January 2018

OP-ED: Kendra Pinto / Protect the Sacred

Young activists speaking out against fossil fuel development in their community

 

My name is Kendra Pinto, and I’m from Counselor Chapter, Navajo Nation. I live near Chaco Canyon, in the San Juan Basin. Today, greater Chaco Canyon, which includes Chaco National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, spans 30,000 square miles. It remains a sacred source of our cultural heritage.

 

I was born in Shiprock and raised in Twin Pines. I have always known New Mexico as my home. Love for the land must be felt. I carry moments rooted so deeply in my experience of the land, there are no words. Growing up, there were no boundaries. We were free to roam valleys and mountains as long as we did not cause harm. Spending time outdoors is the closest healing medicine I can use freely and at will. I have always been aware my home was isolated, but that never kept me from fully enjoying my surroundings. During hikes there is no time-clock to worry about. It is just nature and me. The scenery is vast and breathtaking. From particular peaks I can spot Colorado, Utah and Arizona, all in one quick sweep. The placement of my family in the Chaco region is no mistake. Living on and with the land is something we have not just discovered.

 

The area where I live is now commonly known as the “Checkerboard Area” because land is fragmented among federal, state, private, allotment and tribal trust lands. It gets mighty confusing. No distinct border separates BLM public land and allotment lands. But you probably wouldn’t know this if you’re not from the area. Maps do not show the people who have lived there for generations. Maps falsely project the idea that a fence surrounds the different sections. Because of this checkerboard, the fossil fuel industry peppers the landscape and is allowed to place wells for drilling less than 350 feet from homes. 

 

The laws of the Navajo Nation and the United States of America should offer protections for my people and our lands, not take them away. But there are no protections. Because I am not an allottee or a private landowner, my voice is not considered important. Papers that are about to be signed will allow outside, billion-dollar companies to place a pipe under my house without my say-so.

 

Air monitoring I have done has been alarming. Elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide have been detected at a well site located across the highway from Lybrook Elementary School. Yet pumping continues as if nothing is wrong. Natural gas wells are commonly contaminated by hydrogen sulfide. High levels, such as found near that school, may pose some risk to human health. Fossil fuel extraction in my community is not only causing physical damage to the land and our bodies; it is also causing the people great mental strain. 

 

Community members have repeatedly raised concerns about the health impacts of fracking—including Daniel Tso (above), who leads tours that show the impacts.

Elders tell me that plants used for medicinal properties by our people no longer will grow in this area. Others are being torn away to make way for barrels and a vast network of pipes. These plants were inhabitants of this place—they grew wildly and cannot simply be replaced by going to a convenience store.

 

My grandmother was born less than half a mile away from where she currently resides. She is now 93 years old. I listen to her stories and try to imagine what life was like. Her stories are of this place, in a valley so hidden that homes were not marked on the BLM state map until 2015. 

Indigenous youth organized an 80-mile run to raise awareness about the impacts of fracking and to call for a moratorium.

In July 2016 there was a massive explosion in Nageezi, a nearby community. The WPX well-site fire forced the evacuation of 55 residents. Thirty-six storage units holding oil and fracking fluid caught fire. As the fire grew and burned that night, residents were parked along Highway 550 watching because they did not have a place to go. There was no public evacuation or emergency plan. Some of the young children who lived near the explosion still have moments of stress when they hear loud banging. How does this not count as a negative impact of fracking? How is it that locals risking their lives by simply being near a pipeline or well site do not receive more consideration?

 

Our relatives are buried within these lands. Unmarked graves scattered throughout the region are unimportant to outside industries that are only there for one purpose. The Indigenous people of this land, our land, are still treated with little or no respect and portrayed as stereotypical “savage” Indians when we talk of fair and just treatment of Mother Earth—the Earth that provides for us.

 

The dominant culture has lost sight of who we are. They believe the human species is immortal and that there will be no repercussions for our actions. They believe we live in a world of unlimited resources and that extraction is the best possible way to improve life. That’s not sustainability; it is delusional.

 Veronica Toledo (Navajo) addresses a rally against the proposed Sandoval County Oil and Gas Ordinance. Toledo is a 10th-grader at the Santa Fe Indian School and a leader in Earth Care’s Youth Allies.

I, along with my Indigenous brothers and sisters and allies, must push for changes. In March 2018 the BLM will hold an online lease sale auction for approximately 4,400 acresWe must protect our sacred lands, water and air resources. American and Navajo law must provide support, not undermine it. Accordingly, we must all push Congress and the BLM to strengthen federal protections such as the BLM’s fracking and methane rules. If these cannot move forward now at the federal level—we must demand protections at the state level.

 

Join us in protecting our home. The Chaco Coalition is working to secure a moratorium on fracking. Learn more and get involved at www.protectgreaterchaco.org and www.frackoffchaco.org

 

 Kendra Pinto (Diné), an educator and storyteller, lives on the Navajo Nation’s Eastern Agency. She has testified before the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. in support of halting fracking infrastructure in the “checkerboard” area.

 

 

SIDEBAR Newsbite:

 

Sandoval Oil and Gas Ordinance Rejected

More than 300 diverse citizens attended the Sandoval County Commission meeting last month that ended after several hours of public comment with a 4-1 vote against an oil and gas ordinance that would have opened 267,000 acres of unincorporated land to mineral leasing and fracking. The proposal will likely be sent back to the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission to be rewritten.

 

Pueblo governors, organizations such as Pueblo Action Alliance, Pueblo Youth Solidarity and Red Nation, as well as ranchers and other longtime residents testified against the ordinance. Many were concerned about aquifer contamination, air pollution, noise and other environmental and health impacts, and that the ordinance would limit public input on future industry development. Some wondered why the commissioners were forcing a vote even before a $62,000 New Mexico Tech study they had authorized is completed in mid-2018.

 

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