WEA Advocates Strategize for Solar Energy on Navajo Mine Land

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This week, WEA is hosting a two-day strategy meeting in collaboration with our Sacred Earth Advocacy Initiative project partners from the Navajo Green Economy Coalition, and advocates from Dominican University’s Green MBA and the Environmental Finance Center. Our aim is to support the Navajo team in developing the business plan for a visionary initiative: a solar energy project on reclaimed mine land at Black Mesa.This team, composed of members of Black Mesa Water Coalition and their allies, have worked for years to protect the Navajo Nation’s water and mineral resources from exploitation by Peabody Coal Company. Peabody’s operation on the sacred Black Mesa mountain, viewed as a feminine mountain in the Navajo tradition, mined tons of coal each year for 40 years and drained billions of gallons of clean, drinkable groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer beneath the mine in order to “slurry” (move) coal to affiliated power plants. Peabody’s operation contaminated the land, brought illness to the surrounding communities, and prolonged the region’s dependence on coal.

A 10-foot solar panel and a wind turbine is seen, at left, at Denton Blueeyes' secluded one-bedroom home about 5 miles south of Shiprock, N.M., Jan. 4, 2008. The panel and the turbine produce about two kilowatts per day. (AP photo/The Daily Times, Lucas Ian Coshenet)
A 10-foot solar panel and a wind turbine is seen, at left, at Denton Blueeyes’ secluded one-bedroom home about 5 miles south of Shiprock, N.M., Jan. 4, 2008. The panel and the turbine produce about two kilowatts per day. (AP photo/The Daily Times, Lucas Ian Coshenet)

Black Mesa Water Coalition in Flagstaff, AZ and their colleagues take a multi-faceted approach to protecting the land. While building coalitions and engaging decision-makers at every level in order to oppose the mine, these leaders also envision and implement solutions to the long-term problems of poverty and lack of economic development resources on the Navajo Nation. They are building a new consensus among Navajo leadership that green energy makes good economic sense, evidenced by the summer 2009 historic establishment of a Green Economic Fund and Commission by the Navajo Nation Council.

Now this team is working to bring an unprecedented 20-200 MW solar project to the reclaimed mine land – bringing clean energy and economic benefits to the communities surrounding the mine, restoring the reclaimed mine land and ensuring its productivity in a non-harmful way, and modeling grassroots-driven renewable energy development for communities across the United States. WEA’s Sacred Earth Advocacy Initiative works to link the Black Mesa team with experts in business and organizational development, federal law, and policy advocacy, to support this groundbreaking work in coming to fruition.

In addition to saying “no” to harmful development projects that negatively impact their lands and communities, indigenous environmental justice leaders are saying “yes” to alternative systems of energy production and economic development. Women lead the way in the grassroots-based emergence of local and regional solutions to the problems that are typically the sole province of state and federal officials, such as green energy and economic development. WEA is honored to support this work through our strategic partnerships within our Sacred Earth Advocacy Initiative, so that the vision of a just transition from coal to renewables can be fully realized.

WEA advocates take a stand for water and sacred sites

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This evening, the Flagstaff City Council’s Water Commission will hold a public hearing to decide whether to sell municipal drinking water to Arizona Snowbowl, the ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks, instead of or as well as reclaimed wastewater. WEA Delegates from our May 2010 Advocacy Delegation, Defending Sacred Places in the Southwest, are taking collaborative action towards protecting the Peaks.

WEA supports our initiative partner, the Save the Peaks Coalition, in their legal and public awareness campaigns to protect this holy mountain from interference and contamination in the name of economic development. Earlier this week, WEA’s Sacred Earth Advocacy Network advisor Carolyn Raffensperger, with WEA Advocacy Director Caitlin Sislin, sent a letter to Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture, urging USDA to rescind their snowmaking permit to Arizona Snowbowl.

The Peaks, which rise to 12,000 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, at the Western edge of Navajo lands, are sacred to thirteen tribes – including the Navajo, for whom the Peaks represent a central locus of spiritual power. Presently, for tribes throughout the Colorado Plateau, the Peaks are threatened by proposed snowmaking that would increase the mountain’s ski resort’s annual skiable days. For these tribes, whose spirituality and culture are inextricable parts of a whole, the San Francisco Peaks are regarded as a holy place tantamount to the most revered sanctuaries of Western monotheistic traditions.



