By Krisanne Keiser
The environmental impacts of legal and illegal growing operations are not well understood by many of the residents of Humboldt County, however, it is important that we are aware of how extractive industries impact the environment and all its relatives.
“The rush mentality is what founded Humboldt County…people act like that was a long time ago and we have definitely moved on, [that] we’re this very green friendly place, we’re liberals, we’re leftists,” said Department Chair of Native American Studies, Cutcha Risling Baldy (Yurok/Hupa/Karuk). “This is how people think of Humboldt County, but what founded us is this Gold Rush and we have been rushing ever since…so after the Gold Rush ‘well, gold didn’t make us enough money, lets rush any kind of minerals that we can get’ and then after that ‘well that didn’t make us enough, let’s rush timber’…and I think we’ve 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 & Environmental Justice in Humboldt County,” explains that environmental injustice comes into play when settler-colonial infrastructures further dispossess and exploit Indigenous lands for capital gain.
The marijuana industry perpetuates settler-colonial harm by damaging sensitive ecosystems and cultural areas that Indigenous peoples rely on for survival and health. Just like the Gold Rush, marijuana cultivation poses many threats to Native peoples who rely on the land and rivers for their livelihoods.
According to Reed, trespass cultivation, in which growers illegally occupy public or tribal land to cultivate their grow sites, is the most harmful type of growing operation.
“These types of grows are most frequently associated with the most severe environmental impacts,” Reed said.
Trespass growers hike into the mountains and hills to clear-cut a crop site, which has a devastating impact on the sensitive biodiversity of that natural place. These growing sites are chosen for cover and secrecy, so it’s more likely that a grow sites will disturb highly sensitive bio-diverse ecosystems.
In addition to clear-cutting, growers use and bring certain supplies that are horrible for the environment. These include soil that contains noxious chemicals, herbicides, and insecticides that are released into the earth as well as garbage, plastics, batteries, homemade invasive structures, vehicles, petroleum products, etc.
Additionally, chemicals and other contaminants left by growers poison wildlife species like the West Coast Fisher. Reed explained that rodenticide is an over-the-counter rat poison which causes animals to bleed out internally after consumption.
Research wildlife ecologist Mourad Gabriel led a study in 2015 that examined rodenticide poisoning in the West Coast Fisher population. It was concluded that between 2012 and 2015 the federally threatened species faced an increased number of deaths due to exposure to rodenticide poisoning from illegal pot farms.
Reed explained that rodenticide is usually a slow death, and causes animals to be easy prey for predators. This creates a vicious cycle where the poison gets passed from animal to animal. It’s easier for predators to catch an animal that is slow and weak, and so the contamination process continues through the predator who consumed the poisoned prey.
Indigenous communities are also heavily impacted by trespass grows. During our interview, Reed relayed a story that she heard from the Yurok tribe in which they located several abandoned trespass cultivation sites on their land.
One site had a shocking one hundred five-gallon buckets,overflowing with human feces. Growers will often defecate in rivers, streams, and tributaries. Because marijuana cultivation requires a significant amount of water, the water levels become extremely low, magnifying the effect of those contaminates. Tribal members who consumed the contaminated water were struck with E.coli, including a Yurok Tribal Chairman.
“We ingest the water from our rivers. We’re salmon people, we depend on the fish in those rivers,” said Reed. “In a western framework, there’s a distinction between human beings and nature … settler colonial resource extraction perpetuates violence not only against the landscape but it also perpetuates violence against Indigenous bodies because we depend on that landscape.”
Yurok tribal members are afraid to go out on the land to gather food and other cultural resources in fear of accidentally walking into a grow site, according to Reed. Typically, grow operations are dangerous and harbor some threatening people who will do what they must to protect their crops, including acting violently.
“From a trespass cultivator’s perspective, your goal is to remain undetected. You don’t want anyone to find out what you’re doing or where you are,” Reed said. “It makes little difference if there’s an FBI agent approaching your grow or if it’s an eighty-year-old woman looking for hazelnut sticks.”
She expounded that Indigenous peoples have many reasons to access their ancestral territory: to gather, practice ceremonies, pray and manage landscapes. However, doing so has led to tribal members being subjected to violence from trespass growers.
“There have been stories of tribal members being held at gunpoint because they’ve accidentally stumbled upon a grow,” she continued, “I’ve had people tell me they are scared to go down certain roads in broad daylight because of trespass cultivation.”
Today, around 60% of the marijuana grown in California is grown on public or tribal lands, and the responsibility of cleaning up environmental degradation left by growers falls to Indigenous communities.