethink its “bigger and higher” strategy. Spillways were built, which allow water to flow out of the primary channel when levels are too high. The two primary spillways are the Atchafalaya and the Bonnet Carré. The Bonnet Carré is just above New Orleans and has been used about every five years or so to take the pressure off the city at high water time. The Atchafalaya was used once in 1973. It did what it was supposed to do, ceding space to nature. But the happy result was mitigated by the fact that many people had settled in the confines of the spillway, creating a conflict of interest between those residents and the community at large. Yet up until Katrina, the Corps of Engineers has been able to reconcile its two not necessarily compatible mandates: inland navigation and flood control. Everything was going pretty well until Katrina spun the wheels off the wagon.
Flood control has no clearly established hierarchy between the state, federal and local governmental agencies. The levees are built by the US Army Corps of Engineers, but their maintenance is overseen by the Corps, by the local Levee Boards, and by the state representatives in Congress. The Corps of Engineers is the only corps of the US Army that answers to the Congress. The Corps is therefore at the beck and call of local politicians. This tends to create conformity on the part of the US Army Colonels who direct operations as well as a laissez faire attitude. When something like hurricane Katrina happens, the weakness of the system becomes apparent. After the hurricane, everybody concerned was pointing the finger and blaming the other guy. “It’s not our responsibility” and “We did not have enough funds” became the catch phrases used by all and sundry to cover their asses.
The money available to the Corps for the maintenance of the levees is only part of the pie that is destined to finance all of the Corps’ operations, most of which have nothing to do with protecting the population. The maintenance of ports and of navigable waterways is still number 1. The result is a traders’ bazaar in which local politicians compete to see who will get the most elaborated projects for his or her region. Example: Before the hurricanes of 2005, the New Orleans Levee District complained about two projects that were slated for the ports of New Iberia and Morgan City. Result: the Louisiana congressional delegation was able to pass a law giving an additional project to the port of New Orleans. The local politicians are like so many little chicks with their beaks open, yakking away, trying to get the attention of the Mother Hen ( the US Army Corps of Engineers). Naturally the Corps attempts to dispose of its resources in the most equitable manner, without necessarily evaluating their general importance. Certain projects, say the New Orleans protection levees for example, are not adequately funded. Wouldn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
Louisiana has received over 2 billion dollars from the Corps of Engineers over the last 5 years. The problem is not one of resources, but of the distribution of resources. The fact is that the protection of urban zones is not at the top of the list of priorities. That wouldn’t make any money for anybody. On the other hand, the drying of cypress swamps for conversion into agricultural farmland makes lots of money. That money can pay the salaries of lobbyists and finance the campaigns of the politicians who influence greatly if not decide absolutely how the US Army Corps of Engineers spends its time. In the labyrinth of the projects of the Corps, money does not talk, it screams.
The system is so absurd that it has in fact facilitated rather than prevented flooding. In observing the NOLA.com Katrina time line, one thing that jumps out is the role of the MRGO (Mississippi River Gulf Outlet) in the flood. This canal was built to give access from the city to the Gulf without having to pass into the river. For that, the canal works magnificently. On the other hand, a better method of flooding the city in the case of a storm surge on Lake Borgne, could not have been created. During hurricane Katrina, MR. Go, as it is called, acted as a funnel bringing floodwaters into the heart of the city with the consequences that we all know. The Louisiana congressional delegation sustained and continues to sustain the canal in the face of the protests of the police jury of St. Bernard Parish (whose towns of Chalmette, Arabi, Mereaux, Violette and Poydras were all but wiped out), of the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation as well as the scientific community. The canal is responsible for the loss of 20,000 acres of St. Bernard. It continues to strangle the ecosystem of Lake Pontchartrain, and is directly responsible for the flooding of the city of New Orleans. And still, the states’ representatives in Washington continue to support it. In Louisiana, money doesn’t talk, it screams. Loud.
In the corridors of power in Louisiana there is an elephant called “The Oil and Gas Industry” (see monthly report August,2006). There is also a gorilla. There’s a difference between the two. The existence of the elephant is recognized. He is cajoled and flattered. On the other hand, nobody sees the gorilla, or at least, nobody will admit that he exists. We pretend that he is not there. The gorilla is called “Global Warming”.
There is more and more evidence to link the violence and frequency of tropical storms to the increasing temperature of the oceans caused in turn, by the emission of greenhouse gases. In the last century, 18 major hurricanes have hit the U.S. In the last 10 years, there have been 10. Pretty bad ratio. The problem for South Louisiana is not only the catastrophic effects of the storms, but also and more importantly, the ultimate effects of a rise in sea level. According to most predictions, sea level rise will be one of the most serious consequences of global warming in the following decades. The oceans are predicted to rise between one half to three feet. Bad news for South Louisiana. Especially since we are sinking. In fact, the coast is subsiding. Due to the effects of oil and gas explorations in combination with the control levees along the major streams (Mississippi) which prevent sediments from replenishing the marsh, South Louisiana is sinking. With the coast subsiding and the seas rising, the outlook is not so good. The problem is all the more serious because the politicians are unable to admit that it exists, much less do anything about it. The question then is how long can human habitation be maintained south of Baton Rouge?
One would think that our representatives in Congress would be at the forefront of the movement to protect our coast. Unfortunately, it’s the opposite. The elephant would not be happy with their infidelity. In November, 2003, the two Louisiana senators voted against the McCain-Liberman bill which would have established a national plan to address climate change, as well as an improvement in the standards for fuel consumption. “Energy efficiency” is just not part of the political vocabulary of Louisiana. The slowing of the green house effect that would accompany a reduction in fossil fuel consumption is not something that resonates in the halls of Louisiana political power. The fact that such a reduction is critical to the survival of the coast, its people and their culture, just doesn’t ring a bell. On the other hand, oil exploration gets a very sympathetic hearing. The whole thing is even more absurd given the fact that the oil and gas infrastructure, thousand of miles of pipeline, is also at risk.
Louisiana is the victim of a plantation mentality. Make hay while the sun shines. Get it while you can. Somebody at LSU will come up with something. Those college kids are smart enough. Too bad for the coast, too bad for the fish, too bad for the wetlands, too bad for the aligators, and too bad for the people. Too bad for our children. But keep those oil rigs pumping, by golly. What suicidal rubbish.
Next month: is there a possible solution?
August 2, 2006
This is the first in a four part series dealing with the impacts of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the human culture and natural environment of South Louisiana.
Many of the facts and much of the thinking were plagiarized from CAN WE SAVE NEW ORLEANS by Oliver Houck, published by the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, Spring 2006. It is the most well reasoned and best researched paper on the subject. The full text is available by clicking here.
Also of great interest is the NOLA.com Katrina timeline.
For photos of Katrina and Rita.
According to biologists, it will be at least three years before the marshes contaminated by the salt intrusion that accompanied hurricanes Katrina and Rita will return to a condition similar to that which existed before the storms. It will take that much time before the animal and plant communities can return to their previous state. It seems to me that a similar amount of time will be needed before the human community of South Louisiana can overcome the shock and disarray to which it fell victim during the hurricanes of 2005.
The reconstruction effort is hampered by the same incompetence and negligence that characterized the relief effort during the storms. It is sad to see that the reconstruction has become victim to dishonesty and greed. American taxpayers will foot the bill for bureaucratic ineptitude and outright fraud to the tune of 2 billion dollars. During the post Katrina scramble, FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) did not bother to verify the information submitted by claimants. Over 1,000 payments were made in the names of federal and state prisoners. Payments for loss of domicile were made for addresses that did not exist, etc. etc. But the worse, in my opinion, is the inability of political leaders to identity and address the fundamental problems, which are at the heart of the social and environmental catastrophe. Many of the most fundamental problems, those of wetlands loss, and of the levee protection system, are not even talked about. With politicians responding primarily to the money interests that are controlling the reconstruction, the Louisiana ostrich, once again, has its head up its ass.
Let’s start with the question of debris. There are actually, nearly one year after Katrina, tens of thousands of houses in New Orleans that have not been touched since the hurricane. They are rotting in the hot summer sun, waiting for demolition or repair. The political leaders of the city have decided that those houses which are to be destroyed, will be transported and dumped into a waste disposal site to be installed East of the city at the edge of Bayou Sauvage wildlife reserve. Thousands of houses containing toxic waste in the form of cleaning supplies, gasoline, pesticides, herbicides, etc. will be moved to the edge of town and dumped in a hole. The creation of this waste disposal site is possible if and only if federal environmental standards are waived (broken), something that the federal officials and the city officials are apparently prepared to do.
