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Witnessing the tar sands

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Today is the day I witnessed the oil sands project for myself. The first thing we did in the morning was drive up north past For McMurray, past the forest, to see the oil sands. I began feeling sick as we drove up there, I think because I was stressed of what I was going to see. When we got there, I didn't feel a thing as I was filming with a camera and not present in the moment. But once I put the camera down and looked at it for myself, I broke down completely. The tears and emotions poured like a typhoon. It was as if I was starring at my best friend raped and ravaged. I felt helpless and broken staring.

I didn't expect myself to react this way, I rarely cry since my father passed away from cancer several years back. I had only been there for five minutes on the ground level. But there is nothing like seeing something with your own eyes, even for a moment. I had been told about the tar sands by both for and against it individuals. Yet after all was said by so many about it, one never really understands something until they see it for themselves.

To see it even more, I took to the skies with a chartered plane. What I saw will be etched on my brain for the rest of my life. It looked like it was the year 2100 and the world had gone wrong, except that it was 2009 and right here in Canada. It was as far as the eye could see, an unrecognizable moonscape. Earth didn't exist here any longer.

There were no plant life or animals. It was just the blackness of the bitumen that covered most of the landscape; trailings of grey massive roads that trucks the size of buildings stormed on and brown toxic waste ponds with an oily residue at the top that were the size of massive lakes. In the midst of this, there would be what looked like alien cities with fire shooting off the top of smoke stacks, millions of tiny pipes up and around circling everywhere, box buildings with small prison like windows.

All of what I was looking at was only two plants in the oil sands, that of Suncor and Syncrude. Further north, there are over a dozen other multinationals digging for dirty oil. Literally stripping the skin, the fluids and organs of a quarter of the Albertan province. Barely leaving it to its bones. As this massive project hacks up the boreal forest, steals wetlands, digs up mounds of earth, sucks up the clean water of the area leaving it to an unconventional oil mess.

But outside of this oil nightmare, there were patches of reserved forest and a large herd of buffalo. It seemed a bit surreal to see the small brown dots that were the bison in the midst of a green patch next to my version of "hell on earth." But this was in fact intentional. They were, as the Syncrude Research Lab told me, "Syncrude Bison." And the land was part of a reclamation project by the corporation. These were there efforts to be a more "sustainable" tar sands company. The idea is if land can be reclaimed and bison can live healthily on it (and they were healthy), then in the future this tar sands hell can be "put back the way it was." Some even claim it will be put back "better."

But seeing it from the sky, it doesn't matter how much this issue is spined or how much greenwashing is created on it -- there is something inherently wrong with turning the earth into something unrecognizable. And all for the purpose of dirty oil in a time when we are supposed to be battling climate change.

I came to learn at the end of this day that the tar sands can be seen from space. The only other thing that can be seen from space made by humans is the Great Wall of China. This seems to reflect that we are devolving. Because instead of building something that represents the greatness of our civilization -- we are building something that shows the greatness of our destruction.

Emily Hunter's Journey to the Tar Sands airs this fall on MTV News Canada.

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