As the curator of The Million Person Project, an international project about love, globalizing relationships and supporting change makers, Heather Box is on a journey to Vietnam, South Africa and Uganda working alongside and chronicling her experiences with those fostering awareness on international climate change. This is just one of her powerful stories as a special contributor to STARK, about what compassion, global community, hope and connection can do for the human spirit across the globe.

Words & Photos: Heather Box

I felt light headed listening to her. Pushing the tears off her face, she stopped herself and said, “Not that I want to be touted as the girl that cries all the time, I just can’t help it. These are the things that are on my mind when I am speaking here at the United Nations, at the press conferences and in the briefings.”

I couldn’t help but cry either.

We sat in the hot sun of Durban, South Africa at a table on the patio of the conference center, where inside the United Nations Climate Negotiations were taking place. I felt the sun beating down on the back of my neck as Kandi Mossett, a 32-year old Native-American woman from North Dakota, shared in gripping detail how life changed on her reservation since the oil industry moved in and began a destructive oil extraction process called hydraulic fracturing.

“I know everybody says that where they are from is God’s country,” explained Mossett, “but really, where I come from is God’s country.” She smiled and described what it was like to look out over the mountains, near her family home. “As kids we would climb hills, ride horses and dodge rattle snakes. We swam every day, every single day. As a kid, I just imagined that was how the world was.”

Mossett’s world has dramatically changed since those early years. “We call it the highway of death now. Since late 2006, when they first started hydraulic fracturing, and hauling the mass amounts of water necessary for the process, seven young people have died on that stretch of highway in accidents with these semi-trucks.” Sitting straight up in her chair, Mossett started to list the names on her fingers.

“People say we need to support this fracturing for economic development. But how can we value economic development over the lives of our young people?” Mossett asked. She shook her head, took off her sunglasses and put her hands over her eyes.

Mossett is the Native Energy & Climate Campaign Organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, which is a network of indigenous peoples empowering indigenous nations and communities towards sustainable livelihoods, while demanding environmental justice and maintaining traditions. She is in Durban, South Africa to participate in the United Nations Climate Negotiations. She is here to do what she considers holding the line in the negotiations.

“I do not know what the result of me coming here and participating in these negotiations will be, but I know for sure what happens if we don’t come and try to hold the line for the decision-makers to listen to the people and not the big companies that have a vested interest in sticking with the pollution based, fossil fuel economy,” Mossett said.

One of the decisions on the table, at the negotiations is whether global leaders will sign a binding treaty to reduce carbon emissions and pollution while here in Durban, or if they will wait until 2015 or beyond. “2015 is not good enough. This is urgent. We need a global shift away from the fossil fuel industries now, we are destroying our planet. All of us youth better hold a strong line because it’s our future at stake,” Mossett stressed.

“Are we going to sit around when we are older and say ‘I told you so’ when we see our land destroyed by the fossil fuel industry? Or are we going to look back, as elders, from our gardens and see a peaceful world, powered by renewable energy and fed by local food systems and just think, ‘God, I am glad we held the line,’” Mossett asked.

I first ran into Mossett in Durban as she was just wrapping up a press conference that was being held about the unethical practices of Shell Oil across the world. She ended the press conference with a chant, tears streaming down her face. She shouted, “It’s for my friend Cassie, who was killed in 2009 when a semi-truck transporting water for fracturing clipped her dad’s truck with the back of his semi. She can’t be here to tell her story, to fight for what is right, so I have to be.”

Journalists swarmed Mossett after the press conference. I stood back and listened. With microphones and recording devices waving in front of her, she seemed like she was about to apologize for raising her voice and then she stopped herself. “No, you know, it just feels good to be out here and yell about it sometimes.” The journalist interviewing her nodded in agreement, and quietly, in her South African accent she said to Mossett, “I am really sorry about your friend.”

Mossett nodded and thanked her.

Our coffee cups had been empty for hours and I was sure my neck would be the brightest color of red. We packed up our bags. Mossett added, “See, I told you all this sad stuff, but really, we are about showing people that there is hope. On my reservation, we are facilitating intergenerational connections through sustainability projects. We do small-scale solar panel projects, wind turbine installations and a lot of community garden projects. That is usually where the youth and elders come together, in the gardens.”

She told me about the tree planting they did in a small town called White Shield, which is on her reservation. “I won’t ever forget the 9-year old in the Fort Berthold Boys & Girls Club, who came up to me after one of the tree plantings and told me that as he grew up, he was always going to go back to the tree he had just planted, to maybe show his kids one day; that he had helped to save Mother Earth when he was little.” She explained how inspired and so proud of him she was. But as we walked away from the table, she paused a moment and explained, “He won’t be going back though. He developed brain cancer, the fifth one in the small community of 300, in just over 2 years, and as a result, he passed away last summer after fighting a tough battle.”

Throughout the reservation, the oil companies have just been flaring off the natural gas and collecting oil from the fracturing process. This process releases a lot of toxins into the air. “A lot of people have been getting really sick since the flaring started. There are just so many chemicals used in the process and those toxic chemicals are now in the environment, in the land, air and soil. You can’t just expect to continue to pollute and to continue to constantly take from the earth, causing an imbalance and expect there to be no consequences.”

I clumsily tried to express how sorry I was and how inspired I was by her perseverance. I honestly think her story can inspire the world to join her in holding the line.

I remember the first time I met Mossett years ago, when she told me about how when she was 20 she was diagnosed with a stage four Sarcoma tumor. I remember her words, “I could have died and I don’t know why I didn’t.” She continued, “I feel I have to really do something with my time on earth because I’m still here and so many people from my community aren’t.“

As I put these words to paper in the midst of the bustling negotiations hall, people in their suits running from here to there, it’s hard for me not to want to get on a blow horn and shout: “THIS IS REAL LIFE PEOPLE! The lives and health of people like Mossett are on the line here. You all know the right thing to do is to protect our planet and our people, and that is to sign a binding treaty, no matter which company or corporation you have to stand up to.”

I’ll hold the line with Mossett all the ways I know how, until we are grandmas in our own gardens. I want my kids to know the beauty of the North Dakotan land and to play under trees, dodge rattle snakes and swim in fresh water.

Heather Box is a journalist and founder of The Million Person Project, an international project that supports global change makers on environmental policy issues, like climate change. Support her project, HERE

Images courtesy of Heather Box.

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