By Krisanne Keizer
The environmental impacts of legal and illegal cultivation operations are not well understood by many Humboldt County residents, however, it is important that we are aware of the impact of extractive industries on the environment and all those close to it.
“The rush mentality is what founded Humboldt County…people act like it was a long time ago and we’ve definitely moved on, [that] we’re this very eco-friendly place, we’re liberals, we’re leftists,” said Native American studies department chair Cutcha Risling Baldy (Yurok/Hupa/Karuk). “That’s how people think of Humboldt County, but what founded us was that gold rush and we’ve been racing ever since…so after the gold rush, well, gold didn’t make us enough money, let’s rush any kind of minerals we can get” and then after that “well that didn’t make us enough, let’s rush the wood”…and I think that we have been rushing since 1849.”
Assistant Professor of Native American Studies, Kaitlin Reed (Yurok/Hupa/Oneida) is the author of “From Gold Rush to Green Rush”. In the book, she illustrates the correlation between the destructiveness of the Gold Rush period and the marijuana industry in Humboldt County (Green Rush).
Reed’s presentation “Cannabis and Environmental Justice in Humboldt County” explains that environmental injustice comes into play when colonial infrastructure dispossessed and further exploited Indigenous lands for capital gain.
The marijuana industry perpetuates the harm done by settlers by damaging sensitive ecosystems and cultural areas that Indigenous peoples depend on for survival and health. Much like the gold rush, marijuana cultivation poses many threats to indigenous peoples who depend on the land and rivers for their livelihood.
According to Reed, trespassing cultivation, in which growers illegally occupy public or tribal lands to cultivate their cultivation sites, is the most harmful type of cultivation operation.
“These types of cultivation are most often associated with the most severe environmental impacts,” Reed said.
Trespass growers trek into mountains and hills to clear cut a cultivation site, which has a devastating impact on the sensitive biodiversity of this natural place. These cultivation sites are chosen for cover and secrecy, so a cultivation site is more likely to disturb highly sensitive bio-diverse ecosystems.
In addition to clearcutting, producers use and bring in certain supplies that are terrible for the environment. These include soil that contains harmful chemicals, herbicides and insecticides that are released into the earth as well as garbage, plastics, batteries, invasive homemade structures, vehicles, petroleum products, etc.
Additionally, chemicals and other contaminants left behind by growers poison wildlife like the West Coast fisherman. Reed explained that rodenticide is an over-the-counter rat poison that causes internal bleeding in animals after consumption.
Wildlife research ecologist Mourad Gabriel conducted a study in 2015 that looked at rodenticide poisoning in the west coast fishing population. It was concluded that between 2012 and 2015, federally threatened species faced an increased number of deaths due to exposure to rodenticide poisoning from illegal farms.
Reed explained that rodenticide is generally a slow killer and makes animals easy prey for predators. This creates a vicious cycle where poison is passed from animal to animal. It is easier for predators to catch a slow and weak animal, and therefore the process of contamination continues through the predator who has consumed the poisoned prey.
Indigenous communities are also heavily impacted by the growth of intrusions. During our interview, Reed shared a story she heard from the Yurok tribe in which they located several abandoned trespassing cultivation sites on their land.
One site had a shocking one hundred five-gallon buckets overflowing with human excrement. Producers often defecate in rivers, streams and tributaries. Because growing marijuana requires a significant amount of water, water levels become extremely low, which amplifies the effect of these contaminants. Tribesmen who consumed the contaminated water were struck down with E. coli, including a Yurok tribesman.
“We ingest water from our rivers. We are salmon people, we depend on fish from these rivers,” Reed said. “In a Western setting, there is a distinction between human beings and nature…colonial resource extraction by settlers not only perpetuates violence against the landscape, but it also perpetuates violence against Indigenous bodies because that we depend on this landscape.”
According to Reed, Yurok tribesmen are afraid to go out on the land to gather food and other cultural resources for fear of accidentally stepping on a cultivation site. Generally, grow operations are dangerous and home to threatening people who will do what they must to protect their crops, including acting violently.
“From an intruder grower’s perspective, your goal is to stay undetected. You don’t want anyone finding out what you’re doing or where you are,” Reed said. “It makes little difference if an FBI agent approaches your crop or if it’s an eighty-year-old woman looking for nutty sticks.”
She explained that indigenous peoples have many reasons for accessing their ancestral territory: to gather, to practice ceremonies, to pray and to manage the landscapes. However, this led to the tribesmen being subjected to violence from the intruding producers.
“There have been stories of tribal members being held at gunpoint because they accidentally stumbled across a crop,” she continued, “people told me they were afraid of going down some roads in broad daylight because of the trespassing culture.”
Today, approximately 60% of marijuana grown in California is grown on public or tribal lands, and the responsibility to clean up the environmental degradation left behind by growers rests with native communities.