Either the use of wastewater – which is known to contain endocrine-disrupting contaminants and other pathogens – or the use of precious drinking water in this arid Western region, would represent an unacceptable degree of physical and spiritual risk to the mountain itself and to the health and well-being of future generations. Tribe members, community activists and other concerned citizens will present their views to the Flagstaff City Council at 6 p.m. this evening — stay tuned for information on the outcome of the meeting, and our work in support of the Save the Peaks campaign.
Please see WEA Advocacy Director Caitlin Sislin’s recent article in High Country News for more information on the legal campaign to protect the holy San Francisco Peaks.

What is Sacred?

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The following article has been written by Carolyn Raffensperger, Executive Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network.

What is sacred? What does the law recognize as sacred? These were the questions that haunted me yesterday, the third full day of the delegation’s trip to Nevada and Arizona to join with indigenous people to protect sacred sites from defilement and desecration.

Our first stop was at a uranium mine owned by Dennison Mines Corp.

The mine is one of the stand-by projects of Dennison. The corporation is awaiting the price of uranium to go up and the boom of nuclear power to resume. Dennison, according to its website, “enjoys a global portfolio of world-class exploration projects…” The problem is that the neighbors of the mine, in this case Navajo and Havasupai do not enjoy the exploration or the mining. The legacy of uranium mining in the Southwest is grievous. Cancer, contaminated land, and water are the consequences of six decades of a nuclear weapons program and nuclear power. Indigenous people bear the brunt of the environmental problems associated with uranium mining.

This is personal for me. One of my dearest friends, an indigenous woman, grew up playing in the mine tailings near Tuba City AZ. Monday she had surgery for her third cancer. She is in her 30s. The mining official we met with yesterday argued that the uranium miners’ high cancer rate was caused by their smoking rather than the radioactivity associated with the radon in the mines or the uranium itself.

The old argument that most cancers are a result of lifestyle “choices” is increasingly discredited by science. Just today the President’s Cancer Panel, a distinguished group of scientists issued a new report on environmental causes of cancer. Radon is fingered as one of the culprit carcinogens.

Northern Arizona is full of places sacred to the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai and other tribes that have called this place home for millennia. But it is also pock marked by uranium mines and old mine tailings. Over 10,000 new uranium mine claims were staked between 2005 and 2009.

U.S. law, particularly the antiquated General Mining Act of 1872 treats all mines and potential mines as part of the wild frontier, the cowboy west. There are few barriers to mines except some procedural hoops that might delay a mine from opening for a few months or years.

The tribes consider this land to be sacred. There are springs and mountains, canyons and buttes that hold the religion, the stories and the histories of these people. It is the relationship of a community of humans to a place that makes that place sacred. Yet U.S. law only recognizes religion, which amounts to beliefs held by individuals. Indigenous spirituality is made up of the web of exquisitely-tended relationships that manifest and express beliefs.

We are only beginning to shape laws to reflect the sacred. The U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People includes this statement:

“Article 25: Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”

While not law in the United States, the Declaration sets the standard for how the law should treat the sacred places and relationships of indigenous people. The Declaration was not signed by the United States because it clashes with the U.S. private property regime. Private property trumps the sacred. Uranium mining trumps the rights of indigenous people to care for their springs and their holy sites.

The question of what is sacred sometimes only surfaces when we see what has been defiled–the rage we feel when we think a cancer might have been prevented, or an ocean might not have been polluted. How could we contaminate the very land from which we live? How can we contaminate the bodies of our children? How can we defile the places where we bury the dead? How can we destroy the places of great beauty and much history? All of these are sacred. We know this in our hearts.

The Price of Gold

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The following article has been written by Sarah Diefendorf, Executive Director of the Environmental Finance Center at Dominican University and member of the Women’s Earth Alliance delegation to threatened Native American sacred spaces in Nevada and Arizona.


So what is gold worth to you? Have you ever stopped to think about where that shining emblem of rank began its life? Have you ever wondered about the journey of your jewelry, where it began, what deadly chemicals it grasped in order to be leached from the earth, and who it harmed along the way? Somewhere out in the Nevada high desert in the United States of America, a leach heap of rock and gravel is being sprayed with water and cyanide so that microscopic bits of gold will adhere to this favored poison and bleed into a pond where it will be collected and sent to a roaster to be processed for the market. Somewhere, maybe right now, because mines are 24/7, a siren is sounding long, loud and hard to signal a blasting zone, deep within a sacred mountain that has been raked and ripped apart by our thirst for status.


So does this matter to you? This dry place tucked in amongst the sage, where almost no one lives and no one from the federal to the state to the local government seems to mind that mostly foreign companies are staking out virtually free claims for massive profit – should you care?