There are approximately 1,000 families living near the proposed site, most of them Vietnamese fishermen. In addition, Bayou Sauvage is the largest urban wildlife reserve in the U.S.: 9,308 hectares (30,000 acres) that are home to a host of wildlife including alligators and waterfowl. The reserve is an important migratory halt for tens of thousands of duck and geese. The proposed dumpsite will have no interior protection wall. The officials pretend that none is needed since the waste in question is “cleaner” than normal waste. It is therefore not necessary to keep the runoff from entering the surrounding wetland. According to these officials, electronic equipment, bleach, rat poison, ant poison, nitrate fertilizer and the like pose no problem to the health of the marsh, nor to the thousands of people living nearby.
For the Vietnamese community, the project is a disaster. In order to place a dumpsite so near a residential area, the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, has countermanded zoning regulations. The proposed site will have a mound 80 feet tall, which will tower over the church that the community hopes to build. Even before the hurricanes, Louisiana did not have a very good reputation regarding environmental protection. The little bit of commitment that did exist seems to have been yet another victim of the storms.
There is another problem which is much more serious and which effects many more citizens. Not much is said about it, however, because no one dares. In the corridors of power in Louisiana there lives a big beast, a metaphorical elephant. The elephant is powerful. It can be generous, but it can also be mean. Best give it a wide berth. The elephant is called “The Oil Business”.
Oil was discovered in Louisiana at the beginning of the 20th century, but it was not before the 1940s that the technology of submersible platforms was developed. The evolution of this technology was accompanied by the dredging of a labyrinth of canals along the coast. These canals are used primarily to reach the drilling platforms that dot the marsh. The impact that these canals have had and continue to have on the natural environment is both immense and catastrophic.
The space occupied by the actual canal itself is not the problem. The problem is what occurs subsequently. Due to the wave action of the boats, the canal walls are eroded, eating up more and more marshland. The levees that line the canal, made up of the material displaced by dredging, prevent natural drainage. On one side, the marsh will be dried up and on the other it will be drowned. Over time, the marsh will be dramatically altered. The canals allow salt water from the Gulf to penetrate deep into the marsh. The marsh grass dies, the root balls disintegrate and the marsh itself withers away. In the 1980s, over 50 square miles (80 square kilometers) were lost every year to erosion. Today the rate has fallen to 20 to 25 miles per year, the equivalent of a tennis court every three minutes. On top of the major navigation channels, there are over 8000 miles of exploration canals, over 10,000 miles of canals (16,000 kilometers) in all. At least 50% of coastal erosion is directly related to oil exploration. In the areas that are heavily exploited, the percentage jumps to 90%. And the most astounding fact of all: nobody says a thing.
About 70 years ago, the State of Louisiana made a tacit deal with the Oil and Gas Industry. The State gets a part of the take, and the Oil Business gets to do what it wants. We could (should) have obliged the oil companies to refill the canals once they were no longer in use. We could have obliged the oil companies to distribute the dredged material over the marsh rather than leaving it in a pile, We could have insisted that over-marsh vehicles be used. They have existed for decades. These and other environmental solutions could have been implemented. But the elephant is rich and has a mean streak, and so it seems best to leave it alone. As a result, miles and miles of marshland, which could have served as a natural protection barrier for the city of New Orleans, have been lost. The impact of Katrina would have been greatly reduced had not so much marshland been lost.
Exploration canals are not the only culprit in wetland erosion. The US Army Corps of Engineers, and the levee system that hold the Mississippi river like a straightjacket, also shares the blame. We will get to that in a later report.
Another thing of which no one dares speak: during hurricane Katrina, the oil reservoirs of Murphy Oil in St. Bernard parish were breached, spilling thousands of gallons into the environment. During the storm, rescuers attempting to save people in St. Bernard were overcome by the fumes. Farther south, there are reports that an oil spill contaminated much of the delta, covering an area larger than that contaminated by the Exxon Valdez. Never made it to the evening news. Wouldn’t want to upset the elephant. On the other hand, the resources of the U.S. government were deployed rapidly and generously in the days after the storm to protect the pipelines and restore the production platforms to full operation. This while fishermen and trappers from Delacroix to Cameron are having to make do with little or no help from anyone. In Cameron parish, the small population of 10,000 is unable to garner any media attention, and little or no governmental assistance to boot. The fishermen, farmers and cattlemen of South Louisiana have been terribly hard hit by the hurricanes of 2005. Somebody should have told them it was better to own an oil well.
The coast of Louisiana is disappearing at an alarming rate. Along with it go the unique human culture of the wetlands, as well as the breeding grounds for most of the shellfish and finfish of the Gulf of Mexico. As well as an effective protective barrier against tropical storms. What is even more disturbing is that one of the parties most responsible for this situation accepts no responsibility. We could never ask the elephant to repair what it has destroyed. It might get mad.
Next month: The US Corps of Engineers and the protection levees.
July 5, 2006
The first time that I met Jackie Vautour was in 1977. In those days I was playing pingpong with the map, bouncing between Louisiana, Québec and Acadie. After my first visit to the Acadian homeland in 1975, I returned frequently to play a club, the Cachot (dungeon) at the University of Moncton. The friends I made during that period had a great influence on the evolution of my militant French identity. Gérald LeBlanc, Rhéal Drisdelle, Laurent Comeau and others revealed to me the Acadian reality of my generation. The confrontational attitude that animated much of their activities resonated in my heart. Only a short time before, young Acadian militants had burst into the office of the mayor of Moncton, Mr. Jones, a noted French basher, to place a pig’s head upon his desk. Inspired by the growing militancy of the Québec separatists as well as the American anti-war counter culture of which I was part, young Acadians refused to accept the second class status to which French language culture had been relegated in New Brunswick. They struggled for the recognition of their linguistic and ethnic rights. My kind of folks.
It was during one of these visits to Acadie that I was asked to participate in a benefit concert, the proceeds of which were dedicated to helping the expropriates of Kouchibouguac. The creation of a National Park had provoked great turmoil in Acadian society. Many referred to it as a second Deportation. 250 families had been expropriated to make room for the park. They were largely ill educated and poor and Acadian. The government treated them with indifference and disdain. I understood much later that the situation was not as black and white as I had first imagined. The creation of the park was inspired by a sincere desire to improve the quality of life in the region. But things did not go so well, especially for the expropriates. When I learned of what had happened (monthly report June, 2006), I was outraged. The spokesman for the expropriates was John L. “Jackie” Vautour. This is how I came to learn the story of this otherwise ordinary man who, in spite of himself, has struggled against the governments of New Brunswick and of Canada for most of his life.
I can’t remember much about our first meeting. In the photos, Jackie is a small man, balding, smartly dressed with a Fu Manchu moustache. I can’t remember anything about the speech he made during that concert. It must have inspired me, however, because not too long thereafter, I wrote a song dedicated to him, La Ballade de Jackie Vautour. At that time (1976) the controversy surrounding Kouchibouguac was at its peak. The expropriations had begun in 1968, but emotions were still raw. Jackie, his family and a handful of hardcore followers were camped in the park, illegally occupying the land that the government had taken from them.
Like all of the residents in the area that comprised the park, Jackie Vautour had received an offer from the government for the acquisition of his land. He owned 60 acres along the river Fontaine where his house was built and another 54 acres in an area known as the Carrigan plain. On September 2, 1970, the government of New Brunswick offered him $12,000 for the lot, an offer which he refused to accept. It was common practice during the “negotiations” to increase the offer by 10%, but only by 10%. The young inexperienced government agents were not authorized to go any farther. Jackie once again refused the new offer of $13,310. According to him, the land and buildings were worth $63,000.
In a procedure that was fundamentally flawed, he received a second appraisal and was subsequently offered $18,470. The procedure was flawed because those residents who refused the first offer and were prepared to go before the Land Compensation Board were given a second appraisal based upon different criteria than the first. Those residents prepared to undertake the appeal to the Land Compensation Board received much better compensation than those who accepted the government’s initial offer. Many of the people had in fact accepted the first offer. Intimidated and unfamiliar with the workings of government and French speaking in the face of an Anglo bureaucracy, they were uncomfortable with the process. Imagine how they felt once they realized that they had accepted an offer that was inferior to that which some of their neighbors had received. This was not Jackie’s problem, however. He was prepared to fight.
