Native Resistance to Multinational Mining Corporations in Wisconsin : http://www.wrpc.net/cs0301.html
Shorter versions of this piece ran in
Isthmus (Madison) and Shepherd Ex-
press (Milwaukee) in November 2000.
Exactly 100 years ago this month, "Fightin' Bob" LaFollette was elected governor, partly due to the strength of a populist farmers' movement, which helped him take on corporate monopolies such as the railroads.
Today, most Wisconsin urban residents assume that the only important political news comes out of the State Capitol, and sometimes out of a campus, but that Wisconsin's rural areas are a cultural and political wasteland where nothing ever happens.
Wrong. Hit the restart button.
Wisconsin is in the midst of the one of the biggest upsurges in rural activism that has been seen for decades. Our countryside has sprouted at least four major rural alliances against corporate proposals that threaten the environmental and economic well being of rural communities.
These new populist alliances are taking on four different kinds of companies:
* Mining companies. In northeastern Wisconsin, local residents have been fighting to stop the Crandon metallic sulfide mine for 25 years. The mine is proposed by a Canadian company, next to wild rice beds of Mole Lake Ojibwe Reservation, and upstream from the pristine Wolf River and the Menominee Nation. It threatens water with sulfuric acid, toxic chemicals, and underground water "drawdown." Despite the passage of a moratorium law three years ago, the mine is not dead yet. Many environmental groups around the state are fighting the proposal, and are backing a bill that would prohibit the 20 tons a month of cyanide planned for use at the mine. One alliance on the frontlines of the controversy, the Wolf Watershed Educational Project (WWEP), has united tribes with sportfishing groups, grassroots environmentalists with unionists, and local rural residents with urban students (see http://www.treatyland.com).
* Utility companies. In northwestern Wisconsin, the private utility Wisconsin Public Service Corporation proposes a 13-story-tall, 345-kilovolt transmission line from Duluth to Wausau, in order to ship electricity to Chicago and (through a feeder line) to the Crandon mine. The new group Save Our Unique Lands (SOUL) has organized to oppose the use of eminent domain to condemn private farmland, and has researched health effects on cattle and humans. The alliance has brought together farmers and other local residents, tribes, and environmentalists (see http://www.wakeupwisconsin.com). Residents of the southern Wisconsin towns of Cambridge and Edgerton have also worked to stop power plant proposals, forming the similar grassroots groups POWER and RURAL.
* Water companies. In central Wisconsin, the DNR recently permitted Nestle-owned Perrier to sink high-capacity wells at Big Springs in Adams County, that would pump springwater 24 hours a day, with no legal protection against springs and rural wells going dry. The Waterkeepers of Wisconsin (WOW) has united farmers, other rural residents, and environmentalists in four counties, and gained support from other parts of the state that may eventually see their springwater going to the one-million-square-foot plastic bottle plant (see http://www.friendsofthemecan.com).
* Agribusiness companies. Around Wisconsin, family farmers continue to oppose farm foreclosures, which are again climbing dramatically, and the battle is far from over. They recently resurrected the "milk strike" of the 1930s. They have joined other local residents in stopping enormous factory farms for hogs or dairy cattle, such as the proposed corporate farm halted in the Town of Porter. Wisconsin dairy farmers helped make BGH a global concern, and are now turning to oppose the use of genetic engineering to manufacture "supercows" that could only be afforded by corporate farms. The Madison area is fast becoming an world epicenter of biotechnology experimentation, with little public discussion on how new technologies will further disadvantage family dairy operations (see http://www.familyfarm.org).
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed Garvey has been an attorney and activist on behalf of all four of these rural movements. At an April 29 anti-corporate rally at the Capitol, he observed that "We've got these companies on the run, and they can't figure out what's gone wrong....As people look to government and it does not respond, they have to take matters into their own hands....We're not going to turn our Dairyland over to the multinational corporations. This is a state where people come first." But other than Garvey, few progressive leaders have attended rural hearings and rallies, which consistently draw hundreds of people. The real action is not in the State Capitol, but is only "trickling up" to state politicians.
Governments. The new rural populist movement is taking on state agencies that are trying to frustrate its aims, notably the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Public Service Commission (PSC). The DNR has opened an enormous loophole in the mining moratorium law, and recently gave Perrier the go-ahead to start sucking out Big Springs. The PSC--which is not to be confused with the corporation with the nearly identical name...or is it?--has been greasing the skids for the transmission line. The rural groups correctly view the DNR and PSC as beholden to Governor Thompson, and have called for the independent appointment of the agency directors.
