Dispatches from Thacker Pass – More Mining Leads to More Sexual Abuse and Missing Women

Members of Fort McDermitt Tribe Protesting, image, Max Wilbert

A few weeks ago, I met with a native family from the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone tribe.

They were standing with me outside a public meeting in Orovada, Nevada, protesting a proposed open-pit lithium mine which Lithium Americas Corporation (and its local subsidiary, Lithium Nevada Corporation) plans to carve into Thacker Pass, Nevada.

Besides depleting the aquifer and poisoning water, bulldozing cultural sites and hunting and gathering areas, air pollution issues, and the many other problems that would be caused by this mine, one of their major concerns is the impact a project like this has on women and girls in the surrounding communities.

Around the world, there is a direct link between major infrastructure projects like open-pit mines and a rise in sexual abuse, sex trafficking, drug trafficking, and Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). 

Violence against women and girls disproportionately affects native people — rates are around double the average. But while this violence may disproportionately fall on native women and girls, of course, it doesn’t just affect them. Members of the ranching and agricultural communities around Thacker Pass who I’ve spoken with are worried about the same issues. Someone is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds in the United States.

Research backs up these fears. Australian feminist Dr. Sheila Jeffries writes in her book The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade that “as foreign mining and logging companies open up new areas for new forms of colonial exploitation, they set up prostitution industries to service the workers. These industries have a profound effect on local cultures and relations between men and women.” There are definitive links between prostitution and human trafficking, and even those who “willingly” participate in prostitution overwhelmingly would leave if they could.

One example is playing out in Northern Minnesota, where the construction of the Line 3 pipeline has led directly to increased violence and harassment. Michael West, 53, of Rolla, Missouri, and Matthew Ty Hall, 33, of Mount Pleasant, Texas, both contractors for Enbridge pipeline company, were among 7 men arrested in a human trafficking sting in mid-February. A non-profit providing emergency services to victims of domestic and sexual violence says it has seen an increase in demand for help since construction began on the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline. And a document submitted to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) from the Violence Intervention Project (VIP) says local women and girls are getting verbally harassed by Line 3 workers.

In acknowledgment of these risks, state permits for the construction of the Line 3 pipeline required Enbridge to establish a “Public Safety Escrow Account” of $250,000 to be used in drug and human trafficking response efforts, and for prevention training (which, to state the obvious, did not work). It makes my stomach churn; they act as if money can compensate for the loss of a loved one or the trauma of sexual assault.

The core insight of ecofeminism is the same mindset that underlies the destruction of the planet and violence against women: the mindset of domination, of “I will take what I want,” and thus the struggle against violence against women and against the planet has many un-ignorable parallels. 

Vandana Shiva, one of the pioneers of ecofeminism, also reminds us in her book Soil Not Oil why greenwashing projects like lithium mines must be stopped: “Clean cannot be measured only in terms of CO2 emissions. It has to include all ecological risks from cradle to grave.” And remember: this is just the beginning of the new wave of industrial projects for the new green economy. We need to move away from fossil fuels, and fast. But more destruction is not the answer.

Industrial projects like mining are killers. They kill wildlife, they destroy habitat, they poison water and air, they lead directly to cancer and lung disease. Residents of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone reservation know this well. Their area was for decades home to the largest mercury mines in the United States. The last mine shut down in 1990, leaving behind mine waste with mercury contaminations up to nearly 2 million times the legal limit in soils and more than 10,000 times the legal limit in waterways, and five times the legal limit in fish. Elders from the reservation tell me that nearly everyone who worked in the mines is long dead.

So what can be done? Ultimately, the people who want to protect the water, protect the land, and protect the women far outnumber the few people hypnotized by money who think blowing up mountains and poisoning water is “sustainable.” So that’s what we need to do. If the community comes together and stands against the destruction of the planet, this mine can be stopped. This is a collective effort. Stand up, make your voice heard, be fierce, and never back down.

If you are interested in joining us, visit our website to learn more about getting involved. And speak out on this issue. We can’t save the planet by destroying it. Transitioning away from fossil fuels and fixing humanity’s broken relationship with the planet will require a more critical approach.


Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, has recently been released.


The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence, and invite dissent.