On March 29, 1974, the government offered Jackie Vautour $20,760 plus 5% interest calculated from September 2, 1970. He received a check in the amount of $21,157.50, that he refused to accept. He likewise refused benefits from the relocation program and compensation for lost fishing revenue. The positions of Jackie Vautour and the government were become more and more inflexible. Accused of being stubborn beyond reason by some and celebrated as an Acadian David fighting the bureaucratic Goliath by others, Jackie Vautour had reached the point of no return. Somewhere along the way in this sad tale, he decided that he was never going to back down. Never. Come what may. Fewer and fewer people were prepared to make the same sacrifice. No matter, he would go it alone.
On August 23, 1974, the judicial council for the Minister of Natural Resources, P.A. MacNutt, wrote to Jackie demanding that he evacuate the property before September 30. A few weeks later, Jackie requested a transcript of the Land Compensation Board session at which the value of his property was determined. It was not until the following April (1975) that he received a reply. He was informed that the transcript had been lost. On August 24, 1975, a full year after the first letter, Mr. MacNutt wrote again enjoining Jackie to vacate the premises. Mr. Macnutt informed him that he had been instructed to request an injunction in the case that Jackie Vautour did not cooperate. This letter was hand delivered. The envelope contained a check. Both were returned the next day.
It was on September 5, 1975, only a few weeks after my first visit to Acadie, Jackie Vautour wrote to the minister to express his frustration at not being able to obtain a copy of the transcript of the Land Compensation Board session. He expressed his disagreement with the appraisal. A new session was convened which rendered its decision on January 31, 1976. The Land Compensation Board approved of the original appraisal, actually reducing the sum, but with interest, the government offer was now at $23,178. In reply, Jackie Vautour filed suit with the Supreme Court of New Brunswick. He would ultimately abandon the lawsuit. Dramatic events would transpire in the meantime and the story would take on another, more political dimension.
About the time that the Land Compensation Board was preparing for its second session to deal with the Vautour question, the government of New Brunswick had decided to remove the squatters by force. An eviction order was issued on November 5, 1976. At about 9 AM, Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrived at the Vautour residence. Jackie and his older sons were not at home. The younger children were at home, the school bus which should have picked them up had broken down. They would be witness to a very sad day. Jackie was called home and subsequently detained. The contents of the house were removed and the house was bulldozed. No charges were filed against Jackie Vautour. The household items and clothes were stored in a warehouse and the family was transported to Richibouctou and lodged at the L’Habitant Motel.
By pure chance, a neighbor was passing by with a Super 8mm camera. She was on her way to meet her husband who had just bagged a moose and to record for posterity the happy event. She filmed an entirely different subject that day. Her film later became part of a Canadian Film Board (ONF) production entitled “Kouchibouguac”. That film would heat up the controversy and become the bane of many a bureaucrat. A short time after its release, the government(s) began a purge which would close the ONF office in Moncton and dismantle CRASE.
The Southeast Regional Council of New Brunswick or CRASE was a government agency whose purpose was to assist the population through social programs. That original mandate was amplified during the Kouchibouguac crisis. The control of CRASE as that of CRIN (Northeast) was wrested from the Acadian elite (politicians, priests and professionals) by lumberjacks, fishermen and students from the University of Moncton. Although the social programs continued, the directors of CRASE began primarily to collaborate with the expropriates in their efforts to resist the government. The government found itself in the undesirable position of funding its own adversaries. There are those who contend that without the educated relatively worldly directors of CRASE, the expropriates and Jackie Vautour would have never resisted as long and as hard as they did. In truth, the employees of CRASE, most notably Paul-Eugène LeBlanc and Gilles Thériault, offered significant assistance to the expropriates, helping them to formulate their demands and orchestrating a media campaign. However it is untrue that CRASE directed the revolt. The employees of CRASE were at the service of the expropriates, or more accurately, some of the expropriates (there was never unanimity among the expropriates about what if anything to do). Never did CRASE create the strategy or formulate demands. Although it is true that CRASE offered invaluable assistance to the Citizen’s Committee of Claire Fontaine and its president Jackie Vautour, their role was always secondary.
In Richibouctou, things were going badly. The owner of the motel was very displeased with his guests, particularly when the government stopped paying for the rooms. Jackie Vautour refused to pay, and he refused to leave. On March 8, 1977, the sheriff of Kent arrived with a contingent of Mounties and removed the family by force. At 4AM using tear gas and batons, the family, including several young children, was thrown out of the hotel. In the ensuing struggle, Jackie Vautour and three of his sons were arrested. Jackie’s judicial struggle has just entered new territory. At the preliminary hearing of November 29, it was discovered that the police officer who filed the report had not been present on the scene. The charges were dropped. Jackie was jubilant, but his struggle was far from over.
In July 1978, Jackie Vautour, his family and eight other Park residents returned to their lands. They lived in tents. The government officials did not respond believing that the winter would do what the police was reluctant to do: drive Jackie Vautour from the Park. That was 1978. Today nearly 30 years later, Jackie Vautour still lives on the shores of Claire Fontaine creek, living illegally in the middle of a National Park.
On April 6, 1978, the government of New Brunswick transferred the title of Jackie Vautour’s property to the government of Canada. At that time, Jackie circulated a petition among the expropriates which expressed their desire to return to their lands. It was signed by 602 persons. The number of heads of household signing was 152, 66.7% of the expropriated families. According to the Special Report on Kouchibouguac of 1980, the petition had no validity. It explained that people signed the petition out of fear of Jackie Vautour or to obtain more compensation. The signatories were suspected of every motivation except the one which they expressed. For the government, the story was closed.
The Special Commission on Kouchibouguac was created on May 15, 1980 by the Canadian Minister of the Environment, John Roberts, and the Prime Minister of New Brunswick, Richard Hatfield. The creation of the Commission was the result of the upheaval which followed the refusal of the Supreme Court of Canada to hear the case of the “squatters”. That court refused to examine the judgment of the Honorable Judge Stuart Stratton of the New Brunswick Court of Appeals who ruled against the former Park residents. The Commission sat for several months and over 250 persons were interviewed.
In spite of the obvious sympathy which the commissioners had for the expropriates, the Commission itself was a shell game, a public relation ploy designed to calm the tension surrounding Kouchibouguac. Although it was admitted that the government had been derelict and had made considerable mistakes in the process, the basic right of expropriation was never questioned. Compensation was increased and recommendations were issued, but the possibility that the expropriates could eventually return to their land was never addressed. Roméo LeBlanc, Acadian politician, then Canadian Minister of Fisheries and ultimately Governor General of Canada, confided to the journalist Achille Michaud that once the wheels of government had begun to turn, there was nothing that could stop them.
The Court of Appeals of New Brunswick issued its ruling in favor of the government regarding the legality of the evictions on December 28, 1979. On March 17, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear the appeal. The next day, shots were fired through the main doors of the Park offices. On March 27, protestors barricaded the Park. On April 2, Park officials attempted to return to their offices. The next day more than 200 persons protested. Tear gas, riot, violence. The Park offices are pelted with a barrage of stones.
Protests were organized throughout the region. In Shédiac, Roméo LeBlanc attempted to calm the crowd. In the Park, Louis Robichaud is burned in effigy. On April 23, a violent protest shook the Park. Bernard Léger, social director of the Société Acadienne du Nouveau-Brunswick, demands that the Park be closed. The Park superintendent refuses, provoking a riot. Two police cars are overturned and destroyed. Several protestors are arrested. Several will serve time in prison.
It was in response to these events that the government(s) created the Special Commission. It rendered its report in October 1981. Compensation is increased. The expropriates are given a sympathetic hearing. The government is criticized for its mishandling of the expropriation. Jackie Vautour is castigated, having one of the eleven chapters devoted to his case. At the end of the day, 250 families, over 1200 people were uprooted, their lives shattered. Some will get through it o.k. Most will not.
Today, 30 years later, New Brunswick tries to forget that unhappy period. A new generation knows little or nothing about the conflict. There is a magnificent National Park, but the social and economic benefits that justified its creation have never materialized. The mothers and fathers of the expropriated families are old people now. Many have passed away.
It has been 25 years since the report of the Special Commission. That document was intended to end the struggle, but Jackie Vautour still resides in the Park, his life spent resisting what he and many others consider a great injustice. All those who were associated with the conflict were deeply touched. Many of the bureaucrats who implemented the government policy have regrets. Most of them with whom I spoke speak highly of Jackie Vautour. Others attack him virulently, as though to salve their own conscience. They blame his obstinacy for all of the problems. As far as the expropriates are concerned, they all speak of him with respect. Many expressed the notion that had they all had his courage, things would not have turned out as they did.
