Also posted on the Poughkeepsie Journal.
The final National Climate Seminar for the spring 2012 semester wrapped up with a poignant conversation with Jihan Gearon, Executive Director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. The conversation, entitled “Carbon Supply Chain: Black Mesa and Beyond,” touched on a diverse array of environmental themes including transitioning from coal to a clean energy economy, environmental justice, and indigenous rights.
Jihan Gearon grew up in Fort Defiance on the eastern part of the Navajo reservation in Arizona. The Black Mesa Water Coalition grew out of a college student youth movement and was formed in 2001 “by a group of young inter-tribal, inter-ethnic people dedicated to addressing issues of water depletion, natural resource exploitation, and health promotion” of the Diné (Navajo) and Hopi indigenous peoples. BMWC works to address important environmental and social issues on the Navajo and Hopi lands such as the Black Mesa Mine and the Peabody Kayenta Mine ,as well as promoting green jobs policies in the Tribal Nation. The group scored an early victory when the Black Mesa Mine was shut down in 2006.
Black Mesa is a region in Navajo territory surrounded by four mountains. The Navajo Nation is the nation’s largest tribe with close to 300,000 members. The dynamic history of the region beginning with the legacy of colonization led to the Navajo economy’s dependence on coal. The mines on the Navajo reservation have provided free land, water and right-of-ways for transmission lines to the mine operators in return for promises of jobs and economic growth that have yet to be realized; average annual income on the reservation is $7,500 per capita.
The Kayenta Mine, 10 miles southwest of Kayenta, Arizona is operated by Peabody Energy. This 40,000 acre mine provides approximately 8 million tons of coal annually to the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) near Page, Arizona, generating electricity for residents in Arizona, California, and Nevada; however, many homes on the reservation are not electrified. Gearon mentioned a striking report that found that the air pollution on the reservation is comparable to that of a major city; however, there are no major cities near the reservation.To raise awareness regarding the contamination and record of violations, a group called the Black Cross Movement has been placing black crosses around the Peabody Kayenta Mine.
BMWC exemplifies the trend of local environmentalism, where communities rally around issues they see in their own backyards and issues that affect their livelihoods and well-being. Gearon described how in Navajo culture the Black Mesa and earth are viewed as a spiritual mother and how coal and uranium extraction violates their role as stewards of the land. The group scored a major victory in 2010 when the permit for Peabody’s coal mine was revoked due to failure on the part of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to provide a supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the permit.
The Navajo are now looking forward to a new green economy and moving away from coal generation to focus on the transition to a more sustainable way of life as stewards of their native land. The potential for wind and solar power generation on the 17 million-acres of Navajo and Hopi lands could prove to be the answer. Initiatives to build organizational ties and promote youth leadership and development through internships and experiences in the nation’s capital all work towards effectively addressing the challenges of moving away from a dependence on coal. Public Radio International’s PRI’s living on earth show focused on the work by BMWC in 2009 when the Navajo Council approved green economy legislation by a vote of 62-1. The BMWC is currently working to support the growth of Navajo green jobs ranging from solar initiatives to a wool market pilot project.
Keep an eye out for the Fall 2012 schedule for the National Climate Seminar. In the meantime, listen to previous NCS podcasts from this year and hear the conversation with Jihan Gearon. Suggestions for a future climate seminar? Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org