Noxious Natures: The Commercialization of Natural Resources and Environmental Racism against the Six Nations People

Editor’s note: this post is part of the Noxious Natures series here on EHN. Under guidance of Dr. Katy Kole de Peralta, three environmental history students at Idaho State University will be sharing perspectives on environmental racism from around the world.

Following Emily Morley, who wrote the series’ first piece, Jon Madson gives his take on environmental racism. He is a history major and TRIO McNair Scholar at ISU, and interested in the disadvantaging of indigenous peoples as global commercialization changes both the social and physical environment of locations around the world.

The Implications of Six Nations History

In Grand River, Ontario, Canada, on the Six Nations indigenous reserve, local residents struggle with acquiring fresh reliable water. Nestlé, a corporation that owns several bottled water brands, pumps millions of liters of water from the Erin well, which according to the 1701 Nanfan Treaty and the 1784 Haldimand Tract belongs to the Six Nations People. Each day, Nestlé extracts 3.6 million liters of Six Nations’ water to bottle and sell worldwide. This creates dire consequences for Six Nations residents and other indigenous communities that no longer have fresh sustainable water access for consumption and hygiene. In a modern case of environmental racism, these native residents have no decision over the fate of their water.

In her article for The Guardian, Alexandra Shimo notes that “[…] drought and other environmental problems are supposed to be addressed during the granting of new water permits when experts examine aquifer levels and other resources to decide how much water can be safely extracted […] this is not happening however and the Ontario government has given companies the right to pump water using expired permits.” The Natural Resources Transfer Act of 1930 saw the transferring of water ownership from Canada’s national government to individual provinces. The transfer created legislative ambiguities about land and resource rights that have allowed Nestlé to commercialize a natural resource while simultaneously making it nearly impossible for residents to access reliable, safe, affordable drinking water.

While Nestlé Pays Pennies on the Liter, Indigenous Peoples Suffer from Consuming Polluted Water

When corporations turn natural resources into commodities, it undermines residents’ quality of life.  The inadequate compensation residents receive for the exploitation of their land contributes greatly to this already tragic story. Nestlé pays the province US$390.38 per million liters. Not only is this inadequate for such vast amounts of water, but the Six Nations people receive none of it. This money becomes provincial money and is not applied to improving the environment the Six Nations people are forced to live in. A reservation water treatment plant sits idle while roughly twenty-three thousand people are water insecure. Ninety-one percent of reservation homes are not connected to this water treatment plant, and some people do not even have water access at all, treated or untreated. This situation has created alarming effects. Residents purchase bottled drinking water located in excess of 10 miles from their home, and source local tap water several miles away for bathing and cooking. Coupled with this, all water is subjected to a boil order. The side-effects of consuming water not boiled include flu-like symptoms and vomiting. Indigenous peoples face illness and turmoil while struggling desperately and finding no alternatives to their issue. Shimo interviewed Iokarenhtha Thomas, a mother of five who faces the nasty and physical manifestations that can accompany alternative water sources. To supplement water sources Thomas collected rainwater. Soon after this her son developed a rash. This rash would later be diagnosed as impetigo, an assuredly direct result of washing with water infested by bacteria on the shingles of her home’s roof.

The Six Nations situation is an improperly managed water crisis driven by profit and environmental racism. The exploitation of these people for a natural resource located in the lands promised to them by treaties summons more sentiment for the plights faced by indigenous populations as large corporation economics take priority over natural rights. Who should use and access this water on a daily basis and can a company deny an entire group of people basic drinking water? Former Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe says of course, stating: “One perspective held by various NGOs—which I would call extreme—is that water should be declared a human right. The other view is that water is a grocery product and just as any other product, it should have a market value.”

While the corporate face of Nestle scoffs at Indigenous peoples’ rights to clean drinking water, Iokarenhtha Thomas sums up an indigenous perspective, lamenting “[…] that’s just the reality of reservation life. You grow up being treated unfairly.” When speaking about her family and the historical inequality indigenous people face she notes that, “[…] we are taught to be resilient […] otherwise you become angry and bitter.”

Nestlé makes millions of dollars extracting large quantities of water and selling their products around the world while the Six Nations people receive no benefit and are left scrambling to find suitable water. Disease and illness caused by unhealthy water and inadequate hygiene have plagued these people for many years now. One of the Six Nations residents with no access to running water, Ken Greene, bemoans that “[…] everything has to do with the water because it has to do with the land. Land needs water. We need water. We can’t survive without it.” This statement reveals the larger issue that water scarcity creates. Not only are these people water deprived, but they are forced to stand by as their cultural home and resources are destroyed. Water exploitation leads to land and natural vegetation destruction and a decline or complete eradication of the biological life that calls water home and that use this biological life for survival.

The Six Nations case reminds us that environmental inequalities persist in the present day, and that resource extraction is a slippery slope into social and cultural destruction. The next time you turn on your tap to quench your thirst or cook, remember that not all people are afforded that luxury. Remember that a whole group of marginalized peoples in Ontario watches their families become ill from drinking polluted water, while a major corporation pumps their well water for profit.