Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

April 20, 2015

Ecological Destruction Doesn’t Equal Diné Sovereignty

Ecological Destruction Doesn’t Equal Diné Sovereignty


By Klee Benally
French translation by Christine Prat

In 2009 Joe Shirley Jr., then president of the Navajo Nation issued a press release stating, “Unlike ever before, environmental activists and organizations are among the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty, tribal self-determination, and our quest for independence.” In order to protect coal mining and energy interests on the Navajo Nation, he stated that environmental activists were “unwelcome” on the reservation.
Shirley’s position seemed contrary to his previous work to protect Dooko’osliid, one of four sacred mountains for Diné, and ban uranium mining, all of which was accomplished because of and alongside environmentalists. But the issue was really over the Navajo Nation’s historical dependence on coal.
At the time, the Mojave Generating Station, a power plant in Nevada that was burning coal and pumping water from strip mines on Black Mesa, had been shut down for a few years and the fight over Desert Rock Energy, a massive coal fired power plant proposed in the Four Corners area, was raging on. Desert Rock was subsequently shut down thanks to community resistance brought on by Doodá Desert Rock. Shirley’s proclamation was a clear demonstration and commitment that the Navajo Nation political body is accountable to coal mining and energy interests rather than the Diné.
Navajo Nation Council Speaker Lorenzo Bates recently affirmed that commitment and upped the rhetorical and political ante with his written testimony presented before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs that the “war on coal is a war on the Navajo economy and our ability to act as a sovereign Nation.”
Bates stated that the coal industry is responsible for “60% of [Navajo Nation’s] General Revenues.” and that “These revenues represent our ability to act as a sovereign nation and meet our own needs.”
Days before his statement, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC) lost a district court battle with environmental groups over attempted expansion of the Navajo Mine, which was recently purchased from BHP and feeds coal to the notoriously toxic Four Corners Power Plant. In 2012 the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) approved expansion of the mine but environmental groups including Diné Care filed suit, forcing a new environmental review that properly evaluates mercury risks to public health and the environment. The Navajo Nation is appealing the decision.
US methane emissions were documented from 2003-2009. The red spot above the Four Corners indicates the highest concentration. Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan
US methane emissions were documented from 2003-2009. The red spot above the Four Corners indicates the highest concentration. Image Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan
While Navajo Nation politicians lobby and litigate for the coal industry, a 2,500-square-mile cloud of methane hovering over the Navajo Nation in the Four Corners area, is being investigated by NASA researchers who have stated, “the source is likely from established gas, coal, and coalbed methane mining and processing.” Methane is the second most prevalent greenhouse gas emitted in the United States and can be up to 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
There are currently more than 20,000 natural gas wells and thousands more proposed in and near the Navajo Nation in the San Juan Basin, a geological structure spanning approximately 7,500 square miles in the Four Corners. The US EPA identifies the San Juan Basin as “the most productive coalbed methane basin in North America.” In 2007 alone, corporations extracted 1.32 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the area, making it the largest source in the United States. Halliburton, who“pioneered” hydraulic fracturing in 1947, has initiated “refracturing” of wells in the area. Fracking wastes and pollutes an extreme amount of water. A single coalbed methane well can use up to 350,000 gallons, while a single horizontal shale well can use up to 10 million gallons of water.
The San Juan Basin is also viewed as “the most prolific producer of uranium in the United States.”
Uranium is a radioactive heavy metal used as fuel in nuclear reactors and weapons production. It is estimated that 25% of all the recoverable uranium remaining in the country is on the Navajo Nation. Although uranium mining is banned on the reservation, Navajo politicians have recently sought to allow new mining in areas already contaminated by the industry’s toxic legacy. In 2013 Navajo Nation Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie proposed a resolution to undermine the ban, his efforts were shut down by Diné No Nukes, a grassroots organization “dedicated to create a Navajo Nation that is free from the dangers of radioactive contamination and nuclear proliferation.” There are more than 2,000 estimated toxic abandoned uranium mines on and around the Navajo Nation. 22 wells that provide water for more than 50,000 Diné have been closed by the Environmental Protection Agency due to high levels of radioactive contamination. The recent push for nuclear power as “clean energy” has made the region more vulnerable to new uranium mining, including an in situ leach mine (which uses a process similar to fracking) right next to Mt. Taylor, another mountain of the four Diné holy mountains.
Politicians on the Navajo Nation want us to believe that dependence on extremely polluting power plants and strip mines that have caused forced relocation of more than 20,000 Diné from Black Mesa and severe environmental degradation, is “sovereignty”. The Navajo Nation affirms its role as a domestic dependent nation that serves U.S. and corporate interests at the costs of our health and destruction of Mother Earth. This isn’t sovereignty, it’s a resource colony with a political entity established to sustain resource exploitation. According to Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Company’s (NNOGC) website, “In 1923, a Navajo tribal government was established primarily for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to approve lease agreements with American oil companies, who [sic] were eager to begin oil operations on Navajo lands.” You can’t get any more explicit than that.
In representing the Navajo Nation, Bates added a halfhearted greenwashing attempt in his testimony by stating that NTEC “ … is mandated to transition our Nation into our energy future by investing no less than 10% of its profits into alternative and renewable energy development.” Even if green economics (or more clearly green capitalism) was a viable step out of this unsustainable madness, why is the Navajo Nation’s role still assumed to be one that exploits the environment to feed corporate profits and maintain unsustainable ways of life?
A green economy does not end colonial relations with resource extractive industries, it advances them. The ongoing battle to protect the sacred grounds of Oak Flat from Resolution Copper is a nearby example. The sacred site, located in Arizona on “public” lands stolen from San Carlos Apache Nation, has been privatized by Arizona politicians for copper mining even though the area had been federally protected from resource extraction since 1955. The front page of Resolution Copper’s website states, “Copper from the proposed mine will help wire a rapidly growing world and drive the new green economy, powering everything from wind turbines to electric cars.” Apache folks joined with other Indigenous Peoples are still occupying Oak Flat.
The commodification of nature will continue to position us in an unending war against Mother Earth. Sacred places, such as the San Francisco Peaks, Mt. Taylor, Grand Canyon Confluence, Mt. Graham, Oak Flat, Mt. Tenabo, Yucca Mountain, Medicine Lake, Mauna Kea, Hickory Grounds, Black Mesa,  South Mountain, Red Butte, Bear Butte, Black Hills, and many more are the front lines in the struggle for Indigenous Peoples cultural survival and vitality and are heavily targeted by these exploitative industries.
The wholesale destruction of Mother Earth and her beings for energy consumption and profit is anti-Indigenous and, therefore, anti-Indigenous sovereignty.
Bates sounds more like a coal industry lobbyist than a proponent of sovereignty when stating that our “future is dependent” on coal. In the face of global climate catastrophe, if we keep mining and burning coal, if we choose to live lives wedded to the destruction of the air we breathe, water we drink, and land we grow food from–we will have no future.
Here is a link to a my commentary and Shirley’s press statement from 2009:
Klee Benally, Indigenous Action Media

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