In 1998, Jackie Vautour and his wife, Yvonne, were arrested by Park Rangers for fishing clams inside the Park boundaries. There was a scuffle. Jackie spent six months in prison. His wife one month. He was 72, she slightly younger.
They are still in the Park living in a small cabin with a huge stove and a roof that leaks. The house is not big enough to hold the whole family at once, so they never can spend Christmas together. Jackie spends a lot of top chopping wood. He has enough stored up for years. Over the years, his comrades have all fallen away. No one was able match his commitment. So he carries on alone. He still hopes that his lawyers will be able to obtain the justice he believes he deserves. It is remarkable that he has never lost faith in the justice system after 30 years of disappointment.
The last time that I saw Jackie Vautour, it was a glorious summer day. I can understand why he is so attached to his land. The crystal water shimmering in the sunlight, the deep green woods just a stone’s throw away. For once we did not talk about his court case. We swapped stories. I told him about my encounter with a water moccasin during the aftermath of the hurricane. He told me about his encounter with a bear last spring. He can’t hunt like he would love to do. Harassed by the Park Rangers and the Mounted Police, he sticks pretty close to home. At 78 he is a little worn but can still chop wood like a devil. He is always well dressed. He speaks in quiet tones. I have never heard him attack anyone personally. His enemy is the system.
As far as the government is concerned, best let sleeping dogs lie. It hopes that time will solve the problem, that Jackie Vautour will die and that that will be the end of the story. The government dare not attempt to evict him. The last thing they want is to see Jackie Vautour back on the evening news. Particularly since the possibility of armed resistance is real. Better let Kouchibouguac alone and Jackie Vautour fade away.
Upon entering the Park there is a huge sign which forbids delivering “any merchandise inside the Park boundaries without the express permission of the Park superintendent”, a clear message for those who would attempt to help Jackie Vautour. Last year a carpenter from a nearby village delivered an outhouse to Jackie Vautour. The man was arrested. A question of respecting the law. And what if we respected people as much?
June 8, 2006
It all started in 1967. The idea probably was that of the then Prime Minister of New Brunswick, the first Acadian ever to hold the post, Louis Robichaud. At that time, Kent County New Brunswick was one of the poorest areas in all of Canada. In spite of several relatively prosperous villages, the majority of the county’s population was mired in chronic poverty. A 1968 housing survey of 145 households in the region revealed that only 23% (less than a fourth) had interior toilets, only 22% had hot running water and a bathtub or shower, only 36% (one third) had cold running water. 58% (more than half) of married people and 53% of unmarried adults had less than a grade 6 education and were considered functionally illiterate.
The belief was that the creation of a national park would not only protect a magnificent wilderness area but also invigorate the local economy and create jobs for the population, promoting the “economic development” so dear to politicians everywhere and thus ending the material blight which characterized the area. The federal-provincial agreement to establish the Park was signed on October 13, 1969. Under its terms, the government of New Brunswick was to confer to the government of Canada the land for a national park. The provincial government was responsible for the removal of the inhabitants of the proposed parkland. On this point the Canadian minister in charge, Jean Chrétien, was inflexible. There had been problems at Banff Alberta in the national park, with residents who remained inside the boundaries of a national park, problems of unrestrained development. This time, there was no question: everybody had to go.
The preliminary report of the province of March 16, 1967 estimated a total of $2,790,100 was needed for the acquisition of lands and buildings in the proposed park. According to a well-placed source, it was Louis Robichaud himself who refused the figure, demanding that it be cut in half. The provincial officials responsible for actually acquiring the lands were allocated half of the original figure. That amount, however, was spent during the first of what was intended to be three phases (the second and third were combined in an effort to speed the process once things had begun to go awry). In the end, land compensation amounted to 4.5 million dollars. By 1979, some 11 million dollars of combined federal-provincial money had been expended on land acquisition, building costs and special programs for the expropriates. From the very beginning, the project was characterized by incompetence and indifference to the demands of the residents.
The provincial bureaucracy in Frederickton was far removed geographically as well as emotionally from the process and yet it was the engine of the project. Responsibilities were poorly defined. The decision to create the park was taken without sufficient study and the mid-rank civil servants who were actually mandated to put the project in place had no real power to influence policy. Most of those entrusted with dealing with the expropriates were inexperienced. The fact that they were also young promoted resentment among the residents. And to top it all off, many of the government officials did not speak French, the only language that the residents understood.
During the first phase of what was to become a Greek tragedy Acadian style, speculators, attempting to profit from the situation, began buying lands in the areas designated for the second and third phases. The offers in phase 1 were relatively generous, and the prices obtained became common knowledge. The offers for the second and third phases were inferior to those of the first thus provoking resentment among the expropriates. The process itself was dehumanizing. The residents were summoned by letter to an office in Richibouctou. There they were given hand written offers on sheets of loose-leaf paper. The attitude of the “negotiators” was “take it or leave it” and the residents were made to understand that if they did not accept the government’s offers, they would have to embark on a complicated legal process of appeal, an undertaking for which most, if not all of them, were extremely ill prepared. Although intimidation by the government was not an official policy, the “negotiators” took advantage of the expropriates inexperience and lack of education. The residents were fearful and tended to accept the government’s proposition without contest, but not without bitterness.
The appraisals themselves were problematic. The area was isolated and underdeveloped before the creation of the park. Land values were low, and there were few recent sales upon which to base an evaluation. Compounding the problem was the fact that the government employed its own staff instead of using independent appraisers to arrive at land values. Once the appraisal determined, the government negotiators were limited to a 10% increase during “negotiation”. Those who did not accept were referred to the Land Compensation Board. Another evaluation was then made following different criteria and consequently, different rules applied for those who accepted the original offer and those who did not.
The expropriation act then in effect in New Brunswick specified that land might be appropriated simply by passing and Order in Council and recording it in the local registry office. Thereupon the title to the land passed form the landowner to the Crown in right of the Province. No notice to the landowner was required. This was bad enough, but the worst part of the expropriation was that it did not take into account any of the social consequences. The expropriates were confronted by a government bureaucracy intent upon keeping down costs rather than with helping the people cope with the disarray associated with having to vacate their homes and abandon their way of life. They felt powerless to contest. They were suspicious. Rumors flew. “Who got what for how much land” became a sort of social tornado feeding upon jealousy and fear. Neighbors were wary of each other. No one felt secure.
The worst part for all of the expropriates was the loss they felt at being having to abandon a way of life. They had been materially poor, it is true, but their way of life was intertwined with an apparently unlimited natural space and the possibility of living off the land. Uprooted and subsequently exiled into nearby communities, which did nothing to make them feel welcome, the expropriates were isolated socially, and largely looked down upon by their new neighbors. Their compensation, paid in cash, more money than any of them had ever seen, did not last very long. Most of them were worse off after the expropriation, their compensation spent on housing that was perhaps more “modern” than their previous domicile, but could not replace the situation they had known before. They were lost, preyed upon by local merchants who offered them everything from washing machines to skidoos. Most of them were broke within a year.
By 1972, the situation had reached crisis proportions. The biggest problem was the compensation for loss of income. In the confines of the park, hunting and fishing were now forbidden. This posed a terrible problem for the fishermen (and anyone who fished---just about everybody). The government assumed that commercial fishermen would simply re-locate elsewhere and continue fishing, not taking into account the fact that the dislocated fishermen would not be welcomed with open arms into other fishing grounds. Wharf space and additional fuel costs associated with relocation compounded the problem.
On May 23, 1972, the park was occupied by a group of approximately 80 fishermen to protest what they considered to be inadequate compensation. There was also dissatisfaction about hiring practices in the park, jobs being awarded to outside workers as opposed to former residents. The basis of the fishermen’s demands was uniform compensation as opposed to the government’s proposal of compensation based on earnings. The fishermen’s point of view was that they had all lost the same ability to make their living. Fires were set, buildings burned.
The park was occupied by the protestors until June 4, 1973. Subsequently, a committee of five fishermen presented a petition signed by 175 fishermen to Parks Canada on June 12. The day before, they had voted in favor of fixed compensation. Over the next few months, the fishermen got the run around from the government and the situation deteriorated. In early January 1973, the presidents of the Citizens Committees of Claire Fontaine and Cap St. Louis, Jackie Vautour and Oscar Doucet, wired the Canadian minister of the environment (responsible for the national parks), Jean Chrétien, giving him until January 15 to respond to their demands. On January 20, Park headquarters were picketed by approximately 200 persons. Park employees evacuated under police protection. The police presence included attack dogs and riot gear. On January 31, Jean Chrétien responded with a “final offer.” Several fishermen accepted, but many remained disgruntled and the park remained barricaded.
