A Canary in the Coal Mine – Isle de Jean Charles


When we discuss coastal land loss, we tend to speak solely in terms of the quantity of land lost. An area the size of New Orleans is lost every seven years (an acre of land every hour) – a vast amount of land is being lost, but still, the land is not the most precious commodity in jeopardy. The true treasures at risk are the flourishing cultures built along our receding coastline.  These cultures can neither be quantified nor priced, but are nonetheless a type of intangible natural resource.  Isle de Jean Charles is a small, serpentine ridge of land located on the southernmost margin of Terrebonne Parish. Since the mid-19th century, this island has been the homeland and burial ground of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Indians.

Through the generations, the inhabitants of this island have remained culturally distinct from the mainland peoples and have kept their way of life relatively uncorrupted by the fast pace of modernity. Despite this, the decisions of the mainland began to affect their simple way of life: levees, canals, and roads began to modify the once flourishing ecosystem and exacerbate rates of saltwater intrusion and subsidence. This not only hindered the tribe’s ability to live off of the land but contributed to the land itself beginning to disappear from under their feet.

Sixty years ago, the island was over 22,000 acres with “marshland as far as the eye could see.” Since then, the island has lost 98% of its habitable land, leaving many of the homes abandoned and much of the biodiversity lost. This situation forced the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to get involved, designating $48.3 million dollars to a resettlement project. The plan has not yet been fully articulated, but the hope is to relocate the whole community to a single location in northern Terrebonne Parish.  Despite the efforts of the government agency, many residents have no desire to move – their ties to the land outweigh the danger of staying.

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They understand that culture is not independent of the land, and any relocation will come with the loss of traditions and customs, even if the tribe remains unified.  This loss will be detrimental, as Isle de Jean Charles represents one of the last bastions of pure bayou culture; the inhabitants show a level of oneness with the environment that can only be achieved through generations of interdependence on the ecosystem. The knowledge accumulated from this intergenerational mutualism is known as traditional ecological knowledge, or TEK, and is the backbone of bayou culture. As TEK is diluted or destroyed, the culture itself begins to bend to the pressures of modern homogenization. Likewise, without the ecosystem in which their tribe’s traditional knowledge is founded, the culture of the people will begin to fade.

Photo Credit: Karen Apricot, Flickr

I remember fishing on the island as a child and seeing signs that read, “We are not leaving! This is our home!” These people truly love their land and way of life, and no amount of money, no resettlement plan, and no amount of public sympathy can equate. Because of even further land loss encroaching upon their homes, many of the once skeptical islanders have warmed up to the resettlement plan, and those who have not will eventually have no choice. It is too late to save the island, but we must not ignore the canary in the coal mine—we must see our mistakes and learn from them.

This island is an omen of things to come, an example of what can happen if we do not make a change. We have greatly accelerated the problem of coastal land loss, especially near our great city of New Orleans, with an abundance of canals, dams, and levees that change our area’s natural hydrology. This has already greatly changed the cultural dynamic of New Orleans in ways not usually attributed to coastal land loss.

According to some estimates, 80km of protective marshland would have nearly halved Katrina’s record-breaking storm surge. It is unarguable that no single event impacted the culture of New Orleans greater than Katrina’s devastation, and with the increasing prevalence of severe hurricanes due to climate change.  The importance of protective marshlands cannot be overstated. Much more subtle, a slow loss of land and marsh is beginning to cause a loss of traditional ecological knowledge in our surrounding bayou regions.  This, in turn, is causing the dilution of bayou culture.

New Orleans is a city set apart by its great cultural diversity. As the primary colors blend to form a number of unique shades, the distinct cultural identities found in Louisiana have synthesized to color New Orleans vibrantly with hues more beautiful than the sum of their parts. If we allow one of the great cultural influences of New Orleans, our bayou culture, to be diminished, we risk a color shift of the entire portrait. Even though damage has already accumulated, it is not too late for us to rally behind this cause and prevent further loss of land and culture.

Government run organizations like the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority have been tasked with coordinating projects to prevent coastal land loss and begin the restoration of our coastal ecosystems. Even though government intervention is an obvious necessity, it does not take the place of local, grassroots efforts. Be a guardian of the coast and her communities, do your part to keep Louisiana beautiful, and never forget to appreciate the melting pot of culture we call home.

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