Friday, May 21, 2010

Dispatch from the field_Robert vanWaarden_Coal victory in Arizona

“Just seeing the future for us and knowing that they [our parents] wanted a better future for us, I have the same feeling for, not myself, but the kids and for my relatives and that something better will be in the future for them, that keeps me going. Knowing that we have succeeded in one step and maybe we can continue on and see a better future for all of us. [One of] the other things that keeps me going is knowing that one of my great aunts and my great uncles had respiratory problems. Their breath was taken away slowly inch by inch, feeling like they were being suffocated. When they died, thinking about them and thinking that how much better it would be for the rest of the people here. I don’t want them to die that way anymore, I want them to be able to breathe.” Fern Benally, Navajo Activist.

I am currently in Arizona, covering an incredible group of activists that are working hard to stop dirty energy on the Navajo Reservation and pushing the envelope on clean energy development. Together with Shadia Fayne Wood from Project Survival Media (PSM), we are focusing on the closing of one of the coal mines in the area, the tactics that were used and what this means to the people affected by the closure.

The former coalmine is in the Benally’s backyard, land that has been the families for thousands of years. For the last 30 years, 24 hours a day, the large coal trucks would rumble by the house and the coal crusher would drown out nature. Now, thanks to incredible co-operation and dedication amongst groups like the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club, the life of mine permit was revoked in January. Now, the Benally’s can hear the birds sing and watch the stars like their ancestors did long before Europeans came here.

There are still many examples of environmental racism here in Arizona and across our planet. But, it is important to celebrate victories and share the knowledge so that we can all move towards a sustainable future.

Part of this project will be presented this week in San Francisco at the PSM fundraiser launch party. Afterwards, we will publish an audio slideshow and share it here and with environmental networks around the world.

Project Survival Media
Robert vanWaarden 's Profile
Robert vanWaarden's Website


  1. there are some issues here that should be pointed out. having spent time with navajo families on black mesa documenting and supporting the people resisting federal relocation on big mountain/black mesa, i learned a lot about the issue. while peobody coal mine is a disgusting enterprise and at the basic root of why these people are being evicted off their lands regardless of the government's claims of "inter-tribal land dispute", as well as doing much damage to the health and environment of the dineh, it also one of the very few forms of subsistence and employment for navajo people on black mesa. so while closing it down would be good for the environment and the health of the dineh, it will also leave many families out of work in an already extremely impoverished area. (this is the sick and evil way it was designed to be sadly.) so unfortunately while it solves some problems in creates new ones for the black mesa dineh. it would be nice if the activists that are working to shut down the mine also come up with and provide new employment opportunities for the poor and impoverished people living there, rather than just walking away with another "environmental victory" and going back to their nice homes in san francisco or wherever and once again forgetting about native people left to anguish in their poverty. when i left black mesa the only answer i had for sure was that there are no simple or easy answers. while we may save some people from black lung disease, do we leave them to starve to death instead?

    also the writer said that the benally's have lived on this land for thousands of years. it is well documented that the athabascan people who became the navajo (dineh) migrated to the four corners area in about 1000 AD. correct factual information in these types of issues is so, so, important when making a valid argument and fight for the rights of people affected by these issues, and incorrect facts just leave the whole effort vulnerable to attack. if basic facts are wrong in the detractors eyes the whole argument becomes invalid and can easily be written off as "liberal bullshit" by the crafty people who do not want this sort of environmental progress.

    joe whittle

  2. Hi Joe,
    Thanks for your response and for pointing out some of those issues. The blog post was never meant to be a comprehensive exploration of the issue of the Black Mesa mine (hopefully that will come later), but more of an update of my current work. However, I do appreciate the opportunity that you have given me to discuss this issue a little.

    First: You are correct in your statement about the 'thousands', this should read 'hundreds' because the Navajo did arrive the area shortly before the Europeans in the 1500's. Prior to this, the area was inhabited by various other tribes. I apologize for the hyperbole.

    Regarding providing new opportunities. All of the activists that I spoke with are fully or partly Navajo. None of them live in San Fransisco, and they would be disappointed to hear this suggestion. They all live on the Reservation or in nearby Flagstaff, so the affect of the closure is being felt by them or their direct families and clans. Environmental activists walking away from the issues is something I am keenly aware of, but I am happy to say I don't feel that is happening in this situation.

    Let me mention two examples that are moving forward to provide opportunities.

    When the Mojave generating station was shut down, the Grand Canyon Trust noticed the lack of viable opportunities and loss of employment and has stepped in to help advise and think through feasibility studies to increase project development on the Reservation. EX. They have just started to break ground on a 200MW wind power project. The Trust, is really good at the business of development and continue to work closely with the activists that played a role in this victory. You can read some of it here.

    The Navajo Nation has also recently approved the Navajo Green Economy Commission, set up to seek funding for and to approve small scale green projects. Of the individuals that helped convince the nation to do this many of them were activists that worked on the Black Mesa project. The Council also voted to create a Navajo Green Economy Fund, which creates an account for receiving federal, state, local, and private funds to make these green projects possible. It is expected that these two things will help increase job opportunities and take the Nation in a direction that will be sustainable and economically viable.

    So I am glad to show that all not all activist are running away from victories.

    Thanks again for you comment and Good luck.

  3. great info robert thank you! i was there in 2000 so clearly much has changed since then in a positive direction! i am happy to hear that more dineh are getting behind the movement to shut down the mines. when i was there i couldn't find anyone who was willing to completely stand up against the mine as they were too afraid of reprisals or damaging the employment status of family members. this was a surprise as i arrived there thinking of peabody as the clear cut enemy and that it was more of a black and white issue and that the dineh would for the most part be against the mine. what i discovered was a situation far from that! and there were no other alternative employment opportunities at that time. so this is good news indeed! can you give me any new info on the status of the land dispute and the relocation resistors?

    when you have a minute you should take a look at my project "the invisible history of america". i have several of the pieces i did on black mesa posted there, just after the nez perce images. i am looking forward to following your story and catching up more on the situation down there! cheers!