In early April, 1973, an arbitrator was selected, Camille Richard. The situation remained tense. Fights broke out between former park residents and current park employees. On July 17, Mr. Richard made several recommendations. He found that it was impossible to determine loss of income associated with the expropriations. His recommendation regarding compensation for loss of income was that it be evaluated on a fixed rate basis. He further recommended changes in the park’s boundaries to allow the continuation of commercial fishing in areas in which it had been previously forbidden. On July 25, the fishermen accepted the proposals and on July 30, 1973, the Canadian National Park Kouchibouguac re-opened.
Although the park was now open, there were still considerable problems. Feelings were bitter. “Squatters”, i.e. residents who refused to leave, remained within the park’s boundaries. There presence would be the focus of the next phase of controversy. At their head was the man whose name became synonymous with the resistance, John L. “Jackie” Vautour. His story next month.
May 3, 2006
I am the son of farmers. For centuries, my family, like most of the inhabitants of planet Earth, has survived thanks to the practice of agriculture. In Louisiana, in Acadie, in old France, and in older Gaule, my ancestors lived off the land. My little corner of the world is a region where agriculture is still the mainstay of the economy. Surrounded by cane fields and pastureland, farming is omnipresent in my life. Although I grew up in town, we were never far from the farm either physically or spiritually. Yet it seems to me that the nature of agriculture has changed dramatically since the days of my youth. The relationship between farming and the rest of our society has been altered dramatically in my lifetime, and it is ever more difficult to imagine the future of farming or of farmers.
Agriculture has always been precarious. Never free from the caprice of Mother Nature, the farmer is tributary to rain, heat, cold, insects and crop disease, any of which can ruin his chances of making a harvest. Crop loss, poverty, and famine have never been far off for those who survive by planting seed. Today, however, the malaise that plagues farming throughout the world is not only economic in nature. The problem facing farmers is environmental, social and increasingly a problem of identity, i.e. the relationship between the farmer and the rest of society.
The condition of farmers has always been precarious. As one of my cattlemen friends from Vermilion Parish says: if you have the weather, the bank and God on your side, you have a chance to get by. However, the malaise that characterizes farming today is not the product of the vicissitudes of Nature. For the first time in history, farmers are a minority of the population (at least in the first world countries), and a minority that is increasingly isolated from the mainstream.
Since WWII, agriculture in the US and Canada and to a lesser extent in Europe has been increasingly dominated by the use of synthetic chemical based products, i.e. chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides and genetically modified plants. Nowhere is the blind faith in technological progress more evident than in the fields. In addition, modern agriculture is characterized by the disappearance of the family farm in favor of large-scale industrial operations.. It is more and more difficult for the family farmer to survive in the face of competition from giant mega-farms. In the process the relationship between the farmer and the land is changing. We are not far from an Orwellian vision of farming where an operator at a computer screen can raise a crop without getting his hands dirty.
During the Salon International d’Agriculture held in February, 2005 in Paris, an in depth survey (78,000 questionnaires, 8000 responses) was conducted. Farmers were asked about their vocation and their vision of its future. The results revealed a profound uncertainty that goes well beyond economic concerns.
It is surprising to see that over half of the farmers (56.4%) regret their choice of occupation. Even among younger farmers, those under 30 years of age who are just beginning their operations, nearly half (47%) expressed dissatisfaction. Given the chance to start over, 48.8% of those responding stated that they would not pursue farming. There is evidently a problem. The occupation itself is not regarded, by fully half of those who are engaged in its practice, as something rewarding or even worthwhile.
Farming today is a complex enterprise. The farmer must not only understand land use and crops, but he must also be part scientist and part accountant. In the days of my grand fathers, the choices were simpler: plant at the right time, work hard and pray. The modern farmer is overwhelmed by choices regarding the application of herbicides, insecticides and chemical fertilizers as well as the use (or not) of genetically modified organisms. In the last decade, farmers have become increasingly subject to a barrage of promotional campaigns soliciting the use of a variety of synthetic products guaranteed to increase yield as well as keep bugs and disease at bay.
I have first hand knowledge of the ingenious nature of the agro-chemical companies. One fine spring morning several years ago, I awoke to find many of my hundreds of trees had turned white. Not brown, but white as snow. Assuming that I had a drought problem, I watered for days, hauling bucket after bucket, but to no avail. In desperation I called the County Agent (US Dept. of Agriculture). “Oh, you have a Command problem” he laughed. Apparently what had happened to my field was nothing new. Command is a synthetic herbicide that prevents the formation of chlorophyll (turning the leaves of my trees white). It is designed to accompany the planting of seeds genetically modified to resist its active ingredient, i.e. poison (genetically modified organisms are not modified to make them more productive or more fertile, but to make them resistant to chemical poisons, as in “Round-up Ready”). The soybeans that the farmer next door had planted were soaked in a chemical bath of Command that was designed not to kill the emerging sprout, but anything else it came with which it came in contact. The molecules of the product contained in Command are so volatile that the morning dew had transported the substance into my field, a distance of about half a mile.
Although none of my trees died, the episode was very disturbing to me, but not as disturbing as what followed. One morning about a week after I had called the County Agent, a representative of the chemical company showed up unannounced at my door. He had dragged along the farmer who had planted the Command laced beans, as well as the farmer’s old father and his five year old son, three generations of Cajun farmers standing heads bowed, looking pitiful in my back yard while the agro-chemical representative spoke to me. I could not help thinking “silver-tongued devil”. The man was friendly, courteous, what one would call a “nice man”. His manner was congenial, and his speel as cunning as could be. “Could put it on your cornflakes”, he said. When I asked him if I should get a bowl, he just laughed. He introduced me to the farmers and explained that should I decide to file a complaint, they would be fined $5000 for an “uncontrolled spill”. It makes no sense to me that the chemical company is subject to no fine, only the poor ignorant farmer who buys their product. Something very wrong here.
Upon leaving, the Company man left me a brochure extolling the virtues of Command replete with a colorful image of a smiling and obviously happy farmer aboard his tractor handing a cornucopia of beautiful vegetables to a smiling group of equally happy children. Nothing like the knuckleheads who were standing near my back door shifting from side to side, looking at their shoes. What was so disturbing to me was the ease with which this apparently “nice man” was feeding me a line of bullshit. He looked around my yard, spotting a few gardening problems and offered to send me some stuff guaranteed to cure this and that and have my yard looking like a golf course. No thanks.
I had to put up with this crap for just a few days. I cannot imagine what it must be for the farmers who are bombarded constantly with seductive publicity from all the silver-tongued devils from all of the chemical companies who are vying for their business. What’s not to like about a product that will make your job easier and boost your yield? What they don’t tell you is that you might well be contaminating the water table and poisoning your children in the process.
The use of chemical fertilizers is responsible for the degradation of soil quality, and will lock the farmer in a downward spiral in which more and more chemicals are needed for less and less yield. The use of nitrate fertilizers pollutes the water table as well as rivers and streams. By the time the Mississippi reaches southern Louisiana, it is full not only of the topsoil run-off from the Midwest, the result of extensive deep soil agriculture, but it also contains a cocktail of chemicals dominated by ammonium nitrate. Since the construction of the US Corps of Engineers levee system subsequent to the great flood of 1927, this alluvial run-off never reaches the marsh. The problem of coastal erosion which plagues the coast (50 square kilometers per year of land loss), is compounded if not created by the lack of sediment which would naturally be deposited by the spring flood, but which is prevented from doing to by the levees. Even if the sediments did reach the marsh, its nitrate contaminated water would create yet another significant problem.
Before Hurricane Katrina destroyed it, scientists had created an experiment at Cairnarvon, on the Mississippi below New Orleans. They were attempting to determine the distance that river water diverted into the marsh should be filtered in order to leach out all of the chemical agents. The filtered water, free of nitrate, could then be released into the marsh bringing much need sediment to replenish the soil lost by erosion. Unfortunately the experiment was destroyed and is not likely to be rebuilt any time soon given the problems in the region. All of these problems are inter-related. Disturb the natural ecological balance and somehow, someday, it will come back to bite you on the ass.
Farmers are very aware of these problems. They are no longer isolated out on the farms. They know about the problems that their practices are creating in the environment. In a traditional society, they would be directly concerned with the well being of the community, and of the land itself, but their priorities have shifted. The result is a malaise. The notion of land stewardship has eroded much like the topsoil in the Midwest. How many young farmers today are in synch with the Sioux proverb: we do not inherit the land from our fathers, but borrow it from our children. The young Cajun farmer, who was trotted out to my house with his father and his son in a patent effort to make me feel sorry for them, cannot be unaware of the problems facing his profession. He cannot be unaware of the fundamental problems (contamination of the water table, soil depletion, etc.) that confront the continued use of chemical based farming. I would not want to be in his work boots.
