by Vickie Machado
Saturday, Jan. 2 proved to be a clear Everglades morning as a handful of participants gathered by the Trail Indian Baptist Church at the east entrance to Loop Road off Tamiami Trail.
By 8am, the few people soon grew into a crowd of several dozens — all with masks, keeping their distance — but with the specific purpose of praying for the land and defending the sacred. Organized by Betty Osceola, a grandmother in the Panther Clan, the event was a prayer walk that would span two days and 36 miles.
While walkers were intent about praying for the Everglades, many had a particular issue on their mind. Weeks earlier, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it would transfer regulating and permitting power to Florida’s Department of Environment Protection through the State’s assumption of the federal Clean Water Act section 404 permitting authority. In other words, dredging and filling permits — the same that paved over much of the wetlands throughout the state, replacing the sawgrass with concrete —would be in the State’s control. As many environmentalists note, this is the same State that failed to fully address issues concerning red tide and cyanobacteria among other concerns like Everglades water flow and springs restoration.
One Florida journalist called this an early Christmas present for developers, who would benefit tremendously from DEP’s lax oversight. (See Journalist Craig Pittman’s Florida Phoenix commentary “EPA boss plays Santa for Florida developers” (December 24, 2020). https://www.floridaphoenix.com/2020/12/24/epa-boss-plays-santa-for-fl-developers/)
The issues surrounding this transfer of power did not stop at permitting. According to organizers of the walk, Florida’s 404 Assumption redefines the definition of Indian Territory/Country at the objection of the Indian Tribes in Florida. Such actions prove incredibly harmful to both the land and those deeply connected to it. A transfer of power like this undermines tribal sovereignty while diminishing the size of tribal lands. Taking away the land takes away the history, culture, and ultimately, the people who find their identity intricately woven into the Everglades.
With the weight of these power transfers heavy on their hearts, Osceola gathered the walkers in a circle — roughly 60 people in all — to collectively pray for the journey ahead.
Following the lead flags positioned at the front of the line, five dozen walkers lined up two by two with specific instructions: to be open to the world around them. Some carried signs or donned bandanas that read “defend the sacred” or “protect the land, proteger la tierra,” while those camping opted for backpacks full of camping supplies.
Walkers proceeded in silent prayer heading west on Tamiami Trail, all for the sake of the Everglades and to collectively oppose Florida’s 404 Assumption.
Like other prayer walks, it was important to keep the line tight, evenly spaced, and orderly in an effort to promote the flow of good energy and maintain the strength of the flag bearers.
Along the way, Osceola educated the group about specific areas — most notably a “temporary road” to Raccoon Point Oil Well that has been around for over 50 years. Such accounts make many think twice about when the State starts or approves a project in the glades. Eventually by mile ten, shoes came off and a handful of the walkers took to walking barefoot, grounding themselves in the earth while being attentive to the sights and sounds around them.
While the total number of walkers fluctuated, the entire event attracted close to 100 people over the course of the weekend. With such support, this walk was more than a protest. It was an invitation to join a conversation — a form of solidarity with those who live on the land and a way to recognize the physical as well as the spiritual importance of the river of grass.
Ultimately, the walk was a reminder that as residents of Florida, we are connected to the glades, and most of all, we are connected to each other.
For those of you willing to take action, please consider vocalizing your opposition to Assumption 404 by emailing the EPA at 404Assumption-FL@epa.gov, Florida Commissioner Fried at Nikki.Fried@FDACS.gov, or contacting your senators and congresswomen/men.