State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012 - Case study: Athabasca tar sands: Heavy repercussions for indigenous communities

The Athabasca tar sands extraction programme in western Canada is the largest industrial project on earth. However, indigenous communities downstream from its multi-billion dollar operations have called it 'a slow industrial genocide'.

Currently, indigenous communities in Alberta and throughout North America are battling to safeguard their lands, cultures, heritage and health against the hyper-project and its proposed transcontinental delivery pipelines.

The tar sands are a mixture of sand, clay and heavy crude oil (bitumen) lying under 140,000 square km of ancient northland old-growth forest and peat bogs in north-eastern Alberta, Canada. Historically, the tar-like bitumen was used by the indigenous Cree and Dene communities to waterproof their canoes. Today the extensive bitumen deposits are regarded by experts as the second largest source of oil on the planet after Saudi Arabia. This has implications for several indigenous communities in the area since the tar sands are located within the traditional indigenous territorial boundaries of Treaty Eight (1899). Besides land tenure, the treaty guarantees local indigenous peoples the cultural right to hunt fish and trap.

Once a sparsely populated area of pristine northland forest, clean rivers and fish-filled lakes, over the past decade the Athabasca delta – a UNESCO heritage site – has become a devastated and bare semi-desert of enormous open-pit mines and huge contaminated tailings ponds that can be seen in views of the earth from space – not to mention also on the ground by indigenous communities in their vicinity.

Four huge oil sands mines are currently in operation and two more are in the initial stages of development. Among existing sites is the enormous Syncrude-operated mine, which is the largest open-pit mine (by area) on the globe. Even so, according to the provincial government of Alberta, only 3 per cent of the estimated bitumen reserves have been mined to date. At the projected 2015 production rate of 3 million barrels of oil per day, experts expect the Athabasca tar sands to keep producing oil for the next 170 years. This has caused indigenous communities and environmentalists on both sides of the Canada-US border to realize the extent of the challenge that may lie ahead in efforts to safeguard their rights and continued existence.

Currently, the tar sands produce about 1.5 million barrels of crude oil daily. The bulk (97 per cent) is exported to the US. This has made Canada the largest supplier of oil and refined products to the US, ahead of Saudi Arabia and Mexico. It has also led to increased interest in the tar sands project among US Native American activists and organizations.

Extraction is costly and destructive. Large-scale strip mining removes the entire surface layer ecosystem, consisting of old-growth forests, peat marsh and other habitat of importance to local fauna. This affects animals such as moose and caribou traditionally hunted by indigenous communities. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation has experienced a 74 per cent decline of the Cold Lake herd since 1998 and a 71 per cent decline of the Athabasca River herd since 1996. Today, just 175-275 caribou remain.

Tar sands extraction also burns huge amounts of natural gas. Carcinogenic emissions are released into the air and enter the food chain in an area where hunting and fishing have long been traditional survival activities. The extraction also deeply affects the strong cultural identification and spiritual connection which indigenous communities feel with the earth.


There are issues related to processing as well. Transforming the extracted bitumen into the synthetic crude oil piped to refineries in the US and Canada requires large-scale upgrade facilities that also use large amounts of water and energy, with smoke stacks billowing pollutants into the air. According to the Indigenous Environmental Network, each barrel of oil produced from the tar sands takes from 110 to 350 gallons (or 2-6 barrels) of water. And Greenpeace reports that tar sands operations leak millions of litres of toxic waste into the Athabasca River and the groundwater.

Impact on indigenous health

The scale of the operations has prompted real concern for the well-being of indigenous populations. Heavy metals, including cobalt, lead, mercury and arsenic, are naturally present in oil sands, so consequently extremely large quantities of toxic chemicals are discharged. These end up in the Athabasca River and its tributaries, then flow northward (downstream) further into indigenous territories. Although impact assessments were among the conditions of existing agreements signed between indigenous and extraction companies, the bulk of the research defending tar sands development is done by monitoring programmes affiliated with the oil industry. But independent studies have shown high deformity rates in fish caught downstream and that other wildlife food sources have been negatively affected as well.

Since toxic tar sands waste has been entering the river, groundwater and the food chain, ultimately it may be entering humans as well. In 2006, according to the Indigenous Environmental Network, an unusually high rate of rare cancers was reported in the community of Fort Chipewyan. In 2008, the Alberta Health Ministry confirmed a 30 per cent rise in the number of cancers between 1995 and 2006. However, the study was preliminary and many residents consider it to be a conservative estimate.