If there is a light in this otherwise somber scene, it is to be found in the third world. There are 12 million farmers in developing countries who farm using organic methods. They utilize pesticides only as a last resort (as opposed to a common practice). They avoid chemical fertilizers. They conserve water.
A study published by the American Chemical Association has shown that “sustainable” agriculture is not only better for the environment, but more productive as well. The study included 12.6 million peasant farmers and their families in 56 countries, cultivating 37 million hectares. This represents 3% (not much) of the total arable land in developing countries. The research team, headed by Jules Pretty of the University of Essex (England) discovered that yields increased by 79% using organic methods as opposed to synthetic based practices.
The results of the study were published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. The researchers established 360 comparisons chosen at random from 198 projects. On average, the agricultural yields increased by 79% using sustainable (organic) methods. The only yield reduction in the study was associated with rice farming. The yields in fully one quarter of the farm studies, more than doubled. Corn, millet and beans profited most from the introduction of organic methods. In addition, the farmers were able to save money otherwise spent on pesticides and other chemical products. Which does not please Monsanto.
The fabrication and commerce of pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms is very Big Business. The merchants of agro-chemical products would like nothing more than to corner the market, i.e. insure the continued and increased use of synthetic agricultural products. Too bad if these practices contribute to the degradation of the environment in addition to having harmful and potentially irreversible effects on human health. (Remember the cigarette companies’ claims that there was no harm in smoking?) Too bad if GMOs do not decrease hunger in the third world as purported. Too bad if farmers are forced to abandon their family farms in favor of increasingly huge industrial operations. We are at a critical juncture in the history of the oldest and most important of all human enterprises. Farmers are faced with the difficult choice of either assuming the social responsibility inherent in their vocation, or doing as the petro-chemical companies suggest they do and think only of the bottom line. Hopefully more and more of them will choose sustainable organic based traditional agriculture for the good of us all.
April 5, 2006
It’s Friday night in Paris. Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic, is speaking to the nation. In the wake of unrest that has driven millions of citizens into the streets in protest, Chirac is attempting to calm the country. Wearing heavy rimmed glasses, apparently in an attempt to look more studious, with the flags of France and the European Union unfurled at his side and a bucolic park scene behind him, Chirac explains that he is in fact promulgating the law of the CPE which has been the spark which lit the flame of protest, but, (BUT) he is requesting that the government of his Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, review the most unpopular aspects: that the period of the CPE (contrat de première embauche, first employment contract) be reduced to one year from two and that during that period, the employer must give the reasons should he decide to interrupt the contract and disemploy the contractee.
Cut to the reply from the Secretary General of FO (force ouvrière = force of workers). Jean-Claude Mailly is wearing glasses as well, small reading type glasses, in an apparent attempt to see. Unlike Chirac, he is always wearing glasses. Behind him is a wall of books, a library with in the middle of its wall the large red and gold emblem of his trade union. “Unacceptable” he says calmly. “Let us be responsible. We asked that the CPE be withdrawn, not modified.” Same response from the student leaders interviewed.
In a case of "déjà vous all over again » civil unrest is rampant in France. The last few weeks have seen huge demonstrations in the street, which on March 23, degenerated into a criminal free-for-all when “casseurs” (breakers) descended onto la Places des Invalides. Composed of youth gangs, les casseurs vented their rage not only on cars and shop windows, but also on the demonstrators themselves. In an apparent senseless expression of violence, they repeatedly drove the otherwise peaceful protestors to the ground, stealing cell phones and credit cards in the process. I am not sure if anyone can really sort out this situation, but here’s my take.
First of all, the bone of contention, or rather the straw that broke the camel’s back is the CPE (contrat de premier embauche). The CPE is a law relating to the hiring of young persons entering the labor force. It is a contract of first employment. This law specifies a period of 2 years (Chirac’s proposal is just that: a proposal) during which the employer can terminate the employee without having to provide a reason (Chirac’s proposal modifies this as well). The hope is that this will make the French economy more efficient by allowing corporations to evaluate their employees during a trail period before assuming the burden associated with a full blown contract. In addition, the law would allow companies to downsize at will. The thinking is that this law will allow France to perform better in an increasingly global economy. That’s not the way the students see it however. Their perception is that the law allows the arbitrary dismissal of employees, contributing thereby to the their insecurity in a country which has come to expect government support from the cradle to the grave.
On the surface it would seem strange that this law, although certainly of sufficient import to provoke serious dissent, has created the level of turmoil that is shaking the French government and pitting it in a test of wills against a huge section of its population. It is even stranger to see that the students have allied themselves with the labor unions (who represent only 10% of the labor force actually). In fact the interests of the students and of the unions are diametrically opposed. The generous pensions that are part and parcel of modern French society are to be financed by the next generation of workers. If anything, it is in the students’ interest to have these programs reduced, thus lightening the burden they have to assume. This would mean, however, that their own material benefits would be eventually reduced. The factor that unites the unions and the students is fear.
The fundamental problem is one of security or the perceived lack thereof, “précarité” i.e. precariousness. What is at stake are the social policies of post WWII France which have provided to its workforce the most generous welfare benefits in the world for the greater part of three generations. The young people entering the workforce expect the same benefits that the French workers currently enjoy: early retirement with a generous pension, not to speak of free medical care, free education, etc. The problem for the government is how to pay for it all.
There is a very significant burden placed on employers in France. On top of the salary paid, the employer is obliged to pay the equivalent of social security taxes that can double the gross amount due. I have experience of this first hand. By hiring French musicians, the gross amount that we have had to pay is over twice as much as the net amount the musician will actually take home. This is a considerable deterrent. Our situation is occasional. However, to a French company hiring hundreds or thousands of workers, this tax burden is a significant obstacle to growth. The situation approaches the absurd. For young students entering the work force, it is better to be moderately as opposed to highly qualified. The more qualifications one has, the higher the salary one can command. The higher the salary, the greater the taxes. The greater the taxes, the less likelihood of getting a job.
A sweeping survey of people in 22 countries in January found that France was alone in disagreeing with the premise that the best economic model is "the free enterprise system and free market economy." The poll, conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, concluded that only 36 percent of French respondents agreed, compared with 59 percent in Italy, 65 percent in Germany, 66 percent in Britain, 71 percent in the United States and 74 percent in China.
Similarly, last autumn, when the French polling institute Ipsos asked 500 French people between the ages of 20 and 25 the question: "What does globalization mean to you?" 48 percent answered "fear." Only 27 percent said "hope." Globalization represents a threat to the French system. The downsizing and the exportation of jobs overseas which has come symbolize globalization in the U.S. is unacceptable to the French. An economic model which does not provide for the security of its workers and whose primary function is to create dividends for stockholders, goes against a half century of French labor laws, and threatens the pension plans which French workers have come to consider their due, as well as the social identity which the French have created for themselves. The problem is simply how to pay for the social programs the French have come to take for granted with an aging population and an economy facing increased competition from abroad.
In its report “Mapping the Global Future” the National Intelligence Council (C.I.A.) http://cia.gov/nic/NIC_2020_project.html clearly expresses the dilemma facing not only France, but all of Western Europe, “Either the members of the European Union adapt their respective work forces, reform their systems of social protection, education and finance and open their frontiers to increased immigration (notably from Muslim countries), or they face an extended period of economic stagnation.” France is still reeling from the riots which broke out in the primarily West-African and Muslim neighborhoods of November past. In the wake of the unrest that shook the country for weeks on end, France is hardly ready to open its arms to increased immigration from communities which have not been able to integrate easily into its mainstream society.
The problem that is shaking France today is fundamentally social as opposed to economic which is why the protest has garnished such widespread support. The demonstrations are in fact a cry of defiance in the face of changes which French society will be forced to make in order to maintain economic growth in a global economy. Caught between a rock and a hard place, French citizens are forced to choose between the dismantling of their social safety net or remaining competitive economically. As the C.I.A. reports states, the transition to a global economy will not be without hardship and the people who will be the most effected will be the middle class of the developed countries. Exactly the people who are demonstrating in the streets of Paris. The problem is likely to be with them for a long long time.
