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Monday, 25 June 2018 07:16

Hope Amid Climate Chaos on the Colorado Plateau

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(Photo: Will Munger)(Photo: Will Munger)


The current map of drought conditions across the Colorado Plateau shows a sea of deep, bright red. According to the US drought monitor, the Four Corners region is in exceptional drought. As fires burn up the San Juan National Forest and rivers that quench the region's thirst near record lows, it's hard to not fall into complete despair at early signs of climate chaos. However, alongside heat waves and low water flows, a rising movement for climate justice invites hope.

The Colorado Plateau, the high desert of the American Southwest, has long been an energy sacrifice zone. More than 90 percent of the public lands in the Greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico have been leased to oil and gas. The last uranium mill in the country rises a couple miles north of the Ute Mountain Ute White Mesa community. Coal mining on Black Mesa continues to deplete and contaminate precious water resources for the Diné and Hopi people. The region exists at the frontlines of extreme extraction. The people of the Colorado Plateau remain far from idle, though. The rising movement for a just transition away from fossil fuels builds off decades and centuries of resistance while responding to new challenges climate change poses. In May, we witnessed a constellation of interconnected movements while supporting actions sprouting across the Colorado Plateau.

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On May 12, two days before the annual Governor's Energy Summit in Salt Lake City, more than 100 people gathered under umbrellas and canopies for the inaugural People's Energy Summit to envision a regenerative, just future. We crafted pathways to community-owned clean energy, justice for those on the frontlines of extraction, and healthy, secure jobs. We were inspired by stories from high-school students who convinced the Utah State Legislature to pass a climate change resolution. We found an unexpected ally in a 12-year veteran of coal mines in eastern Utah who recently quit to demand accountability from corporations polluting his community. Utah receives 90 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels, but the unity of diverse voices from across the state showed momentum for a clean energy future.

On May 14, an action camp started a few hundred miles south of Salt Lake on Black Mesa at the home of Glenna and Salina Begay, Diné elders who have been resisting relocation and the impoundment of their sheep since the 1970s. Agreements between Peabody Coal and the Hopi and Navajo governments allow for strip mining of coal and make the family's continual residence on their ancestral homelands illegal. The coal from Kayenta Mine fuels the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), which keeps lights on in desert metropolises and powers the transport of water to Phoenix. The Begays have no electricity or running water. NGS is set to close in 2019, and a coalition has filed a lawsuit for a reclamation plan from Peabody, seeking justice for the people and land of Black Mesa. Jihan Gearon of the Black Mesa Water Coalition said, "Peabody Energy has yet to fully reclaim even one of the 44,000 acres of land they have mined on Black Mesa, and without this lawsuit, there are no guarantees they will meet their obligations."

Despite grinding conditions, the Diné people remain, asserting their existence is resistance. Alongside Native and non-Native friends who came from across the region, we sheared sheep, cooked meals, listened to stories from elders and built structures to support the camp. While the original resistors are aging, a new generation is raising their kids on Black Mesa, teaching the Diné language, supporting elders, restoring watersheds and creating food sovereignty. They're revitalizing traditional practices and learning adaptation strategies to stay on their ancestral lands in the face of not only colonization but also climate change.

From Black Mesa, we went north to another frontline community, accompanying the White Mesa Ute community on their spiritual walk to the White Mesa Uranium Mill in protest and solidarity. Friends from Black Mesa carried a banner that read "Black Mesa Stands in Solidarity with White Mesa."

The White Mesa Mill was built in 1979 and has been importing radioactive waste since 1987. Thelma Whiskers, an elder leading the resistance, has cancer and multiple of her relatives have died of cancer. She said, "This place is dangerous for us. We're inhaling the dust when the wind blows towards us. The young ones have allergies and diabetes and asthma. The water doesn't taste good. We don't drink it." However, when talking about the spiritual walk, a smile overcame her face as she reflected, "We were strong and we were brave."

More stories like these exist in all corners of the Colorado Plateau. For example, in the Greater Chaco area, a coalition of Indigenous organizations, environmental nonprofits and frontline activists successfully stopped a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sale earlier this spring. Utilizing massive people power and leveraging political opportunities, organizers turned out 459 administrative protests (mailed or faxed letters to the Bureau of Land Management in opposition of the sale), the most the state has ever received. New Mexico Senators and Representatives also called for the agency to cancel the sale.

The injustices across the Colorado Plateau compounded with dire climate projections often leave us feeling completely overwhelmed. However, as we reunited with friends in all corners of the region, we felt empowered by the relationships fueling a movement. As Kate Savage, an organizer in Salt Lake said, "If we live in a mega-drought, we need strong relationships to take care of ourselves and our communities. Plan A is we stop all the mines and pipelines. Plan B is we trust each other with our lives and have each other's backs. We know and love each other. And we know the land."


Brooke Larsen is a climate organizer and writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She recently received her master's in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah. 

Will Munger is an organizer, writer and co-editor of Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency.