Direct actionists fighting for social and environmental justice favor tactics of occupations and blockades. Usually these actions are primarily symbolic; their employment within a strategy of attrition minimizes their material impact. Tree-sitters occasionally win the preservation of a remnant grove in an otherwise clear-cut moonscape. Pipeline blockaders occasionally delay a project for a season or two until the police clear them out and construction is completed. Occupy Wall Street lit enthusiasm and drew global attention, but the balance of power between the 1% and the 99% has worsened.
The Unist’ot’en Camp is different. A handful of members of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en, in what Canada now calls British Columbia, has blocked construction of seven tar sands and shale gas pipelines since 2011. They didn’t even leave home to do so, merely occupying their land year-round and full-time directly on the GPS coordinates of the proposed pipelines. They began by moving into a seasonal hunting cabin on the clan’s trapline. In the years since, they’ve added more rooms to the cabin and built a pithouse, a bunkhouse and a healing centre. They’re augmenting their traditional subsistence activities with a garden and root cellar.
The tactic has been unusually successful for several strategic reasons:
The mountainous terrain is a natural bottleneck limiting possible pipeline paths. The pipelines can’t easily be rerouted from the site of the Camp, let alone altogether out of Unist’ot’en territory.
Only a single road enters the territory, making border security enforcement relatively easy. The Unist’ot’en use this bottleneck to stop and screen prospective visitors at a one-lane bridge, rejecting entry requests from unwelcome government and corporate personnel. A surreptitious entry by air is no easier; on the few occasions on which company work crews have flown in by helicopter, they’ve been spotted and evicted.
The Unist’ot’en never ceded their land to Canada. With legal claim to their territory, they can deny access to pipeline workers without militarily superior forces imposing the interests of the corporations.
Historically, legalities have rarely stopped Canadian and other colonial governments from doing and taking what they want, but as the Unist’ot’en built up their physical infrastructure, they also built solidarity networks with other indigenous and with members of Canadian settler culture. With widespread grassroots support for the Unist’ot’en, the government didn’t interfere with the occupation until January 2019.
It’s impossible to put an exact number on how many people and resources have been required for the blockade’s success. Over the years, hundreds of visitors and volunteers have participated in work and action camps, with supporters donating perhaps half a million dollars in cash and supplies. Most of the activity and money has gone towards educating settlers, assisting healing, and networking settler citizens and activists with indigenous resisters. This work is tangential to the blockade, but without the resultant broad support for the occupation, the government might have brutally suppressed it.
A relatively small portion of time and money built the core infrastructure for and directly maintains the blockade. Perhaps half a dozen indigenous residents anchor the ongoing tasks of guarding the bridge checkpoint, patrolling for aerial intrusion, providing for the camp via subsistence activities, and meeting and presenting in opposition to the pipelines, doing some of it directly plus organizing up to a dozen full-time equivalent volunteers.
This tiny group has blocked multiple pipelines for 7 years and counting, a prime example of minimum intervention for maximum impact.
It’s misleading to categorize the camp as “civil disobedience,” since its success depends on its legal claim to territory. No other environmental civil disobedience campaign has come close to comparable success, because police forces sooner or later overpower them. We should take inspiration from the Unist’ot’en, but temper it with realism as to where similar tactics might be successfully replicated.