January 2018

OP-ED: Kim Smith and Makai Lewis / Indigenous People Deserve a Just Transition!

 Solar installation going up at the Crownpoint Chapter House, New Mexico

As the fall equinox came to a close, so did Units 2 and 3 at the San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico.


The SJGS ranked among the top five polluters in the United States. For those of us who have lived in this region and lobbied for this outcome for years, it was a victory. We have had enough of Indigenous peoples and lands being sacrificed to ensure that lights stay on in the Southwest. Energy injustice is a problem that far too many people in our community and elsewhere overlook.


On the reservation, Diné people have often been sold the idea that energy projects will bring millions of dollars and create jobs. We have been blinded by the colonial idea of “success.” We are encouraged to support coal-fired power plants, the mining of our land and water. In turn we have money in our pockets and pollution in our lungs. Like many other tribal groups, the Diné Nation is working through generations of trauma from colonization and cultural erosion.


The Diné Nation and people are not protected within the states of the Union. Diné land, resources, and lives are enmeshed within the colonial agendas of federal and state powers. Diné Bikéyah is treated as a colony for the economic benefit of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California. The sovereignty of the United States is in direct opposition to Diné sovereignty; the subjugation of Navajo land and lives supports the greater Southwest’s economic prosperity.

Oil drilling rig in the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico


Our air, water and land (rich in coal, oil, gas and uranium) are all being sacrificed. Health and environmental impacts that cause the cancer, respiratory illnesses, birth defects, reproductive and autoimmune illnesses are not considered in this bargain.


For centuries our people lived on and cared for the land, and in turn Mother Earth sustained us. Now we face a high unemployment rate as we live on our rural ancestral lands and are encouraged to strive for a lifestyle of endless consumption—standards set from colonial-based economics and currency. The corporations that drive this standard are protected by tribal, state and federal police forces.


Our aunties and uncles are dying of cancer from contaminated water. We are experiencing reproductive diseases and birth defects due to pollution from fracking used in oil and gas drilling. Respiratory illnesses due to coal-fired power plants are at an all-time high.


As if that weren’t enough, we have seen our sacred sites desecrated for recreational development. Indigenous people are among the first to have to contend with the destructive impacts of climate change. And our ancestral food systems are being contaminated by cross-pollination of genetically engineered (GE) plants from GE seeds.


No one deserves to live this way! Indigenous people deserve a just transition! Younger generations have vowed to create change that is based on indigenous knowledge—living off the land, not continuing to exploit the land.


We are faced with a warming planet. We must change our capitalism-driven consumption. Indigenous people should no longer carry the Southwest on our backs. New and undeveloped fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground! We must challenge ourselves to change. We need new ideas and solutions with holistic and universal values. We need to be driven by what’s good for all and not what’s just good for some, always keeping in mind the generations yet to come. We must all do our part, consume less and reevaluate our energy privilege. We must stop depending on oil-intensive products. Climate change sees no borders. We are seeing the biggest storms, and they will only get worse.


In this just transition, we wish to create a space for positive envisioning by communities which have been backed into a corner. We wish to create Indigenous-led spaces that will help our communities re-imagine what is possible and what is needed. We intend to create a forum for civil dialogue and to encourage the political will of communities to make positive changes, influence the larger environment, economy and public policy.


Thousands of protectors have been instrumental in this fight. We must remember that if you do not fight, you do not even have a chance to win. So, we ask that you stand with indigenous people and demand a just transition. We ask that you help us win another round for Mother Earth. We know that that it will take all people to join together in this work.


Makai Lewis and Kim Smith (l-r) are the lead organizers for New Energy Economy’s Just Transition 100% Renewables Campaign (newenergyeconomy.org). Smith (Diné) has dedicated her life to fighting for indigenous human rights, water and land at local, national and international levels. Makai is a Diné tribal member from the community of Pinedale, N.M. 



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