James Estrin interviewing photographer Ian Willms for the New York Times’ Lens Blog, discussing Willms’ photo story on the effects of Alberta’s oil sands on indigenous communities:
Q. What’s the effect on the people?
A. It has brought more money into the communities than there was before. With that said, it’s really a small fraction of what they’re actually entitled to. These First Nations get really bad deals from the oil companies in order to leave their lands for oil.
A career in the oil sands may sound good to some people, but really it is the death of their culture because it’s taking the new generation to work toward a completely different way of life. And it’s a way of life that embraces the destruction of their land.
There’s a lot of grief, especially among the elders in the community, over the younger generation not taking an interest in hunting and fishing and trapping. And there’s a lot of conflict among the generation in between the youth and the elders — the generation that are in their late 20s to their 50s; the people who work in the oil sands but grew up hunting, fishing and trapping.
They are very conflicted, because they know what they’re doing. They know that they’re taking away their own land. But they do it because there’s no other option for them to make money. There’s no other way for them to feed their families. These communities are no longer able to be self sufficient off the land like they had been for thousands of years.
We rely heavily on energy for much of the comforts we enjoy today, so I think it is fair to assume that most of us are willing to accept some trade-offs (environmental and otherwise) in return. But are we willing to go about our lives knowing that the fuel in our cars has cost entire communities their culture and well-being? It’s an uncomfortable reality, one that is easier to ignore than to think about.
Articles like this, with photos that put a human face on the otherwise abstract consequences of oil sands developments, force us to stop and think about this reality and in so doing force us to confront our guilt.
The full edit of the photo story is available on the photographer’s website.