'Our future generations are not for sale': Marilyn Baptiste wins Goldman Environmental Prize

Marilyn Baptiste of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation in British Columbia has won the prestigious $175,000 Goldman Prize for her five-year effort to prevent construction of the Prosperity gold and copper mine 600 kilometres north of Vancouver.

"I hope the Goldman award will bring world recognition to help us protect our land," Baptiste told DeSmog Canada. "We'd like to improve our lives, but our land and water comes first."

That simple statement echoes the words of millions of Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world facing governments and industries intent on extracting minerals, oil, coal, gas and timber from their lands.

"It's the same story everywhere," she said.

However, the beginnings of a new story may be in the works in Canada. Baptiste is a member of the Tsilhqot'in people who won a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2014 that granted Aboriginal title to more than a 1,750-square-kilometre area in the Cariboo-Chilcotin area.

For more than 20 years, the 3,000-member Tsilhqot'in opposed clear-cut logging on its unceded territory in and around the Nemaiah Valley. The Tsilhqot'in have no treaties with governments, but the B.C. government approved the logging regardless. The Supreme Court ruled that B.C. had infringed on the rights of the Tsilhqot'in.

Most of B.C. is unceded territory, so the implications of the Supreme Court decision are potentially far-reaching for the rest of the province.

"Our land, our water, our future generations are not for sale," Baptiste said.

Vancouver's Taseko Mines Ltd, the proponent of the renamed "New" Prosperity Mine, says it will proceed with its project because it is outside of the 1,750-square-kilometre Tsilhqot'in territory.

Taseko has spent 20 years trying to get the open pit mine built beside Teztan Biny (Fish Lake). Although the project was approved by B.C., a federal environmental review panel rejected the project in 2010 for its serious potential environmental and cultural impacts. In a rare statement, then minister of environment Jim Prentice said the project would destroy Fish Lake and surrounding streams and wetlands.

Taseko made some changes, called it "New" Prosperity and re-submitted it to the federal review panel soon after with the blessing of the B.C. government. Taseko started to work on the mine in 2011 without getting federal approval.

That's when Baptiste stood up and started a one-woman blockade preventing construction crews from reaching the proposed mine site. Alone and in a very remote location, Baptiste drew her courage from the mountains around her.

 "We're part of the mountains and lakes. They're our source of health and sustenance…. It is just my duty and responsibility to protect our lands, water, wildlife, wild plants for our future generations," she said.

Baptiste was soon joined by members of her community and the Tsilhqot'in Nation in blocking the road.

The federal government rejected Taseko again in 2013, saying it would cause irreversible environmental damage. Taseko's response was to sue the federal government. And then again when it lost.

In January 2015, the B.C. government granted Taseko a new extension to build the mine.

"It's been five years but it feels like ten," said Baptiste.

"We're definitely going to continue to oppose the project."

The open pit mine would be up to 1.6 kilometres wide and more than 500 metres deep. The contaminated tailings will be dumped into a tailings pond near the lake -- the specifications of which are based on those of the Mount Polley tailings pond, Baptiste said.

The Mount Polley tailings pond, about four square kilometres in size, failed in August 2014, releasing millions of cubic metres of contaminated water. It was considered one of Canada's biggest environmental disasters.

Indigenous peoples appreciate modern technology and want to enjoy the benefits, but not if that means the destruction of their land and waters, Baptiste repeated.

"We can't continue the way we are going. Mother Earth is telling us we are going the wrong way."

Laws and regulations for mining and the extractive industries need major reforms, something First Nations in the Mount Polley area are actively engaged in pursuing. Governments need to work with local people, not ignore or disrespect them as the B.C. government has, Baptiste said.

This article was first published on DeSmog Canada.

Stephen Leahy is the senior science and environment correspondent at Inter Press Service News Agency (IPS) based in Rome and Montevideo. To continue this work at a time of severe cutbacks and closure of many media, Leahy launched Community Supported Journalism.

Photo: Baptiste stands over a map of Tsilhqo'tin Territory. Credit: Goldman Environmental Prize

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