We live in a fossil-fuel dependent society. 190,000 miles of liquid petroleum pipeline currently criss-cross the United States, in addition to 2.4 million miles for natural gas1 — and more of this infrastructure is being planned and implemented all the time. There have been several high-profile incidences of pipeline opposition over the last decade or so — Keystone XL, the Standing Rock Sioux-led resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline, Wet’suwet’en and the Coastal GasLink; closer to home, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, set to traverse our own state of Virginia, has met with prolonged and profound defiance. Indigenous activists have long likened pipelines to a Black Snake consuming everything in its path.
The pervasiveness of anti-pipeline energy makes sense. As environmental justice activists will tell you, pipelines break, leak, spill, and explode, flooding land with volatile chemicals, destroying ecosystems, polluting water, and doing immeasurable amounts of damage2. Their advocates promise jobs and lower gas prices, but don’t make good on either — proponents of the Keystone XL pipeline, for example, claimed the project would bring 119,000 new jobs, but a state department report concluded that only 35 post-construction positions would be created.3 Thanks to the work of generations of pipeline resisters, the general public seems somewhat aware of the environmental and economic perils that pipelines pose to communities, but there are less widely known, more insidious dangers inherent in fossil-fuel extraction. There are aspects of extraction that activists, particularly indigenous women and Two-spirit* people, have been pointing to for a long time — aspects directly linked to our work as advocates for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
The connections between resource extraction and sexual violence are more direct than you might think. As pipeline routes are constructed (typically cutting through rural areas, which often include or border tribal lands and the home places of other marginalized people), “man camps,” or temporary settlements of workers, spring up along its route, with a rush of well-paid outsiders streaming into the surrounding communities. Inhabitants of the camps arrive with no ties to the place or its people. Water protectors Unist’ot’en describe the camp culture as one that exacerbates “isolation, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, misogyny, hyper-masculinity, and racism among the men living there.”4 Perhaps unsurprisingly, numerous studies and witness reports connect these camps with increased rates of sexual violence, harassment, and trafficking5. Just this February, pipeline workers associated with the development of Line 3 were arrested for sex trafficking6. Multiple “man camps” loom over a stretch of road dotted with cases of missing Indigenous women, dubbed “The Highway of Tears7.”
We know that Indigenous women face disproportionate levels of violence. They are murdered at rates ten times higher than the national average, and “disappeared” in equally alarming numbers: In 2017 alone, almost 6,000 indigenous women went missing; they make up more than a quarter of Montana’s missing person reports, despite constituting less than seven percent of the total population8. The Canadian goverment recently released its Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) Report: the result of a two-year inquiry and interviews with more than 2,000 families, it declares the epidemic of disappearances and murders of indigenous women a state-induced genocide, and highlights extractive industry camps as epicenters of this violence9.
To quell these expressions of violence, both against the land and its people, we need to understand them as both deeply interrelated and symptomatic of a broader, systemic issue. We need to recognize that a system that commodifies and disposes of our natural resources for profit will always do the same to our bodies, lives, and cultures — and marginalized people will bear the brunt of both. A culture of resource extraction at any cost is a comprehensive culture of use and abuse; of disposability. The Black Snake devours everything.
So what can be done? Despite the obvious linkages, work to combat environmental violence and sexual violence rarely overlaps outside of Indigenous communities, who have long shown leadership in advancing the theoretical framework linking the two. It’s time for all people working in our field to include environmental justice in our advocacy. Educate yourself and your agency on the intersections of environmental, racial, and gender-based violence; recognize environmental justice as inextricable from anti-violence work, and prioritize it. Use your power as leaders and experts in the anti-violence movement to demand that your elected officials stop the destruction of land (and people in the process) in the name of fossil-fuel extraction. Plug into the anti-pipeline movement in your region; support water protectors and others doing this work on the front lines.
*Two-spirit is an Indigenous term referring to people with gender-variant identities. For more information, see this resource.
Emily Robinson is the Development and Outreach Coordinator at the Action Alliance.
Appalachians Against Pipelines – A group resisting development of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in Southwest Virginia and elsewhere.
The Gitchigumi Scouts – A community action group engaging in harm reduction and patrols for MMIW and relatives.
Welcome Water Protectors site from Honor The Earth
How We Treat Women (2019)
1 American Petroleum Institute (https://www.api.org).
2 Taft, Molly. 2021. “One of the Nation’s Largest Pipelines Caused the Biggest Spill in Decades–And We’re Just Hearing About It” Gizmodo (https://earther.gizmodo.com/one-of-the-nation-s-largest-pipelines-caused-the-bigges-1846406684).
3 Denchak, Melissa. 2021. “What is the Keystone XL Pipeline?” Natural Resource Defense Council (https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-keystone-pipeline#econ).
4 Zoledziowski, Anya. 2020. “Wet’suwet’en Isn’t Just About a Pipeline, but Keeping Indigenous Women Safe” Vice (https://www.vice.com/en/article/m7qp8a/wetsuweten-isnt-just-about-a-pipeline-but-keeping-indigenous-women-safe).
5 Ruddell, Rick, Dheeshana S. Jayasundara, Roni Mayzer, and Thomasine Heitkamp. 2014. “Drilling Down: An Examination of the Boom-Crime Relationship in Resource Based Boom Counties” Western Criminology Review 15(1):3-17 (http://wcr.sonoma.edu/v15n1/Ruddell.pdf).
6 Pember, Mary Annette. 2021. “Sex trafficking sting nets Enbridge pipeline workers” Indian Country Today (https://indiancountrytoday.com/news/sex-trafficking-sting-nets-enbridge-pipeline-workers).
7 Morin, Brandy. 2017. “Pipeline Man Camps Loom Over Highway Of Tears” Canada’s National Observer (https://www.nationalobserver.com/2017/09/21/news/pipeline-man-camps-loom-over-bcs-highway-tears).
8Gray, Lucy Anna. 2019. “Forgotten Women: The conversation of murdered and missing native women is not one North America wants to have – but it must” The Independent (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/long_reads/native-american-women-missing-murder-mmiw-inquiry-canada-us-violence-indigenous-a8487976.html).
9 National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/).