March 1, 2006
Francis Parkman, one of the most influential historians of 19th century America described the French Canadians as being “enfeebled by hereditary mental subjection”. According to Parkman, the struggle between the English and the French in North America was “the strife of the past against the future; of the old against the new; of moral and intellectual torpor against moral and intellectual life; of barren absolutism against a liberty, crude, incoherent and chaotic, yet full of prolific vitality. "
This contempt for French culture in North America is a theme which occurs so frequently in English language American literature that it can be considered a tradition. With the arrival of great numbers of French Canadian immigrants into the Northeastern United States at the end of the 19th century, anti-Catholic, anti-French frenzy was at its peak. In 1892, an editorial in the New York Times argued that French-Canadians were unsuited to American society. « Where they halt they stay, they multiply and cover the Earth, » the Times argued. « Dr. Egbert C. Smyth, in a paper just published by the American Antiquarian Society, has been at great pains to trace intelligently the extent of this immigration, and in his opinion the migration of these people is part of a priestly scheme now fervently fostered in Canada for the purpose of bringing New England under the control of the Roman Catholic faith. He points out that this is the avowed purpose of the secret society to which every adult French-Canadian belongs, and that the prayers and the earnest efforts of these people are to turn the tables in New England by the aid of the silent forces which they control. »
According to American historians, Henry M. Utley and Byron M. Cutchon, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, the typical French Canadian was “a lazy, happy-go-lucky sort of fellow, contented to satisfy his stomach in a moderate way and let the world take care of itself.” Curiously this criticism resembles that written by the first American journalists to encounter the Cajuns in Louisiana after the Civil War, According to articles published in Harper’s Weekly, the Cajuns were lazy and without ambition, content with only the very basic necessities of life. This disdainful attitude persists even to this day. In a history textbook in use (how can this be?) in some Louisiana schools today, the only reference to Cajuns is a very short and appalling phrase describing the Cajuns as a people who “love to dance and have fun and have a penchant for French wine.”
How to explain this contempt, and how to explain the submission with which French communities in North American have endured this scorn? First and foremost, there is the question of ethnic and religious intolerance. From the days of Joan of Arc, the French and the English have been at odds. One need only look at Northern Ireland to see the vitality of religious hatred. Until the Battle of Québec in 1759 settled the matter once and for all, the French and English were locked in a struggle to control not only America, but the world as well. Lest we forget, Iberville drove the English population of Newfoundland (Terreneuve) from their homes in the dead of winter. In pre-dispersal Acadie, the Catholic missionaries were as much guerilla leaders as spiritual guides. Abbé Le Loutre, French missionary to the Mi’kmaqas, encouraged them to resist (kill) the English. Should the English take control of Acadie, he said, the Mi’kmaqs would lose access to their Catholic priests, and thereby access to the sacraments, and ultimately they would lose their immortal souls. Killing the English was therefore a religious duty. The conquest of Canada in 1759 and the sale of Louisiana some 45 years later, settled the matter forever. Once the military dominance of the English and later the Anglo-Americans was assured, the French of North America: Québécois, Acadian, or Louisiana Créole, were once and for all, on the wrong end of the stick.
The creation of what is today the state of Louisiana was motivated by a desire to control its French population. In creating the Territory of Orleans (present day Louisiana) the Congress of the United States, in 1804, effectively segregated its French population from the rest of the country. The arrival of American governor William C.C. Claiborne marked the beginning of a half century of conflict between the Anglo-American elite and the French Creole aristocracy. Both sides had nothing but disdain for the other. The French Creoles considered the Americans to be ignorant buffoons, while the Americans considered the Creoles to be pretentious and slothful. The Constitution of the Territory of Orleans and subsequently that of the State of Louisiana was one of the most effective instruments for the demise of the French language. Although the legislature was bilingual (it still is officially), cases before the Supreme Court had to be tried in English. The message was clear: laws could be promulgated in the language of the French majority, but their implementation was to be accomplished in the language of the American elite. For fifty years, the French Creoles struggled to maintain their political and social position. Demography and the Civil War, however, ended their rule.
The relations between the Americans and the Creoles in New Orleans were so strained that the city divided itself into three “municipalities”, an episode unique in American history. The Americans installed themselves in the Faubourg Ste. Marie, their city hall on Lafayette Square. The Creoles were ensconced in the old city, the Vieux Carré. The third “municipality” was the Faubourg Marigny over which the two sides fought. Once the preeminence of the American elite was securely established, the city was once again integrated under a single administration. The social and political dominance of the Creoles and of the French language were relegated to the past.
The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries was a bleak period for the French language everywhere in North America. In Louisiana, the public education law of 1916 was the death knell of French culture in the State. Although the law did not specifically ban French, it did oblige all children to attend school. Since the schools were uniquely English language, the result foregone. French speaking children were publicly humiliated and physically beaten in a systematic effort to eradicate their language. That same year, the Canadian province of Saskatchewan closed its French schools. In Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, everywhere in North America, the French language was under attack. In New England, the sons and daughters of French Canadian immigrants were being assimilated in large numbers. The Catholic Church, traditionally the bastion of French culture, became an agent for its demise. Irish priests and bishops struggled with their French-speaking brethren and ultimately wrested control of the Church in New England. The Irish priests insisted that the services be conducted in English. Worn down by a generation of disdain, subjected to political, social and economic control by a contemptuous English speaking elite, French North America was in retreat. The efforts of resistance outside of Québec were ultimately dilapidated by time. We still speak of Louis Riel, but who remembers Elphège Daignault?
The “Quiet Revolution” (la Révolution tranquille) in Québec during the 1960s marks a turning point in the history of the French community in North America. For the first time since 1759, a French speaking population defied the dominance of English language culture. The repercussions of this “revolution” are still being felt today. On my first visit to Québec in 1974, I was swept up in a torrent which still pushes me along. The frenzy of November 15, 1976 (the election of René Lévesque’s Parti Québécois) will remain one of the most exciting memories of my life. Forged in the Québec of the 1970s, my commitment to preserving and promoting Louisiana’s French culture is a solid as ever. I am, nonetheless, aware that the situation of French in my home State is particularly vulnerable. But this vulnerability serves only to reinforce my resolve. As said our long lost neighbor from Port Arthur Texas, “ When you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose.”
Ironically one of the most influential events of my life was the Democratic Convention of 1968 in Chicago. I was 18 years old, watching on television as the Chicago police charged into the protestors, repressing the demonstration with a violence as brutal is it was surreal. My father and I would argue violently that night, and the bitterness of that quarrel would last 10 years. I say “ironically” in speaking of that event because of the commentary of Norman Mailer. Speaking of the Convention and its attendant demonstration, he stated that all of the ethnic groups imaginable were present, except the French “who never travel”. Mr. Mailer was probably unaware that the city of Chicago as well as so many others (Juneau, Yellow Knife (Couteau Jaune), Detroit, Milwaukee, Duluth, etc.) were founded by Frenchmen. Well before Lewis and Clark accomplished their epic journey, French coureurs des bois and missionaries crisscrossed the continent. Without the help of François Charbonneau and his Indian wife, Sacagewea, Lewis and Clark probably would never have been West of St. Louis (another French town).
In the 1960s, the Ku Klux Klan marched in the State of Maine, the target of its hatred being the French speaking Catholics of the region. At the same time, across the border in New Brunswick, the Orange Lodge terrorized the French Acadians. During my first visit to Acadie in 1975, my friends and I were instructed in a restaurant to “Speak white” (i.e. English) or leave. We left. The 15th of August of that year, we were visited by the Moncton police and one of our number, Rhéal Drisdelle, was arrested and taken to jail, because we had dared to celebrate the Acadian National holiday.
The fate of the French in North America is marbled with sadness, irony and submission. Jean Louis Kerouac (Jack) is celebrated as one of the most important American authors of his generation. How many Americans know that his first language was French and that he never spoke to his parents other than in French?
Still he bemoaned "the despair, raw hopelessness, cold and chapped sorrow" of Franco-American communities like his home town of Lowell, Massachusetts. For Kerouac and for many French speakers living in a minority situation, French language culture is an albatross, something of which to be ashamed, something to abandon should as soon as an opportunity presents itself.
Things have changed since Kerouac’s day. French culture in North America has evolved beyond “raw hopelessness, cold and chapped sorrow”. Fueled by the confidence which has flowed from Québec’s “Quiet Revolution”, French speaking communities have resisted assimilation and confirmed their pride. We no longer walk with heads bowed. But a feeling of doubt still haunts French culture in North American, a sentiment of insecurity like an ancient sin for which there is no forgiveness. We are more convincing, but not absolutely convinced. As long as French speaking parents in Nova Scotia continue to send their children to English schools, as long as the Cajuns of Louisiana have not understood that their cultural identity is indelibly linked to their language, as long as Codofil (The Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) publishes its reports in English, we will have a problem. As we say “You’ve come a long way, bébé,” But will still got a long way to aller.
