The Trenches We Dig, the Mountains We Build

“Irian Jaya – Grasberg, Freeport Mine – 1995” by Simon Pearson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Trenches We Dig, the Mountains We Build

by Lyz Soto

The truth is Iʻm feeling salty. Pacific poet, teacher, activist Teresia Teaiwa said, “We sweat and cry salt water, so we know the ocean is really in our blood.” So I know why I’m salty. I am a child of the sea, but in this Iʻm also activating other parts of this word…the truth is Iʻm feeling bitter, annoyed, and upset, because I keep hearing stories about lands carved to the bone without regard for those left to live in the skeletal remains. I keep hearing from storytellers who talk about our world as dividable and consumable property, who equate the sacred with the superstitious. So forgive me if when you taste my salt you feel a sting in the corners of your mouth and a bite in the cracks of your lips.

In my particular landscape, three events recently converged. In December 2014, an artist collective based in Honolulu, Oʻahu, began preparing for a performance and art demonstration in support of West Papua independence from the occupying Indonesian government. A small group of aloha ʻāina protectors, led by Lanakila Mangauil and Kahoʻokahi Kanuha, began blocking construction crews from building the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna kea in late March 2015. On April 4, 2015, Mālama Kai Hohonu, a symposium on deep seabed mining in the Pacific was held at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Three seemingly separate and unrelated events, but sharing a place in an environment dominated by economic, military, and corporate interests all touting the benefits of science and progress.

The devastation wrought by a fifty year occupation on the people and place that is West Papua continues to be mind boggling. What’s more astounding is the almost total lack of humanitarian, environmental, or journalistic attention paid to a situation that amounts to the large scale murder of hundreds of thousands of people indigenous to West Papua by the Indonesian military and the wholesale ecological destruction of Papua traditional lands due to logging, palm oil (biofuel) farms, and the mining of copper and gold controlled predominantly by Indonesian and foreign (mostly Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom) interests. Companies like Freeport McMoRan, Rio Tinto, and Kayu Lapis Indonesia do not hesitate to dig scars into mountain tops for the sake of copper and gold, strip the land bare for timber, or clear cut primal forests in order to plant palms for the harvesting of so-called biofuels. Why does silence dominate the conversation around this situation? Perhaps it is not too cynical to believe the reasons for this quiet lie in the vested interests of Australia, the U. S., and the U.K., and those living within the economic borders of these entities benefit from this silence. All in the name of progress.

In March 2015, Lanakila Mangauil and Kahoʻokahi Kanuha, with a small group of protectors, began an encampment to block construction access to the TMT, but in the following weeks support has grown across the Hawaiʻi islands and beyond. In fact, Mauna Kea is trending on Facebook, and while many support the efforts of those who would protect Mauna Kea, there are also those who characterize aloha ʻāina as religious zealotry or new age indigenous ignorance and an impediment to scientific progress that would benefit all humankind. In his post, “We Live in the Future, Come Join Us,” Bryan Kuwada offers an elegant argument against the perpetuating of false dichotomies often pitting science and “progress” against indigenous epistemologies. As Bryan points out (more generously than I), the “scientists,” who would accuse protectors of ʻāina and cultural heritage as hindering advancement, are apparently not rigorous enough or curious enough to peek outside their own narrow definitions of development. They make their decisions before doing their research, before understanding the subjects about which they speak.

This leads me to Mālama Kai Hohonu, the recent symposium on deep sea mining in the Pacific, where representatives from the scientific community, the International Seabed Authority (ISA), and community activists from the Pacific presented on their knowledges and their perspectives. Jon Kamakawiwoʻole Osorio offered a welcoming that directly tied the current events on Mauna Kea to the threat of deep sea mining in the Pacific. Both efforts rest on the assumption that western definitions of scientific exploration and developmental progress offer the only definitions of scientific exploration and developmental progress. Both efforts result in the disfigurement and destruction of places on this earth that are culturally precious and ecologically significant. Both efforts assume there is only one path for us to forge and to follow.

At the beginning of the symposium, I offered my own welcoming by performing a poem called “Nautilus,” which critiques the company Nautilus Minerals Inc. and suggests that the “need” for deep sea mining is fed by our own insatiable appetites. So you can imagine the level of my enthusiasm, the amount of my salt, when the first two speakers, a representative of the ISA, and an environmental geochemist, viewed deep seabed mining as an inevitability driven by the global need to urbanize our communities in the “developing” world. I think it’s fair to say that many of us living in the “developed” world believe this “need” to be a foregone conclusion. People want infrastructure like roads and tall buildings and all the bells and whistles that accompany this type of manmade landscape, but hidden beneath this conclusion is the arrogant assumption that the rest of the world wants their development to be modeled on and guided by the same principals that have driven westernized imperial expansion for more than one hundred years. In any case, there are mythologies built around the whispered covenant of progress and development floating in the global imagination, which tend to shape the conversations we have around our natural resources. That shape is always informed by the idea that we have to extract our natural resources, otherwise doom is around the corner—global economic doom, which looks like the fall of financial markets and the collapse of international trade.

