The Navajo Nation, the United States’ largest Indigenous tribe, spans 26,000 square miles of land in the Southwest. This expansive, sun-baked desert offers a dependable, constantly renewable supply of solar and wind energy that has remained largely untapped – until now. Thanks to the leadership of a diverse array of activists at the helm of the Navajo Green Economy Coalition (NGEC), the Navajo Nation is moving toward a sustainably powered, bright future.
The story begins with Black Mesa Water Coalition’s (BMWC) founding in 2001 by a group of young Navajo activists in response to the egregious misappropriation by Peabody Coal Company of the Navajo Nation’s water resources. Over the course of four decades, Peabody’s operations drained billions of gallons of clean, drinkable groundwater from the Navajo aquifer beneath the mine in order to move (or “slurry”) coal to affiliated power plants. One of the mines at the Black Mesa complex, as well as the Mojave Generating Station – the primary recipient of slurried coal – was shut down in 2005 due to the sustained efforts of grassroots leaders such as Enei Begaye and Wahleah Johns. But the continued operation of other mines at the complex persists in threatening water quality and the health of humans and the local ecosystem.
After the 2005 closure, and the related slump in the Navajo Nation’s economy, BMWC leadership sought to address the lack of opportunities for the Navajo Nation’s young people, as well as the chronic threats to public health and ecological integrity due to the nation’s heavy reliance on extractive industries. In analyzing the political and economic inequities at the heart of the dirty energy boom on Navajo land – particularly the close relationships between fossil fuel corporations, tribal governments, and US government agencies interested in promoting mineral development at all costs – BMCW concluded that developing ecologically sustainable economies was a must.
In 2008, BMWC’s leadership and its allies joined forces to form the Navajo Green Economy Coalition. The NGEC works toward the restructuring of the nation’s economy, prioritizing green economic development and moving away from coal as the primary economic engine, while simultaneously reinforcing democracy from the ground up. As Begaye explained to the Applied Research Center: “You can’t just translate green into Navajo. It’s a color, but once you relate it to the Navajo identity and our relationship with Mother Earth, it makes sense because it’s life – it’s a normal and healthy relationship with our land, our creator.”
The coalition immediately began working toward its vision by introducing legislation at the Tribal Council to establish a Green Economic Commission and Green Economic Fund. After more than a year of organizing and building an unprecedented movement of Navajo youth for sustainable economic development, the NGEC made history with the July 2009 passage – by a vote of 62 to 1 – of the green economy bill. In February 2010, the Council seated the Green Economic Commission, and work has begun in earnest.
Along with two recent decisions by the federal government to suspend or revoke previously issued permits for the Black Mesa Mine Complex, the Navajo green economy campaigners’ success signals a sea change in both the Navajo Nation’s and the federal government’s views on the viability of coal as an energy source or economic engine over the long term. The Navajo green economy campaign catalyzed a shift in the cultural and political climate among Navajo, especially youth, toward collective support for green economic development as fundamentally in alignment with traditional Navajo ways of life.
Women’s Earth Alliance’s Sacred Earth Advocacy Network develops collaborations with Indigenous women working for environmental and social justice and is a partner with the Navajo Green Economy Coalition. To learn more, visit: www.womensearthalliance.org.
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