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Planting Seeds of Resistance to Pipeline

Activists who helped bring an end to the Keystone XL pipeline from crossing Nebraska have come to Virginia to help local landowners do the same with Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline. The alliance is staging six protests across Virginia and West Virginia, planting sacred corn along the route of the proposed pipeline. WMRA's Jessie Knadler attended one event in Stuarts Draft to learn more about these “seeds of resistance.”

Right next to an outdoor farmer’s market owned by Virginia Davis and Kenneth Harris in Stuarts Draft is a large fallow field where the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is supposed to go. Several people in sun hats and carrying garden hoes, including Susie Baker, have gathered to protest.

SUSIE BAKER:  You see where those rocks are? That’s where it’s coming through, and that’s an elementary school over there in the brick building.

She shows a photograph from a friend whose farm was torn up to make way for a similar pipeline running through Georgia. In the photo, workmen stand in a ditch eight to 12 feet deep, roughly six feet wide.

BAKER:  They just destroyed her farm. Ours is going to be 42 inches. Can you imagine the machinery?

Nancy Sorrells is co-chairman of the Augusta County Alliance. She was on the Augusta County Board of Supervisors for eight years and is opposed to the pipeline that will cut a 55-mile swath carrying natural gas through Augusta County. 

NANCY SORRELLS: It’s irrefutable this gas is not needed. It’s a redundancy that Dominion is building in to get money for their shareholders. It’s not even needed. For us, it’s all pain, no gain.

By state law, if Dominion cannot obtain the land with the consent of the owner, the company is entitled to build infrastructure on it through eminent domain. To stop them, protestors have come out to plant sacred corn seeds along the path of the pipeline. They’re calling them “seeds of resistance.”

Now, seeds might not seem like a very effective rallying cry. But this strategy helped raise awareness in Nebraska, where, in 2013, an unlikely alliance of ranchers, cowboys and native people – they call themselves the Cowboy and Indian Alliance -- helped prevent Keystone XL from crossing that state.

They did it by planting a particular varietal of rare heirloom corn considered sacred to the Ponca Indian tribe.  They planted the seeds right along the path of the pipeline.

MEKASI HORINEK CAMP: In our origin story of the Ponca people the creator gave us this sacred corn.

This is Mekasi Horinek Camp, Ponca Nation member talking about what inspired him to use the sacred seeds as a form of resistance.

HORINEK CAMP: It goes back to the very beginning of time for my people. We decided to use this corn and ask it to protect the land for us.

JANE KLEEB: There should be no reason why in America a private corporation can take somebody’s land for their private gain.

Jane Kleeb is an Alliance member and head of the advocacy group Bold Nebraska that helped stop Keystone.  She, Mekasi and other alliance members are on a tour through Virginia and West Virginia showing protestors how they did it. Though she did point out that climate change science is what ultimately led to Keystone’s demise.

KLEEB: But it was also because President Obama used a climate test for the first time.  He said if this piece of fossil fuel infrastructure is going to increase climate change, I’m going to reject it. Well, if a climate test is good for Nebraska, a climate test should be good for Virginia as well.

Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby points out that the Atlantic Coast Pipeline is necessary to meet growing demand for cleaner energy.

AARON RUBY: We are transitioning away from coal toward cleaner burning natural gas… And the reason electric utilities are doing that is because natural gas generates half the amount of carbon as coal.  As they retire an older generation of coal power plants they are replacing those with an entirely new fleet of cleaner burning natural gas plants. And there simply isn’t enough infrastructure in the region to deliver the amount of natural gas the electric utilities need in order to power that new generation of cleaner burning power plants.

He also says landowners don’t relinquish their land.

RUBY:  The vast majority of landowners whose property will be impacted by the pipeline, we’re going to negotiate a mutual easement agreement with them that allows us to use a small portion of their property to build the pipeline and compensate them fairly. They don’t relinquish ownership. You know, we’re going to need 125 feet to build the pipeline but once the pipeline is constructed, we only need 75 feet wide of a permanent right of way.

[sounds of ceremonial seed planting]

When it was time to plant the ceremonial seeds, Mekasi walked out into the field to pray to the four directions and call the spirit of the ancestors.

[blows whistles]

Men, women and children were given seeds and asked to make a human chain in the field.

HORINEK CAMP: Alright, if everybody has their seed, make a hole in the ground, then cover it up

As the seeds are covered up by dirt, a plane flies overhead, pulling a banner that reads “Plant Seeds, Not Pipelines.”

[sounds of clapping]

The last of six scheduled Seeds of Resistance events conclude in West Virginia today.

Jessie Knadler is the editor and co-founder of Shen Valley Magazine, a quarterly print publication that highlights the entrepreneurial energy of the Shenandoah Valley. She has been reporting off and on for WMRA, and occasionally for National Public Radio, since 2015. Her articles and reporting have appeared everywhere from The Wall Street Journal to Real Simple to The Daily Beast. She is the author of two books, including Rurally Screwed (Berkley), inspired by her popular personal blog of the same name, which she wrote for six years. In her spare time, she teaches Pilates reformer, and is the owner of the equipment-based Pilates studio Speakeasy Pilates in Lexington. She is mom to two incredible daughters, June and Katie. IG: @shenvalleymag