Oil Spill Threatens the Way of Life for Louisiana's 'Islenos' Community

How the BP Oil Spill Disaster threatens Louisiana's people and their traditions

06-23-2010 // Aislinn Maestas

What does it mean to be Louisianan? Ask this question to 100 people in the state and you may get 100 different answers.

As the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico approaches its 10th week, National Wildlife Federation staff is out visiting with the people who make up the fabric of Louisiana's diverse culture.

In addition to being the eyes on the ground reporting oil spill impacts on wildlife, NWF is equally committed to reporting back how the disaster threatens people and their ways of life.

Los Islenos (The Islanders) of St. Bernard Parish

In the late 18th century, Spaniards from the Canary Islands left their mountainous home, set sail across the Atlantic Ocean and settled into the swamplands of South Louisiana.

Today, the direct descendants of these settlers, known as Islenos (Islanders), have weathered many hardships and overcome many obstacles to keep their customs and values alive.

Dorothy Benge of the Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society

Adapting to the coastal landscape over the years, the Islenos have created a hybrid culture unlike any other. Part Spanish, part Louisianan, the Islenos represent a society deeply rooted in their history and inextricably tied to the land which they inhabit.

Witness to Wetland Loss

In the centuries that have passed since they first arrived in Louisiana, the Islenos have watched the wetlands surrounding their community disappear at an alarming rate. With the construction of a major shipping channel through the heart of the Parish, and with each oil and gas pipe that has been laid, acres of delicate marshlands along the coast have been sacrificed. To date, more than 200,000 acres of wetlands have been lost, weakening the region's natural storm buffers and putting the people of St. Bernard at increasing risk.

Weathering Hurricane Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the Islenos community was hit hard. In addition to the personal losses they suffered, the Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society museum in St. Bernard Parish had to be torn down and many of their artifacts were destroyed. Working hard to rebuild what they had lost, the Islenos came back from one tragedy only to face another.

Facing Down the Oil Spill

As the oil spill wreaks havoc on Louisiana’s beaches and coastal wetlands, it also threatens the local communities and economies that are dependent upon them.

"There has always been a connection between the land, the water and the Islenos people," said Dorothy Benge, president of the Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society. "Yet it's not just us who are going to be affected when the wetlands go."

The newly rebuilt Islenos museum, a replica of the one they lost in hurricane Katrina, is about 30 minutes outside of New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish. Inside the museum, members of the Islenos community are proud to share their stories with those willing to listen.

Maura Wood of NWF and Dorothy Benge of the Los Islenos Heritage and Cultural Society

However, as Benge points out, much of what they've had to say in the past on the topic of coastal restoration has fallen on deaf ears.

"I'd like the American public to wake up and hear our pleas for restoration," said Benge. "We’ve been screaming for years about the need [for restoration]. Maybe now they will hear us."

Maura Wood, National Wildlife Federation's Coastal Louisiana state manager (pictured with Doris Serigné to the right), says the coastal restoration of Louisiana must be part of the response to the oil spill disaster.

"When a culture depends on the rich, natural resources of the landscape around them, a disaster like the oil spill threatens to unravel the whole fabric of their lives," she says. "It's important that the productivity and the vibrancy of the ecosystem be restored for people and wildlife alike."

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