The rural groups are also reclaiming their local democratic institutions in their townships and counties. Town boards that made deals with the Crandon mine companies have been voted out of office, most famously in the 1997 revolt in the Town of Nashville, covering half the Crandon mine site. With a 99 percent turnout, Nashville voters defeated a pro-mine town board, and elected an anti-mine board led by Chairman Chuck Sleeter, whom they have since re-elected twice with larger margins. A similar revolt shook the Town of New Haven in September, when voters recalled a pro-Perrier town chairman, and replaced him with anti-Perrier leader Chuck Hill, in an election covered by major TV networks and Time magazine. If any other town chairs dare to sign secret deals with multinational corporations, their voters may also "Chuck 'em out."
Perhaps the only governments that are truly trusted by rural populist groups are the tribal governments. Even sportfishing groups, who not that long ago were arguing with the Ojibwe (Chippewa) and Menominee about off-reservation fishing rights, have joined with the tribes to protect the same fish from the threat of mining. The Mole Lake Ojibwe have used the federal Clean Water Act to strengthen their reservation environmental laws, but for doing so have been slapped with a lawsuit by
Attorney General James Doyle. Native Peoples have also joined forces with SOUL farmers, not only because the transmission line may affect Ojibwe reservations, but because some of the electricity would be generated by dams that have flooded Manitoba Cree lands. Finally, the Ho-Chunk Nation has come out in opposition to Perrier�s plans, which is close to tribal cultural sites. In all these cases, local non-Indians have found tribal officials more responsive to their concerns and protective of the environment than state officials.
Not In Anyone's Back Yard. The grassroots rural organizers are not only learning about indigenous peoples, but about union health and safety issues, company track records Latin America, and the WTO. The Spirit of Seattle is coming to the conservative-looking, salt-of-the-earth residents of the Heartland. You can drive across Wisconsin, and in one day see signs reading "Stop Crandon Mine," "No Way Perrier," "No Line," and "Milk Strike." If there was ever a revolution in Lake Wobegon, this is what it would look like.
Corporations are used to dealing with a certain type of environmental movement. The stereotype of an environmental group is one made up largely of white, urban, upper middle class 20-somethings--who protest harmful projects that are backed by rural communities for the jobs. The companies have been able to portray such groups as hippies and yuppies who do not care about rural people, and urban-based environmentalists would often reinforce the stereotype by not being inclusive or supportive of people besides themselves. Companies have pigeonholed rural environmentalists as "Not In My Backyard" (NIMBY) proponents who only seek to protect their scenic views.
What the companies have faced in environmentally minded rural Wisconsin is something new-- an environmental movement that is multiracial, rural-based, middle-class and working-class, and made up of many elders and youth. The movement does just address endangered species, but endangered cultures and endangered local economies. By proposing alternative sustainable development--such as appropriate energies and metallic recycling--the groups can oppose new mines and lines with a message of "Not In Anyone's Backyard" (NIABY). The companies have slowly found out that they cannot successfully use the same divide-and-conquer tactics that have worked so well elsewhere in the country.
Mining is one example where industry strategies are clearly failing. One international mining journal in 1997 discussed Wisconsin as one of the industry's main global battlegrounds, where "the increasingly sophisticated political maneuvering by environmental special interest groups have made permitting a mine...an impossibility." Another journal this year portrayed the Wolf Watershed Educational Project as an "example of what is becoming a very real threat to the global mining industry." Yet another journal pointed out that Wisconsin "barbarians in cyberspace" were spreading anti-corporate tactics around the world through the Internet. The national media attention on the groups against Perrier and transmission lines has also exposed the corporate fears that Rural America is in revolt.
A united movement? The different rural populist groups in Wisconsin are already joining forces with each other. Last April, a Capitol rally against the mine, line, and Perrier drew 750 students and others from around the state. On November 28, SOUL and WWEP plan a joint noon rally at the Rhinelander Holiday Inn to greet the first PSC hearing on the transmission line. If they join together, the rural groups could form a strong populist environmental movement for democratic local control and sustainability.
If the rural groups, however, also unite with urban-based anti-corporate forces--who oppose sweatshops, W-2, job discrimination, union busting, and the privatization of health care and prisons-- they can form an even more powerful statewide anti-corporate movement. Such a united grassroots anti-corporate coalition could not only help to prevent future Tommy Thompsons, but to assert greater citizens' control over our environment and economy, and to usher in a new Progressive Era.
Native Americans and Whites Join Forces in Wisconsin
ColorLines, April 6, 2001
By Zolt�n Grossman and Debra McNutt
Midwest Treaty Network Content Page