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Indigenous Groups Protest Border Wall Construction At Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Thursday, September 24, 2020 - 11:57am
Updated: Thursday, September 24, 2020 - 11:58am

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New border fence
Michel Marizco/KJZZ
Border fence going up in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on Feb. 26, 2020.

LAUREN GILGER: Construction pushes forward on President [Donald] Trump's border wall in southern Arizona, despite a cascade of lawsuits over the environmental impacts and considerations, and after a brutal battle in Washington over how to fund it. But a small group of indigenous protesters, some from tribes not even recognized by the federal government, are not giving up. Just on [Sept. 21], they managed to halt construction for nearly an entire day as they formed a human chain in front of a site where new wall panels were being erected. Arizona Public Media's Alisa Reznick was there, and she joins me now to talk more about it. Good morning, Alisa.

ALISA REZNICK: Good morning, Lauren. Thanks for having me.

GILGER: Thank you for coming on. So you've been reporting on these protests throughout the summer. Let's start with, with who these protesters are. What tribes are they from?

REZNICK: So these demonstrations are organized by the O'odham Anti Border Collective and Defend O'odham Jewed. That's a network of Akimel O'odham, Tohono O'odham, and Hia-Ced O'odham organizers. So, you know, as you said, not all of these are federally recognized tribes, but their ancestral homeland stretches across a lot of central and southern Arizona. That includes modern day Phoenix and Tucson, as well as territory across the border in Sonora. So these are tribes that have been on both sides of the border, you know, before there was one, and they see this wall as an affront to to all that land.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. So on the Arizona side of the border, this has all been happening on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Tell us just what the status is like. How much of this wall has been built so far? How much is planned and all?

REZNICK: So in total, the Trump administration has finished more than 330 miles of this 30-foot steel bollard wall. And by the end of the year, the administration aims to finish about 450 miles. So that includes almost 30 miles of border wall within Organ Pipe. And much of that before was, was lined with squat vehicle barriers, you know, that were a barrier but allowed animals to pass through and were certainly much different than than the 30-foot steel wall that, that exists there now. That construction is happening in chunks across the park. So that includes widening roads, digging trenches and pumping water to mix cement.

GILGER: We've heard a lot about the potential environmental impacts of building in these areas as you're getting at there. But this, it sounds like, goes much deeper for many of these protesters. What's their message?

REZNICK: I mean, at the center of these demonstrations, in Organ Pipe is an ancient spring system called Quitobaquito Springs. It's this tiny oasis in the Sonoran Desert that now drains into a manmade pond a few hundred feet from the border inside the park. And construction is really close to that site now. But for these tribes, time is really of the essence as the wall inches closer and closer to the site itself. You know, because on an environmental level, this is a rare freshwater site in the middle of the desert. So it's hugely important for wildlife on both sides of the border, but it's also a sacred site to O'odham. Hia-Ced O'odham communities lived there all the way until the 1950s when it was bought by the Park Service. But Hia-Ced O'odham are not federally recognized. And a lot of that history has been erased. So Quitobaquito isn't protected in the same way that areas on sovereign indigenous nations like Tohono O'odham nation would be. So you know, right now Hia-Ced O'odham organizers have told me Quitobaquito is one of the only places that feels like home. And now they don't have a political voice to defend it.

PROTESTOR: We had a land, we had a history. We have farms. We're able to live right here. Our ancestors are buried in that mountain. We have a children's shrine where you're desecrating.

GILGER: So have all of these protests been peaceful so far? Have there been clashes?

REZNICK: Absolutely. On the side of the demonstrators, these have been peaceful events. You know, they've, they've been peaceful, but they've certainly been direct each time. Whether in Organ Pipe or further north, the goal has been really to disrupt construction in some way. And especially on [Sept. 21], demonstrators entered the construction line and were praying and singing and lighting incense for over five hours onsite in front of the construction zone. They were surrounded also on [Sept. 21] by non-indigenous supporters. So on [Sept. 21] Park Service officials asked the group to move off the road two times that morning, and they continued to be on site without incident until about 1:00 p.m. At that point, about 25 Border Patrol agents arrived on scene on ATVs and pickup trucks. Some of them were armed with paintball guns and a couple with rifles as well. The action sort of ended when officers from Park Service tried to forcefully break up the human chain of demonstrators.

GILGER: What response have you gotten, Alisa, from the National Park Service that oversees this land or whether it be Border Patrol authorities in general?

REZNICK: So the Park Service has been fairly quiet. They did issue a statement following the events on [Sept. 21] that said no arrests were made and that the area was closed due to public safety concerns of having people, you know, near an open construction site and next to heavy machinery. The statement reiterated that they welcomed the visitors' right to demonstrate and to freedom of speech, but in their statement, this was a public safety concern.

GILGER: So is there any stopping the construction for these tribes at this point, or do they have any other recourse than, than to continue protesting?

REZNICK: I mean, definitely so far these protests have been the most successful at stopping construction. You know, Quitobaquito as I mentioned, is not on reservation land and therefore does not have the same protections as the Tohono O'odham Nation sovereign land does. And so Customs and Border Protection has said that they do work with park officials to mitigate risk to the spring. You know, they won't drill within 5 miles of the spring and they have given the figure of 84,000 gallons a day in terms of how much water they'll be pumping out. But that information has been difficult to verify. And in terms of other recourse, so far, these have been really direct confrontations. The Tohono O'odham organizer I spoke to told me indigenous people have tried less confrontational methods to get construction on these sites to stop. And they've been ignored.

GILGER: All right. That is Arizona Public Media's Alisa Reznick joining us today from Tucson. Alisa, thank you so much for your reporting on this.

REZNICK: Thank you so much, Lauren. 

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