George Poitras has come a long way to make his point. From his traditional Mikisew Cree homelands on the shores of Lake Athabasca in northern Alberta, he has journeyed to Murray Place in the centre of Stirling, to confront the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS)
“My people are dying,” he said, “and anyone involved in the tar sands industry must take responsibility for that, including those that help fund it like RBS.”
RBS, which is now 84% owned by taxpayers, stands accused of supplying loans worth nearly £5 billion over the last three years to companies involved in extracting oil from underground tar sands in northern Canada.
The industry is not just dirty oil, it is “bloody oil”, insisted Mr Poitras (46), the former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. He blamed the high rates of cancer amongst his people on toxic pollutants from massive mining operations 240 kilometres upstream.
Over a hundred people in the small lakeside village of Fort Chipewyan have died from cancer, out of a First Nation population of about 1,200. Studies have suggested that the cancer rate is 43% higher than normal, and some of the cancers are rare varieties linked to contaminants.
“This has been our traditional homeland for over 12,000 years,” he told the Sunday Herald. “But now the water and the air are being contaminated, as well as the wildlife, the ducks, geese, moose and fish.”
Critics say that concentrations of arsenic up to 450 times acceptable levels have been detected in meat from moose. Fish and game animals are said to be covered with lesions and infested by tumours.
“Angry and upset is a gross understatement of how I feel,” Mr Poitras declared. “RBS needs to take a serious look at its investments and their consequences, and disinvest from tar sands.”
The exploitation of tar sands in Alberta has been dubbed “the most destructive project on earth”. In 2006, there were reckoned to be 170 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil there, making the area’s reserves second only to Saudi Arabia.
But extracting it involves strip mining on a massive scale, and then processing the sands to extract the bitumen they contain. The operation leaves vast tailing ponds of contaminated waste which can be seen from outer space.
“The scale of this operation makes the great wall of China look like a little white picket fence,” said Clayton Thomas-Muller, a First Nation Cree and tar sands campaign co-ordinator for the Indigenous Environmental Network in Canada. He has come with Mr Poitras to Stirling.
“Four tonnes of earth are removed for every barrel of oil. Every single day day enough earth is removed to fill a Toronto baseball stadium,” Mr Thomas-Muller explained.
He pointed out that the boreal forest that is being destroyed to mine the oil is the earth’s biggest store of carbon, after the tropical rainforest. “RBS is essentially profiteering from this destruction,” he claimed. “The bank must get out of Canadian tar sands.”
As well as protesting against RBS in Stirling yesterday, Mr Poitras and Mr Thomas-Muller will be speaking after the showing of a film about oil pollution at Edinburgh Filmhouse today. Last week they were in London at BP’s annual general meeting, urging the the British oil giant not to exploit the tar sands.
Their visit to Scotland has been hosted by the World Development Movement, which held a meeting yesterday to help prepare for protests around RBS’s annual general meeting in Edinburgh on 28 April. “In 2008, the UK government used taxpayers money to bail out RBS with hundreds of billions of pounds,” said the movement’s Scottish campaigner, Liz Murray.
“Against the government’s own guidance on investment of public funds, RBS is using that money to finance dirty development projects, such as tar sands extraction, that are fuelling climate change and threatening the health and human rights of local communities.”
RBS declined to deal directly with the criticisms of its investment in tar sands companies. “RBS continues to be a key provider of general lending and other banking services to international and domestic energy companies,” said a bank spokeswoman.
“This lending and other business is not tied to specific projects, and the energy companies involved range from oil and gas companies to those focussed primarily on renewable energy. We are committed to conducting our business in a sustainable manner.”
According to the spokeswoman, lending and investment decisions took account of “relevant social, ethical and environmental issues”. The bank was also “fully committed” to financing wind, solar and biomass projects as part of a “global shift to a more efficient, innovative and equitable use of resources”, she said.
Exploitation of tar sands ‘environmental racism’
If Saudi Arabian oil is like a tempting pint of frothy beer pulled straight from the keg, Alberta tar sands are the slops spilt onto the old bar room rug, boiled out.
That is the metaphor that Clayton Thomas-Muller, a First Nation Cree and environmental campaigner, adopted to try and help convey the enormous damage wreaked by mining the oil from tar sands.
The tar sands are spread underground across 141,000 square kilometres of Alberta, the traditional homelands for five First Nation communities, including the Dene, Cree and Métis. When the half dozen pipelines needed to pump the oil across the country are taken into account, there are dozens of First Nation groups affected.
Some, of course are given jobs in the burgeoning oil boomtown, Fort McMurray, on the River Athabasca, and support the exploitation. But according to Mr Thomas-Muller, they just get menial jobs that don’t help to end the cycle of deprivation into which many have sunk.
Despite pressure from the Federal government and well-funded oil industry public relations, some indigenous groups are now resisting the tar sands industry. They are backed by environmental organisations the world over, alarmed at the huge amount of climate pollution that the tar sands could unleash.
“Never before have the words “We live at ground zero” from frontline indigenous peoples rang more true,” said Mr Thomas-Muller. “The situation playing out in downstream communities like Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, is one of the worst cases of environmental racism globally.”
Environmental racism, he argued, “is the failure of colonial government programmes to adequately consult with or address environmental protection, natural resource conservation, environmental health, and sacred or historical site issues affecting traditional lands and their Indigenous peoples.”