On the Bayou: Front Lines of Climate Change
The ground is eroding under the feet of southern Louisiana’s indigenous people. These rural residents are dealing with the local consequences of a global problem. They may be the first to be displaced, but they won’t be the last.
A tribe of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw from the Isle de Jean Charles, in the bayous of coastal Louisiana, is soon to become one of the first communities in the lower 48 states to relocate because of coastal erosion. They will certainly not be the last.
Southern Louisiana loses a football field’s amount of land every hour to the seas, and that’s before expected sea level rise from climate change. In the coming years, coastal erosion, driven by a multitude of factors, will force the relocation of thousands of people, many of them part of indigenous communities. Southern Louisiana, faced with increasingly powerful storms, disappearing swamps, sinking land, and now, rising seas, has become the American test case for dealing with climate change. And if Katrina was the precedent for an urban climate crisis, Louisiana’s bayous have become the pilot site for dealing with climate change in rural American. This means working on mitigation, resiliency, and relocation.
“You see all that water out there?” Chris Brunet, a native of the Isle de Jean Charles asked, pointing out his window, past the small levee several dozen feet from his house, to a large bay. “That used to all be land…. They used to have cattle out there.”
A group of people, many of whom speak a mixture of French and Choctaw as their first language, are facing a hard question: Where do they go, as a community? With most of the tribe rapidly scattering across southern Louisiana, the Isle has remained a cultural center. Now, the chief is looking at a piece of land 15 miles inland. In the film we see expansive meadows, woodlands – plenty of land compared with the narrow strip of road and houses that now make up the island. “It could be Isle de Jean Charles New Reservation,” says Chief Naquin. But without federal recognition as a tribe, it has been, and will be, a struggle.
Losing a Way of Life
If the people of Jean Charles are the front line, many more are already experiencing just some of the effects of land loss.
“We’re not just losing our land,” said Greg Sanamo, a member of another tribe, the Houma Tribe, from Bayou Lafourche, southwest of New Orleans. We met in the large greenhouses where he grows tomatoes to sell at the farmers market. “We’re losing our way of life.”
The Houma are a much larger south-Louisiana tribe with state recognition, but they are still battling for federal recognition. Sanamo’s grandfather lived off the land and the sea. His father captained a ship taking supplies to the oil rigs. Now, later in life, he’s become a farmer. “You just can’t live here like you used to,” Sanamo said. “I want my son to have a place to fish, to hunt. So that’s why I bought a place in north Louisiana…. For me it’s easier. I can afford to go. But what about a working man, who just wants to take his family out to do something on the weekend? Now, he can’t.” What Sanamo means is that even guys like him can’t get access to their old hunting grounds anymore.
The swamps and inlets surrounding Lafourche Parish – the narrow strip of land jutting south into the Gulf of Mexico where Sanamo farms – were once covered in oak groves, fed by freshwater streams and lakes. Saltwater intrusion has killed the oaks, as have successive hurricanes and the erosion itself. As the land slips into the sea, so do the hunting and fishing spots of Sanamo’s childhood.
Matherne with the restoration office at Terrebonne Parish is hopeful that there can be cooperation among the state, environmental groups, oil companies, and the federal government. Several major oil companies have already admitted some degree of culpability for land lost in the bayous, simply from digging canals. The Army Corps of Engineers continues massive investments in infrastructure, such as levees, while the state matches these in research and agencies like Matherne’s. But, as it stands, everyone agrees that more must be done just to save the land deemed savable.
Matherne is right. Looking to the future, Louisiana’s bayou communities are on the national, if not international stage. As climate change quickens, with already measureable sea-level rise and increased storms, displaced coastal communities across the country will look to coastal Louisiana for answers.
Meanwhile, for the vulnerable communities on the front lines of climate change, the problem looms large. On Isle de Jean Charles, residents are struggling to find assistance. So far they have been excluded from plans for remedies. “I haven’t won many battles,” Chief Naquin contends, with a bit of a smile. “But I’ve brought several to the field.”
Some individuals from Isle de Jean Charles received state buyouts and federal insurance incentives to leave the island. The chief worries what will happen as the gradual dispersal continues. Perhaps the most important battle the chief is waging is over the ability of a community to determine its collective future — to preserve its identity in the face of crisis and relocation.
CORRECTION: The original story has been corrected to include the proper name of the tribe, who are Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw; the number of oil companies sued by the Orleans Levee Board; and the origins of the tribe's language. The Daily Yonder regrets the errors.