Members of all three South Florida native people's groups -- the Seminole Tribe, the Independent Traditional Seminole Nation, and the Miccosukee Tribe -- got an early start on Columbus Day this year, marking the date with education and networking on what they see as a new form of colonization -- genetically engineered trees.
The celebration -- such as it was -- took place last week in Qualla Boundary, N.C., over a period of two days and included members of indigenous groups from all across the U.S. Hosting the event was the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Indigenous Environmental Network, with participation by the Campaign to STOP GE Trees.
The creation of enormous plantations of genetically engineered trees -- by corporate interests allied with Big Energy -- poses ecological risks and endangers human safety and health, according to the activists. It's a development that took off in the year 2000, when a consortium of multinationals joined to create the globe-spanning company ArborGen, to "deliver superior performing trees through innovative science and world class customer service." In 2010, ArborGen fought off the opposition of a coalition of environmental groups and won approval from the USDA to begin a massive GE trees pilot project across the Southeast U.S.
Florida is a major site for the planting of GE trees, with Jupiter-based U.S. Ecogen playing a lead role. The company has begun work on a Polk County power plant for which it plans to grow and burn up to 500,000 tons a year of eucalyptus, with other plants and forests planned in Okeechobee, Clay, and Martin counties. The Polk plant is to supply Progress Energy; the others will supply FPL.
The Campaign to STOP GE Trees lists a number of problems with GE trees:
Ripping down forests to replace them with industrial GE tree plantations worsens climate change, and devastates biodiversity and the human communities that depend on those forests. Trees have a longer life-cycle. They can live for decades to centuries, meaning the threats they pose would be impossible to contain over the long term. Trees produce seeds and pollen that can travel up to hundreds of miles. If those seeds carry genetically-engineered material, they can irreversibly contaminate native forests. People living near the GE plantations face health risks from the altered tree pollen and the toxic agrochemicals used on the plantations (pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers). Genetically engineered tree plantations, especially eucalyptus and pine, would be extremely flammable and could contribute to deadly firestorms. Developing huge plantations of non-native GE eucalyptus trees destroys natural habitat for birds, insects and mammals, including threatened and endangered species. Accelerating the growth rate of trees can take a substantial toil on groundwater and soil nutrients.
The N.C. action camp was designed to address "the unique threats posed by GE trees to Indigenous peoples, their culture, traditions and lifeways," organizers said.
In a news release, Lisa Montelongo of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee said she is concerned that "GE trees will impact our future generations and their traditional uses of trees. Our basket makers, people that use wood for the natural colors of our clay work -- there would be no natural life, no cycle of life in GE tree plantations."
To which Danny Billie, of the Independent Traditional Seminole Nation, added, "This is not how the forest was meant to be used. The forest gives life to the people, but these GE trees mean death. They are not for the people; they are only to make money for a few rich people."
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes-fatal sting -- covers South Florida news and culture. Got feedback or a tip? Contact Fire.Ant@BrowardPalmBeach.com.
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