Industrial economy is not the only economy

March 21, 2013

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E conomic development is a word that gets tossed around a lot on the Navajo Nation. It seems that tossing the word around is as far as it gets. When you look at the economic development in our communities, chances are you are sure to find gas stations, Laundromats, car washes, or fast food chains.

There is also another form of economic development that we don't see, but it supplies our tribe with a significant amount of revenue.

Coal, natural gas, oil, uranium, and water are Navajo resources that are being exploited to power far-off cities and states, while we remain in the toxic shadow of their lethal pollution - and without our own sources of electricity. An economy is the creation and distribution of wealth in a community. Wealth could be in many forms, seeds, corn, sheep, horses, energy, or other items, such as cash.

The industrial economy is not the only economy. In fact, the cash reliance of an industrial economy is a relatively new addition to Navajo economic and trade systems. Indeed, agency offices, annuity payments, trading posts and other cash-based institutions that became so significant in our post-contact history were major elements in the unhealthy transformation of our economies from wealthy and self-reliant to poor and dependent.

To put it plainly, cash is not essential to an economy. Yet, we have become increasingly cash-dependent in indigenous communities, exchanging labor, natural resources and our gifts of art for cash in order to purchase goods and services. Some of this cash wealth is exchanged inside of our communities, but a substantially greater portion is spent outside our tribal borders.

Border towns flourish, but our roads are still filled with potholes, our school systems are hanging on by a thread, and our tribal employees are piled in open spaces because two major buildings they were overpopulating are condemned.

What does our current economic system mean for the Navajo working class? They have dedicated 20-40 years of their lives to make pennies and never have a chance at promotion because political appointees take all the high paying jobs. They work tirelessly everyday so delegates payroll goes out, so President Shelly's TA's are processed, all while being piled into modular buildings, conference rooms or auditoriums.

Fifty-five percent of Navajo citizens live off the Navajo Nation because there are no jobs. We must break free from the current economic system.

Buying Navajo Mine and renewing leases for NGS will only condemn our children to a life sentence of pollution and a weak economy. Perhaps we should focus on creating a stronger sustainable economy rather than spending thousands to keep these mines and power plants going. If these industries took care of us the way they take care of cities like Phoenix, Navajos would no longer be economic hostages.

Our communities have also laid the groundwork for agriculture on this continent. Yet today, we produce less and less of our own food and instead rely upon fast food, and foods imported from factory farms and monocropped fields far away. This is not a sustainable way to live. Recovering and restoring local food and energy production requires a conscious transformation and set of technological and economic leaps for our communities. We must decide whether we want to determine our own future, or lease it out for royalties.

In the end, developing food and energy sovereignty is a means to determine our own destiny.

Kim Smith St. Michaels, Ariz.

A renewable energy nation

Before I moved to Flagstaff for high school and college, I vividly recall herding sheep for my grandparents and playing in the dirt with little worry.

I have a distinct memory of waking up at sunrise as my grandfather sang a song in Diné (Navajo) and think of this particular moment when I get stressed or overwhelmed. I feel happy to carry this memory with me as I continue to grow and learn from what the universe has to offer.

My grandfather worked in the uranium mine in the 1950s and 1960s and unfortunately passed on from lung cancer. Like many Diné people, I have other family members and relatives that have or are still working in the coal mining industry. It was not until I wrote a research paper on the Peabody coal mine for my geology class in high school and further research during my college years when I realized the impacts coal and uranium mining has had and are still having on the people and environment.

These pivotal moments motivated me to pursue a career in the environmental field and to continue researching and understanding why our natural resources were and still being extracted for the benefit of cities located off the reservation while a majority of our people continue to live without electricity or running water. I am proud to say I have a bachelor's degree in Environmental Sciences (2008) and a master's degree in Climate Science & Solutions (2012). Some of you may know about the history and inception of coal and uranium mining during the 1950s and 1960s, and many of these mines were abandoned near communities as outside companies left without remediation and reclamation.

However, many of you may not know that these mines remain abandoned as communities suffer from health and environmental impacts and that we, as Diné people, need to stop mining companies from taking our resources for their own profit and have them clean up the mess they left behind many years ago. Currently, the purchase of the Navajo Mine is in question because we are awaiting the Council's approval or rejection of $2.3 million dollars for Phase 2 of the due diligence investigation on whether it is in our Nation's best interest to purchase the mine.

WHY does it take seven outside companies to determine our best interest? WHO is responsible for cleaning up the coal ash waste that has accumulated over the years at the mine? I write this letter because I am deeply concerned that our elected leaders are continuing the tradition of making wrong decisions such as the recent bid to buy the Navajo Mine. As a Diné woman, I am deeply concerned for the health of our people, land, air, and water.

The Navajo Mine is owned by an Australian Corporation, BHP Billiton, and they are negotiating with the Navajo Nation to agree to purchase the mine by July 2013 and take over mine operations by 2016. The mine supplies coal to the Four Corners Power Plant (FCPP), which provides power to customers in New Mexico, Arizona, California and Texas. Between 1971 and 2008, the plant has stored their coal combustion waste at the mine in unlined disposal pits. BHP will most likely leave this mess behind for the Navajo people to clean up unless federal and tribal regulations are passed and enforced before BHP leaves. In addition, the FCPP plans to shut down three of its five units in the near future, so even if Navajo Nation agrees to operate the mine, it may not be very profitable for the Nation on a long-term basis. Besides revenue and jobs for the Diné Nation, what future benefits will Diné communities receive?

Yes, I believe the Diné need to start taking ownership of energy developments, but buying the Navajo mine is equivalent to taking a step backwards. The coal industry is declining on a national and global level, and if the Diné Nation takes over operations, they will be spending more money trying to clean up the waste, rather than focusing on making profit from producing and selling coal.

Our elected tribal leaders need to understand there is no such thing as "clean coal," that coal production is declining, and that we need to start transitioning to cleaner energy sources. The transition to being a coal dependent Nation into a renewable energy Nation needs to start NOW and our leaders need to listen to what the Diné people want, not what the outside companies want because these companies only want to make profit for themselves. They do not care what happens to us and our land. Ahéhee'

Colleen Cooley
Shonto, Blue Gap, AZ

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