The Black Mesa Mine has been inactive since 2005, though Peabody Energy is seeking to reopen it. Photo by Doc Searls
As a small girl, Enei Begaye knew to be quiet when visiting friendsвЂ™ houses. Nearly everyone in the 4,900-person town of Kayenta, Arizona, part of the Navajo Nation, worked in the areaвЂ™s coal mines, Black Mesa and Kayenta, which operated twenty-four hours a day. Begaye and her friends would play quietly so they wouldnвЂ™t disturb sleeping elders back from the night shift.
Most of the KayentaвЂ™s population lived in trailers set up by Peabody Energy, the company that owned the mines. Coal companies are major employers throughout the Navajo Nation. In fact, more than half the NationвЂ™s General Fund comes from revenue from coal mining. Nor is resource extraction limited to coalвЂ”oil and gas are also collected, together comprising over a quarter of the General Fund budget.
As an adult, Begaye questioned the coal mining that sustained her family and hometown. Apart from providing low wages and hazardous working conditions, coal mining has polluted the township and surrounding environment. The impact of strip mining has been documented since the late 1970s as eliminating existing vegetation, displacing or destroying wildlife and habitats, degrading air quality, altering current land use, and permanently changing the general landscape of the area mined.
Peabody used billions of gallons of water from local springs and aquifers to move slurryвЂ”a mix of coal and waterвЂ”through a 273-mile pipeline from the mines to the power plant where it would be burned. By 2000, water reserves in the Black Mesa were in serious decline. The company proposed using water from the aquifer that provided drinking water to Flagstaff and the northwestern areas of the reservation.
Navajo and Hopi communities rose up in protest. Begaye testified in front of the California Public Utilities Commission during a meeting to decide the fate of the Mohave Generating Station, which is powered by the coal from the Black Mesa mine. вЂњI testified that I didnвЂ™t want the mine open,вЂќ said Begaye. вЂњWeвЂ™ve seen the leak in the pipeline, seen the devastation to the land, and the social injusticeвЂ”the springs dry up because the coal mines are using the drinking water.вЂќ She joined the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a grassroots group working to protect Black MesaвЂ™s water supply.
In 2005, the Navajo and Hopi tribal councils passed resolutions to end PeabodyвЂ™s access to the aquifer. Without water, and facing a Clean Air Act lawsuit, the Black Mesa mine and the Mohave Generating Station ceased operations. Peabody is now seeking to reopen the Black Mesa mine under a different permit in order to supply coal to a different generating station.
But the curb on coal mining on Navajo lands was a bittersweet victory for many on the reservation, where nearly 50 percent of residents were unemployed in 2004 and many residents depended on the low wage jobs the mines provide. Begaye found it hard for many years to return home to Kayenta to face her friendsвЂ™ parents who lost their jobs. Now, she and other organizers with the BMWC see their strategy for indigenous justice as two-pronged: rid the land of dirty coal mining and advocate for the just transition of Navajo and Hopi peoples to a sustainable and locally run economy that provides high quality green jobs and career pathways for indigenous youth and adults.
вЂњWe realized that we canвЂ™t always be part of always saying no," said Begaye. "We have to be part of a solution, to build jobs. If weвЂ™re going to transition out of the fossil fuels economy, we have to find a way to transition our employment choices. Not only for the miners, but for the future generations of Navajos.вЂќ
The Navajo economy and tribal economic development needed to be fundamentally redefined, in a scalable manner that would provide jobs for thousands of Navajo youth. вЂњThe Navajo Nation wasnвЂ™t ready to shut down the mines,вЂќ said Wahleah Johns, former BMWC codirector. вЂњThey didnвЂ™t have a plan in place to take care of the mine workers who would be out of jobs. They didnвЂ™t have a plan for a transition. So, we felt it was necessary to talk about a just transition plan, to help to really take care of our people. These same workers are in our families, and we didnвЂ™t want to leave them high and dry."
To make that vision a reality, BMWC joined with alliesвЂ”including TГі NizhГіnГ ГЃnГ, the Apollo Alliance, and the Sierra ClubвЂ”to create the Just Transition Coalition, a group whose goal is to wean the tribesвЂ™ economy, energy, and employment off fossil fuels. Their campaigns against coal, they realized, were only band-aids: They had to create a viable alternative to replace it.
Black Mesa Water Coalition and their allies spearheaded a green jobs campaign beginning in April 2008 to diversify the Navajo economy and create opportunities for employment in renewable energy for youth. In July 2009, the Navajo tribal government passed a green jobs act, establishing a Navajo Green Economy Commission and Fund, which can apply for federal and local funds to create green jobs as well as sponsor small-scale, green developments that will help to create jobs for Navajo youth and provide needed services to the community.
The grassroots organizers see the Navajo Green Jobs legislation as a revolutionary shift for their nation, which will fundamentally change their economy while democratizing tribal government. The youth and community groups will continue working until their broad vision becomes a reality.
Yvonne Liu wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Yvonne is a senior research associate at Applied Research Center and author of the just released вЂњTranslating Green Into Navajo: Alternatives to Coal Mining and The Campaign for a Navajo Green Economy,вЂќ part of ARCвЂ™s Green Equity Toolkit.
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