This is why you should. The American west is your heritage; it is saturated with our expansive history and is the very symbol of who we are to ourselves and the world. Nevada was the crossroads of this history of ranchers, cowboys, miners and Indians, and to this day it still is. Nevada remains the Wild West, and true that image, it is pressing its Indian population on to ever smaller lands, confiscating their horses and cattle, and desecrating their sacred sites, all in the name of gold. As a result, the Western Shoshone are still fighting the battles that most Americans associate with a distant past, highlighted on black and white film.


Thanks to an outdated mining law established in 1872, major international corporations can stake their claim, pay virtually nothing and take the land – Shoshone land – with almost no oversight and with the full sanction of the US government. So yesterday, May 3, 2010, we bore witness to one site at the base of Mt. Tenabo, praised as sacred by the Shoshone, but deemed a golden windfall by Barrick Inc. Now home to the world’s third largest gold mine, Mt Tenabo is being ripped apart and dug asunder while you read these words. Their holy, centuries-old gathering site, is gone, 1,000 trees cut down, tunnels blown out of the mountainside.

The mountain holds the spirit of the Western Shoshone people who have occupied this land for thousands of years. The microscopic gold will be extracted through a process using mercury and cyanide by a major international Canadian corporation, leaving a legacy of toxic waste in a mountain of rubble.



So what is gold worth to you? Think about it. Is gold worth the destruction of your church, temple or mosque? Would you allow the site of the birth of your holy truth to be turned over to be mined for profit? What is gold worth to you? The next time you visit your jeweler ask him where the gold came from, how it was mined and what damage it caused along its path, and decide for yourself if the journey was worth your purchase. And in the end, if he can’t answer your questions, if the path has been hidden from your view, leave the gold on the table and maybe more will be left in the earth.

How do we defend sacred places?

Project: Native Women Leaders and Advocates Defending Sacred Places in the Southwest

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The WEA Advocacy Delegation traveled from Elko, NV to Flagstaff, AZ. We spent a remarkable and deeply moving day with Carrie Dann, Western Shoshone elder and long-time land rights activist, as well as Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, the trailblazing attorney for the Western Shoshone Defense Project.


Carrie, along with her nephew and Julie’s husband Larson, brought us to Mt. Tenabo – a place that is fundamental to the Shoshone creation story, and is also the site of the largest open pit cyanide heap leach gold mine in the United States. We saw and felt the impact of this devastating and ever-expanding mine on the Western Shoshone people, the living land, and the unborn future generations.



We’re now on our way to connect with women leaders in the Navajo and Havasupai tribes, women who stand at the helm of campaigns to protect their peoples’ sacred mountains from extractive industry and commercial development. As we witness each of these unique yet linked threats to environmental and cultural cohesion, we naturally seek to understand the roots of the problem. On what terms do our decision-makers justify these impacts to the earth and to whole communities’ ways of life? How does our system of laws and policies view the sacred?

Luke Cole, the late pioneer of environmental justice law, spoke of environmental injustice not as a legal problem, but as a political and economic one. Even our most powerful environmental laws are simply not designed to protect the interests of indigenous communities when it comes to resource extraction, because those laws themselves derive from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. We protect the environment to the extent that it’s good for business. Beyond that, though, there aren’t legal or policy protections for our inherent rights to a clean and healthy environment, for the rights of indigenous peoples to live according to their traditions, or for the earth’s rights itself to be unharmed. The U.S. Supreme Court has said several times that when it comes to a clash between development of the earth for economic profit, and constitutionally-protected freedom of religion for indigenous peoples, development will win.

Moreover, laws like the 1872 Mining Law support activities that affirmatively harm communities and land. This law was written in the time when people mined using picks and shovels, long before environmental regulation — so today, it essentially allows mining companies free reign to extract with impunity. And we heard from Carrie and Larson that when protective laws do exist, mining companies usually find a way around them.

Given these conditions, how do we call for the urgently-needed shift in policy that is needed to leave water and minerals in the ground, stop contamination, and protect the sacred earth so that future generations may live?

As we travel, our intrepid delegates are already brainstorming innovative strategies at the nexus of legal action, policy advocacy, public awareness and green business development. We will use our personal and professional networks to educate people about the grave impacts of our consumption choices. We will join in with our indigenous allies to call for the implementation of indigenous rights frameworks at the national and international levels.

And within WEA’s Sacred Earth Advocacy Network, we will use our expertise and resources to provide urgently-needed pro bono legal, policy, and business advocacy support to the women leaders we are in dialogue with this week and to all of WEA’s indigenous project partners. We will stand with these courageous leaders to demand environmental protection and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, and to point the way to sustainable, just strategies for economic development.