Oil pipeline distribution

Besides the impact of the tar sands, there are also legal and environmental concerns about pipeline delivery systems and refineries which threaten communities and landscapes throughout North America – especially in indigenous, rural and poor settlements. Two major pipeline projects are under consideration. One is Keystone XL, a pipeline that is intended to run from Alberta in western Canada across the North American continent to refineries on the US coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The other is the North Gateway project from the tar sands in Alberta to tanker ports in Kitimat, British Columbia. An agreement has been signed between the Enbridge Pipeline System and PetroChina to build two parallel 1,200 km pipelines from Alberta to the west coast port. Critics such as the Indigenous Environmental Network claim the project would cross 785 waterways, fragmenting wildlife habitats and affect fragile salmon fisheries. Indigenous environmental activists note that between 1999 and 2008, the Enbridge pipeline company was responsible for 610 spills. Moreover in 2010, it was responsible for a 1 million gallon spill of tar sands crude into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan; the second largest spill in US history. As well as environmental concerns, indigenous groups also claim the pipeline developments are in violation of commitments – particularly regarding prior consultation and consent – made through various treaties and the UNDRIP, which Canada initially voted against but then signed in 2010.

Nevertheless major oil companies, banks and investors are pouring billions of dollars into Alberta tar sands development; there are currently 64 companies operating several hundred projects, including major European-based multinationals.

Indigenous resistance

In Canada, the provincial governments are responsible for setting environmental and natural resource development policies, however responsibility for prior consultations and accommodation of indigenous concerns rests at the federal level. So far, Canadian courts have failed to define clearly what consultation means, and this is further complicated by jurisdictional issues between the provincial and federal levels. In late November 2011, the Chief and Council of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) rallied outside of Shell Canada corporate headquarters in downtown Calgary, Alberta. They stated that Shell's failure to take agreed-upon measures to lessen the project's impact has harmed ACFN's constitutionally protected rights and culture. Moreover, Shell's proposed massive expansion and new projects are in an area that is very important to ACFN's traditional way of life.

To date, there have been five tar sands-related legal proceedings brought before Canadian courts by indigenous communities. In 2007, the Woodland Cree First Nation (WCFN) filed a suit against the Alberta government and Royal Dutch Shell over inadequate consultation about in situ mine expansion. In 2008, the ACFN filed a suit against the provincial government of Alberta over lack of consultation. Agreed-upon meetings and discussions were not held; nonetheless the court of appeal ruled that an Alberta government webpage entry constituted consultation. The decision is contested, as it ignores both the internet technological divide and good faith negotiations on behalf of the Canadian government. It will likely end up in the Supreme Court of Canada. In 2008, the Prairie Chipewyan First Nation also launched a lack of consultation lawsuit against the Government of Alberta regarding the mining project approved on their territory. In 2008, the Beaver Lake Cree First Nation filed a lawsuit based on 20,000 infringements of their treaty rights. The Cree are specifically concerned that Total's planned Surmont in situ project will further decimate caribou populations through habitat fragmentation. In 2010, the Duncan and Horse First Nations were granted a Supreme Court of Canada hearing regarding consultations over impacts on the Peace River complex, which is located in traditional territory. The community reports massive losses of wildlife and habitat fragmentation.

Pipeline protests

In addition, there are also suits and protests specifically related to the pipelines that threaten First Nations communities not only in Canada but also Native American communities throughout the US. The traditional territories of the five indigenous communities of the Yinka Dene Alliance cover approximately one-quarter of the proposed Northern Gateway route. In February 2011, they rejected the company's revenue-sharing offer, citing the risk of oil spills and accusing the company of lack of respect for their rights. According to indigenous leaders, over 80 indigenous communities in British Columbia (BC) located along more than half of the Alberta to BC pipeline and tanker route have indicated that the project is against their laws and will harm both themselves and fellow indigenous nations living near the extraction zones.

Indigenous peoples from the headwaters of the Fraser River watershed to the Pacific coast have united under the 'Save the Fraser Declaration' and are working to ban the pipeline altogether. Company offers to have indigenous communities borrow money to purchase a small fraction of the pipeline met an unfavourable response. Indigenous leaders indicate they are not willing to compromise the well-being of future generations in return for cash. In solidarity with indigenous communities from Canada, US-based indigenous communities have also sworn to stop the pipeline project. In early November 2011, thousands of protesters circled the White House in Washington to demonstrate against the controversial Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and to press President Barack Obama and the US State Department to deny the permit. In January 2012, President Obama rejected the proposal, although the project looked set to be an election-year issue.

Given its 34 million population size, Canada is a relatively large emitter of greenhouse gases. According to the Kyoto Protocol, Canada was meant to have cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 6 per cent from its 1990 level by 2020. Rather, it is heading towards a 16 per cent increase, or more like 30 per cent if forestry is included. In June 2011, Canada was criticized for under-reporting the contribution of the tar sands project to its overall emissions. The government states that the tar sands project contributes about 5 per cent, but researchers believe the figure is closer to 10 per cent. In December 2011, Canadian Minister of the Environment Peter Kent indicated that Canada will be formally withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, thus becoming the first country to pull out of the global treaty. He argued that withdrawal allows Canada to continue generating jobs and economic growth. Canada's indigenous communities, who live near the booming tar sands project, are already aware of what such growth means for them.

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