Even the biologists at the symposium, who offered substantial reservations around the wisdom of deep seabed mining on any of the various seabed landscapes, operated as if the prospect of deep seabed mining was a prescient understanding of our future. A consistent reasoning behind this understanding is balanced on the idea that developing countries must have access to these resources to fulfill the promise of “progress” and “modernization,” and that those who inhabit the Pacific are in someway morally obligated to provide this access. “Morally obligated” in the same way West Papua is obligated to endure generations of genocidal oppression to open the door to the exploitation of their natural resources for the benefit of global progress. More salt in the wound.

In an ironic twist of naming, large tracts of ocean floor marked as potential mining sites and falling in international waters have been called the “Common Heritage of Mankind.” In due respect to the governing bodies associated with this naming, I will acknowledge that the name belongs to a long history that marked the “high seas” as a space beyond the claims of individual nation states. And some of the countries who hold licenses to potentially mine in these tracts are Pacific Island nations, which appears to legitimize the ISA’s approach to right of access, but, as was pointed out by representatives of the Pacific Network on Globalization and Blue Ocean Law, this reality tells a partial story. Many Pacific Island governments made these choices unilaterally without properly informing or consulting their populations, which often hold land collectively with long standing traditional interpretations of access and borders. When questioned about this aspect of the reality of deep seabed mining, the ISA representative suggested that it was the fault of Pacific Island nations for having bad governments. This stance re-tells the story in significant ways by erasing the influential roles powerful foreign interests have played in shaping current government authorities in the Pacific.

At the back of all three of these issues is a consistent erasing and re-telling of stories to shape a single narrative that pushes all of us towards global expansion, increased urbanization, and escalated militarism. One commentator defending the building of the TMT suggested that one reason for the necessity of such a structure is that our future as a species may very well rest in the stars. But why will it rest out there beyond our atmosphere and far from the salt of our oceans? Will we choose to journey there because we wish to “explore strange new worlds and seek out new civilizations,” or will it be because we have dug our trenches to ruin and buried ourselves beneath mountains of trash?

As we argue about the proper treatment of land and which culture holds the best answers to our development, consider this: the international powers that guide current stewardship of our global “inheritance” have been in the driving seat during a period of unprecedented pollution, unrelenting deforestation, massive extinction events, expanding food resource insecurities, and increased militarism. We are now facing a future dominated by questions of how do we slow down climate change, where do we put all our trash, who will have access to fresh water, how will we get fresh water, how do we reduce the amount of chemical pollutants in our food and water supply, how will we have access to food? Does that sound like progress to you?

Lest I be too salty, I will acknowledge that the last one hundred years have also given us extraordinary advances that span from the technological to the medical. Some of us have never known hunger. Some of us are living longer. Some of us have never been subjected to back breaking labor. Some of us have never experienced violence. But at what cost? Some us are living better lives on the backs of our brothers and sisters without even offering acknowledgement or giving our thanks. Instead, we behave as if this is our entitlement, as we justify the use of military force to protect what we have decided belongs to us, and to us alone. So tell me what has actually changed, when scientists and governing bureaucrats remain aloof from following through on ensuring that promised benefits actually reach the communities most impacted by their constructions of progress. Dare I say there is not enough love in this earth? Dare I point out that sacred does not equal unfounded superstition? Dare I suggest that sacredness often equates to love?

Are we so bereft of love that we are unable to work towards a better future that encompasses the entire global population? Are we so lacking in imagination that we are unable to divine another way towards the future? Are we so driven by our appetites that we resign ourselves to the idea that we will keep moving in the same direction in the same way until we have to exhausted our resources and polluted our environment to such an extent that we have no choice but to change in the face a world no longer able to forgive our unceasing demands?

So yes, I am salty. I remain bitter. And I will still sting. But salt always brings me back to the sea. As a child, my father and I swam out to rocks, picked ʻopihi, and ate. It was like eating the ocean. Now, I can think of no place where I might repeat this piece of my past with my son. Either the ʻopihi have vanished, or the water is so polluted it would be unsafe to eat them—an ominous foreshadow of our possible future, so with the idea that we can change the times to come I offer my love, my hope, and my imagination to the salt that sustains us and reminds we are of the earth and it is possible for us to devise a future here on earth that is better for all of us.

3 thoughts on “The Trenches We Dig, the Mountains We Build

  1. Thank you for your comments. Well thought out and well written. It touches on often unrecognized truths. The sacrifices of the lives, culture, ecosystems, so someone else can have what they call progress. The fact the US companies and the continual need of it’s people to consume, brings death and destruction to others is sickening. So thank you for your insight, your salty thoughts that really are truths to be applauded and applied so our earth and it’s soul can breath and the peoples can continue to live.


    1. Thank you, Charlotte. Your comments are very appreciated. Let us hope that we can move our relationship with this planet in a saltier direction that makes life more joyous for everyone.


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