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‘One Oppressive Economy Begets Another’

Sharon Lavigne was teaching a special-education class when her daughter called to tell her about the Sunshine Project. Named for its proximity to Louisiana’s Sunshine Bridge, the operation, helmed by the Taiwanese behemoth Formosa Plastics, was on track to build one of the world’s largest plastic plants. Already the air Lavigne breathed in her native St. James Parish was some of the most toxic in the United States. Now Formosa planned to spend $9.4 billion on facilities that would make polymer and ethylene glycol, polyethylene, and polypropylene—ingredients found in antifreeze, drainage pipes, and a variety of single-use plastics—just two miles down the road from her family home. The concentration of carcinogens in the atmosphere could triple.

“It hurt me like an arrow through my body,” Lavigne told me when I visited her at her home in Welcome, Louisiana, last December. “Everyone else was saying we had to move.” Within a few months of learning about the Sunshine Project in spring 2018, Lavigne, who’s 69, organized a community meeting in her den. “Ain’t gonna happen,” Lavigne said. “We not gonna be moved out and bought out and throwed out the window.” The group went on to found Rise St. James, a faith-based nonprofit with the mission of halting industrial development in the parish. “I was not a person who would speak up,” Lavigne said. “Boy, did that change.” That fall, Lavigne was spending so much time organizing marches and speaking publicly about Formosa that, after 39 years of teaching, she retired. Then two of Rise’s members died—one of cancer, the other of respiratory distress and other medical problems, conditions Lavigne links to pollution from existing plants. Stopping Formosa became her full-time job.

In Louisiana—where more than a 12th of the country’s estimated 4 million enslaved people lived prior to the Civil War—descendants have the right to visit their ancestors’ graveyards. So when Lavigne learned in late 2019 that enslaved people from the Buena Vista Plantation, whom she believes she’s descended from, may have been buried on Formosa’s proposed building site, she tried to visit. Upon arriving, she said authorities told her she was trespassing and that if she returned, she’d be arrested.

Back in July 2018, Coastal Environments, or CEI, an independent archaeological and environmental contractor, had alerted the Louisiana Division of Archaeology about two possible cemeteries on Formosa’s land, based on historic maps of the Buena Vista and Acadia Plantations. Formosa’s archaeological consultants had missed those sites in their initial survey, but after being instructed by the state to look again, they found and fenced off the Buena Vista cemetery. According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, a legal-advocacy nonprofit, Formosa made no public announcement of this discovery. Lavigne found out about its existence more than a year later via a public-records request submitted by Rise’s lawyers. The Acadia cemetery, Formosa reported, had still not been located and may have been destroyed by a previous owner, but both CEI and the Center for Constitutional Rights dispute that claim, arguing that Formosa’s surveyors searched in the wrong area. In March 2020, CEI identified five additional anomalies on Formosa’s territory that could also be slave cemeteries and have not yet been excavated. (“Archaeologists conducted thousands of shovel tests … no remains have been found other than at the Buena Vista site,” Janile Parks, Formosa’s director of community and government relations, wrote me via email. “When [Formosa] learned of remains at the Buena Vista site ... the company immediately coordinated with the appropriate authorities. [Formosa’s] archaeological investigations of the site have been transparent and are matters of public record.”)

Rise formally requested access to the Buena Vista cemetery last year for Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the day that enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, found out they were free—more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Formosa denied the Juneteenth request, and Lavigne took them to court. In a statement to the Associated Press, the company’s lawyers questioned the need for the ceremony on the basis that archaeologists couldn’t confirm the ethnicity of the human remains. District Judge Emile St. Pierre sided with Rise, giving the group temporary access to the property. “We need healing,” St. Pierre said at the end of the hearing. “Let’s look at where we are in America.”

The conflict between Rise St. James and Formosa comes at a time when many Americans are insisting the country acknowledge and address the horrors of slavery and its repercussions. Around the country, cities have debated whether to take down Confederate monuments, inciting protests. Down the river from St. James Parish, in New Orleans, several monuments have already been removed, and the city council is preparing to rename schools and streets that honor Confederate officials and segregationists. Yet what’s happening with the Buena Vista grave site is unique. Unlike monuments, which are symbolic, the cemetery contains human remains, which have endowed the land with enough cultural capital to sway a judge, at least temporarily, in favor of the community that claims it. Like a time capsule, the graves link the petrochemical industry to the plantation economy, revealing how Louisiana’s petroleum industry profits from exploiting historic inequalities and showing how one brutal system gave way to another.

Read entire article at The Atlantic