February 1, 2006
According to the linguist Colette Grinevlad, of the 6000 languages spoken on Earth today, only half will remain by the 22nd century. In the next one hundred years, she predicts that one half of the languages currently spoken will have disappeared. This begs the question of whether there will be anybody left to check. We are currently experiencing a global dissolution of every sort and the survival of life on Earth, including that of homo sapiens, is in doubt. There is less biodiversity, less cultural diversity, less languages, les animals, less plants. The most disturbing tendency is that of the extinction of biological species of all types.
In a pioneering study published in 2004, the Union of Concerned Scientists declared that one half (50%) of the seed stock of both corn and soybeans as well as 80% of the canola stock in North America were contaminated by GMOs (genetically modified organisms). This contamination is the result of wind born pollination or physical contact during transport. More and more traditional seed varieties are being compromised by GMOs and the number continues to rise.
According to Michel Loreau, researcher at the University of McGill in Montréal, we are currently witnessing the sixth massive extinction in the history of the planet. The current extinction is distinguished by the fact that it is the first and only to be provoked by man. Due to global warming, the phenomenon is accelerating. The rate of extinction of both vertebrates and plants is 100 times as rapid as the geological average. It is predicted that this rate will be multiplied by 100 in the following decades, thus increasing the rate of extinction to 10,000 times faster than the geological mean. This begs the question of whether anybody will be here in a few decades to check.
During the great extinction crises of the past, as many as 95% of living species disappeared suddenly, at least in geological terms (over several million years). I have no idea how the current crisis compares to the previous 5 great extinctions (including that of the dinosaurs), but the scientific community is sounding the alarm. Mankind is in the process of modifying natural systems on Earth to such an extent that massive extinctions risk impacting every living being from mushrooms to gorillas to human beings.
The extinction of most species is due to the destruction of habitat caused by human encroachment and the accompanying deforestation. This process has existed from the beginning of human “civilization”, but today the process is proceeding at an alarming rate due to changes in the atmosphere and the attendant climate changes. According a study by Chris Thomas based on the climate projections of the GIEC (Group of Intergovernmental Experts on Environmental Change), planet Earth could lose one third of its current biological species by the year 2050.
The consequences of such a loss would be invasion of new and harmful species, emergence of new diseases (avian flu), loss of ecosystem productivity, and the disappearance of natural pollinators (bees). The problem for humans will be to find enough food. The eventual “solution” will only compound the problem. By putting more and more land to agricultural use based on chemical fertilizers and herbicides human kind will be creating a windfall for Monsanto, but sowing the seeds of its own demise.
The period in which we live is critical. Everything is evolving at such a rapid rate that we can hardly keep up with the changes much less create effective strategies to contain the negative impact of our actions upon the biosphere. Mother Nature is capable of adapting, but there are limits to her resistance. On top of it all, the human population will increase by 50% over the next 50 years. By 2050, there will be 9 billion of us living on Earth. Will we be able to invert the process of bio-degradation given the size of the human population?
Human history on Earth has come to resemble that of a water lily in a pond. At first, the water lily will occupy only a small corner of the pond. It will soon double in size and soon cover half of the surface. With the next generation, the entire surface of the pond will be covered. The result will be the degradation of the natural environment. The health of the pond’s ecosystem will ultimately be destroyed as the water lily blocks the sunlight. There will soon be neither oxygen nor life in the water. Like a water lily gone mad, human kind has now colonized every nook and cranny of the globe. Every year millions upon millions of acres of forest are converted into farmland for the raising of cattle, driving hundred of species into extinction and creating seemingly irreversible pollution problems. This begs the question of how long can this go on.
What are governments doing about this imminent danger? Let’s start with my own government, administered by George W. Bush. The Republican administration of the United States is devoted to the exploitation of natural resources for financial gain in a fashion so cavalier as to be criminal. In front of irrefutable evidence, the Republicans in power would have us believe that there is no problem.
Administration officials have gone so far as to attempt to muzzle the top climate scientist at NASA in the face of his strident call for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming. The scientist, James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has stated that officials at NASA headquarters have ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site as well as requests for interviews from journalists. Hardly a surprise from an andministration which will stop at nothing to forward its agenda.
In spite of overwhelming evidence that global warming is impacting the condition of human life on Earth in a most uncontrolled and negative way, the Republicans are bent upon cutting down the national forest and wrenching every last drop of oil from our territory. Their answer to global warming is not to research and develop alternative sources of energy and restrain our dependence upon fossil fuel, but to open the Alaska Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. Nero fiddled while Rome burned. So much the better if the Arctic ice pack is melting, we will finally have the Northwest passage so coveted by 16th century explorers. This will give us a short route to China, which will be good for trade. As for the polar bears, we’ll keep a few at the zoo in San Diego. They are pretty cute after all.
Gulf Restoration Network
Coalition to Restore Coastal Louisiana
January 4, 2006
There are years which distinguish themselves in the course of time, years which mark the current of our lives and which remain forever carved on the stone tablets of our history. 1957 is such a year for me. I was six years old when Hurricane Audry tore through Cameron Parish killing 526 human beings and uncounted animals, domestic and wild. That natural disaster was the inspiration for one of the most haunting songs of the Cajun repertoire, “L’année de 57” composed and recorded by Alex Broussard. 1957 was also a remarkable year for automobile design. The 1957 Chevrolet remains one of the most prized classic cars of all times. Like most of the kids of my generation growing up in the 1950s, I was addicted to cars. I could hardly wait for the release of the new models each September. In a world neatly divided between Chevrolet and Ford, I was and will forever remain a partisan of General Motors. I have long ago lost the habit of being able to identify all of the models of all of the new cars as I did riding in the back seat of my parents’ car noting every model that we passed. My two favorites are the 1965 Pontiac GTO and the 1966 Cadillac Eldorado. 1957 had some remarkable automobiles as well, and because of that and on account of Hurricane Audry, 1957 has become a fetish year for me. Plus it sounds good rolling off the tongue.
2005 will also remain indelibly engraved in my memory. This was the year that I lost many of the people dearest to me and it was the year of a natural disaster and a human tragedy from which my home state will perhaps never fully recover. Life takes on a surreal quality at the loss of a loved one, the psyche refusing to accept the horrible reality and creating its own. It is much the same with the loss of a home, neighborhood, city. Life becomes somehow detached from what it had been before as we attempt to simply get on with our lives and keep from going crazy. The reconstruction of New Orleans and the small towns of SW Louisiana is mired in a swamp of indifference, incompetence and greed. Four months after Katrina and nearly as much time since Rita, Louisiana and New Orleans remain paralyzed. Biologists have told me that it will take as long as three years before the marsh can regenerate itself. How long will it take for the human community to restore itself? The Vermillion Parish towns of Henry, Pecan Island and Forked Island have been so hard hit that they will probably never recover. The church and school at Henry will most probably be abandoned and without these institutions, the small town will die. In Cameron Parish, the towns of Cameron, Grand Chenier, and Creole have been annihilated. Will the residents come back and rebuild according to the new government standards, i.e. 12 feet above the ground? For the time being, nothing is for sure.
The situation is similar in certain sections of New Orleans. The Ninth Ward, Saint Bernard and Chalmette have been devastated to the point that many experts are suggesting that they be abandoned. The residents are confused, angry, and those who wish to return are prevented from doing so by the total lack of basic services. There is no electricity or running water in much of what was once New Orleans. Without significant help from the US government, it is unlikely that these sections will ever be rebuilt.
After a catastrophe of such proportions, the survivors can do little but attempt to reconstruct their lives. For many, this will mean moving elsewhere and for good. Will the distinctive culture of New Orleans survive far from the neighborhoods in which it evolved? Unlikely. In the city, everything has changed: the infrastructure, political relations, schooling, grocery shopping, transportation....everything. Everything is to be rebuilt, but how, and with whose money? 2006 stands before us filled with questions and challenges. The world will never be the same for me and for thousands of my co-citizens. We cannot but accept the challenge and do the best we can. We certainly cannot dwell in self pity or nostalgia for the past. We will move forward one step at the time, with hope and courage. As far as for 2005, we bury it gladly with a kick in the ass and a hearty good riddance. We will never forget her, but I for one, will never celebrate her in song. In my creative imagination, 2005 will never eclipse the marvelously terrible “Année de 57”.
To aid the victims of the hurricanes: