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Guatemala: Water pollution and the rights of Q’eqchi Peoples in El Estor

20 June 2023

The Denı́nu Kų́ę́ First Nation, otherwise known as Moose Island or Fort Resolution, is situated on the western edge of Des Nedhé (Slave River) delta, which encompasses approximately 400 square kilometres of channels and wetlands in sub-Arctic Canada. Seventy per cent of the water flowing into Tu Nedhé (Great Slave Lake) flows from the Athabasca and Peace rivers down Des Nedhé, passing by Denı́nu Kų́ę́, located above the 60th parallel. A wide variety of animal and fish species, including moose, beaver, muskrat, whitefish, and seasonal ducks and geese, live within the beautiful Des Nedhé delta ecosystem. 

Denı́nu Kų́ę́ First Nation is also home to Dene and Métis Peoples who have been stewards of their lands and waters for millennia. Dene Law roots Dene Peoples to their individual, community and Mother Earth responsibilities while maintaining vital connections to language, culture, land and water. This ongoing land and water stewardship and responsibility is, however, hampered by continued colonization. Despite the existence of what were peace and friendship treaties from the Dene perspective, including Treaties 8 and 11 with the crown, the federal government has resumed the ceding of land and has not honoured rights to self-government. With complex and multi-layered governmental bureaucracy that does not often appreciate or honour traditional land and territory boundaries, environmental rights have been a difficult and contentious issue in northern Canada.

The issues surrounding Indigenous environmental rights in the region have been amplified due to the weaving waterways that Dene and Métis Peoples hold sacred and that are currently at risk of being polluted. The Canadian billion-dollar oil sands mining industry has been in operation in the province of Alberta for decades. In that time, approximately 1.4 trillion litres of toxic wastewater have been generated by mining operations, the volume of which would fill more than 560,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. There has been increasing concern about the risk of an unexpected release within the local region of the oil sands operations. 

The Canadian government has stated that to reduce the environmental and health risks of storing toxic waste, there is a need to examine ways to release partially treated tailings pond waste into the Athabasca River – something that is currently illegal. Industry has deemed full treatment of tailings pond waste to be not economically feasible. The Athabasca waterway itself feeds into water systems going all the way up to the Arctic Ocean, with the Athabasca and Peace rivers feeding Des Nedhé, which passes by many First Nations communities in both Alberta and the Northwest Territories, including those of Fort Chipewyan, Thebatthi (Fort Fitzgerald), Thebacha (Fort Smith) and Denı́nu Kų́ę́.

A Syncrude tailings pond near Fort McMurray. At 1.5 trillion litres, the oil sands tailings ponds are the largest of their kind in the world. They house a liquid mix of toxic waste which contains dangerously high levels of mercury, arsenic, lead and benzene. Independent studies have found the tailings ponds leak 11 million litres per day into the groundwater and Athabasca River. Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Credit: Ian Willms.

For decades there have been calls for an independent, government-funded, baseline health assessment, and ongoing cumulative exposure studies on and with the primarily Indigenous communities that make their livelihoods downstream from Canada’s oil sands industry. Despite these ongoing and frequent calls, including from Indigenous Peoples themselves, even the most basic independent monitoring has yet to be initiated. Industry and industry stakeholders continue to downplay the health risk of exposure to mining outputs, including the tailings ponds, and no funding has been mobilized to support community health monitoring downriver from oil sands operations. 

Similar to other Indigenous communities in precarious environmental situations globally, when potential health risks are identified, they are often minimized, brushed under the table by industry, or even deflected to other potential causes. For the Alberta oil sands, the provincial cancer board did find an increase in the overall cancer rate based on general epidemiological data available within communities downstream from the mining operations; however, they specifically noted that the results were based on a small number of cases that could be due to chance, increased detection or increased risk in the community. 

For the communities that live downstream from the oil sands in the Northwest Territories (north of the province of Alberta), a public-facing epidemiological assessment has never been carried out. ‘Small numbers’ are often used as the reasoning for not being able to determine significant health impacts within Indigenous communities. However, in addition to increased cancer rates possibly due to chance or increased risk in the community, what is not appreciated is that high cancer rates in this community could also very well be caused by the oil sands mining operations. Not being able to reach a population number large enough to draw a conclusion is not the same as no risk being present. This is especially true without full, independent and comprehensive health monitoring studies being carried out. There is a very real possibility that the oil sands operations are currently causing harm to Indigenous communities, and this harm has been observed by Elders through their traditional knowledges. It is important also to note that harm is independent of whether partially treated toxic tailings pond waste is released into the waterway, as the consequences of the change in regulation would be in addition to any undocumented current health harms.

Northern communities should not be sacrificed for industry profit.

In process now within the federal government in Canada is a crown–Indigenous working group that has already begun creating oil sands tailings water release standards with draft regulations set to be released in 2024, and the final regulations due to be completed sometime in 2025. To date, there have been no public-facing hearings, no independent watchdog, no concrete plans for human health monitoring, and little to no dialogue on the process of creating the regulations, or who will be involved in their creation. Indigenous governments in the Northwest Territories specifically, including Denı́nu Kų́ę́, are not currently being included as a part of the federal government process despite the tailings ponds release affecting their traditional territories. Dene rights and Dene voices on this issue have continued to be suppressed and minimized, with consequences for generations to come. This despite the Dene National Assembly in 2022 unanimously passing a resolution to oppose the release of treated tailings water from the Alberta oilsands.

Free, prior and informed consent is currently not being honoured in Canada when it comes to the re-examination of a currently illegal practice that violates the rights of Indigenous Peoples downstream from the oil sands. The regional non-profit organization, ‘Keepers of the Water’, requests that allies write to the Canadian Minister for Environment and Climate Change through their website to say NO to the release of partially treated tar sands tailings effluent into the Athabasca River. 

On 6 February 2023, Imperial Oil informed the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation that ongoing overground and underground leaks were coming from the tailings’ ponds – nine months after leaks were first identified. This means that disclosure requirements to Indigenous Nations downstream from oil sands operations were ignored. The complete disregard of downstream Indigenous communities’ and environmental health demonstrates a clear pattern of the industry and the Alberta provincial regulator continuing to minimize the human rights of Indigenous Peoples in the region. Keepers of the Water states clearly that northern communities should not be sacrificed for industry profit.

Avert, a young indigenous girl, walks into Lake Athabasca, in Fort Chipewyan. The oil sands are located along the Athabasca River, which flows into Lake Athabasca. Credit: Ian Willms.

We are grateful to members of Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: A boat is seen on the shores of Tu Nedhé (Great Slave Lake). Fort Resolution, South Slave Region, Northwest Territories, Canada. Credit: Mike Hardiman/Alamy Stock Photo.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Nicole Redvers