Resisting Desert Rock
(Yet another in our series of articles written for GNN.tv by users of the now closed online community, originally published Mon, 05 Mar 2007. Some info may be outdated.)
On the Navajo Reservation of New Mexico, indigenous elders and youth have been battling energy giants—and their plan to construct a new coal-fired power plant on Navajo lands—in an attempt to protect their lands and traditions. In December of 2006, resisters erected a barricade and engaged in a tense standoff with law enforcement. Though the barricade has since been removed, indigenous resisters remain on site to vigil and protest against the destruction of their sacred lands, while others seek to educate, organize, and rally their people, as well as the public at large.
In the deserts of the Southwestern United States—the area known as the Four Corners—energy and resource wars are nothing new. Locals say that there is nothing pettier than water politics in the Southwest. The legacy of coal and other mining and oil and gas drilling is a long one, as is the legacy of colonialism and the battles fought by the indigenous to protect their sacred lands.
Over thirty years ago the Four Corners area was designated as a “National Sacrifice Area” by the National Academy of Sciences, by which they meant that the area was to be sacrificed to corporate interests and the extraction of natural resources, from oil and gas to coal to copper and other minerals and metals. The lands of the American Southwest have long suffered the ravages of heavy mining and oil and gas drilling.
Now, on the Diné (Navajo) reservation, at a site near the town of Burnham, New Mexico, twenty five miles Southeast of Shiprock, Sithe Global Power and Diné Power Authority plan to build a 1,500 megawatt coal-fired power plant that has been dubbed “Desert Rock.” Despite claims to “clean coal,” coal-fired power plants produce the highest emissions, at 13.7 million tons of carbon dioxide per year (anywhere from 10 to 15 million metric tons per year, according to various estimates). The plant would use approximately forty seven gallons of water per minute, leading to dangerous levels of mercury emissions into the streams and rivers, the ground water, and the water table. Desert Rock could potentially increase state mercury emissions by 40%. According to various estimates, Desert Rock would increase the total net emissions in the state of New Mexico by anywhere from 14% – 20%. The Environmental Impact Study due January of this year has been delayed, and is expected to be released some time around the end of May.
Many involved in the fight against Desert Rock argue that the history of exploitation and appropriation of their sacred and ancestral lands amounts to environmental racism, and—because their culture and traditional way of life is bound to the land—ethnocide and genocide. The activities of energy corporations on tribal lands has always violated and disrupted traditional indigenous culture and values, by destroying sacred sites and ceremonial grounds.
While Joe Shirley, President of the Navajo Nation, sides with Sithe & the DPA, arguing that the new power plant will bring much needed money and jobs to the reservation, the people know better. Though a certain number of jobs would indeed be created, some question whether this is worth the cost of the destruction of their sacred lands, and thus, their traditional way of life. There are two other coal-fired power plants in the region (Four Corners and San Juan), and they have brought nothing but decimation. Driving through the Four Corners areas one can see the haze created by these generating stations. And while Desert Rock would burn Black Mesa coal to generate electricity for Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, the majority of the residents in the area of Desert Rock are without electricity or running water.
On Tuesday, December 12th, 2006, local elder Alice Gilmore noticed activity on her property. Upon closer investigation, local residents discovered that—though the project was still in the environmental review process and had not been given final approval—“exploratory” water drilling had begun at a site located on the Gilmores’ property. A coalition of two local groups, Diné CARE & the Doodá Desert Rock Committee, had already been organizing to oppose this project, and were on the scene to defend their sacred lands. Elders and children formed a blockade on the road to bring a halt to the activities on their land. In the cold, starry December night, they huddled around the sacred fire and spoke in hushed voices.
Facing harassment and threatened with arrest (one report noted that “Desert Rock trucks have repeatedly rushed them and have almost run-over people a number of times as they attempt to get by”), the Elders, Youth, and supporters held off the corporate interests, and the police that enforce their will, until December 21st, when, according to a press release from Diné CARE & Doodá Desert Rock:
These women were brutally forced out, their food taken away, their camp dismantled this afternoon in clear violation of their constitutional rights and in absence of any form of restraining order or other legal mandate… They have committed no crimes, were not interfering with any work going on at the location, and were acting within their rights to gather peacefully in the hopes of persuading our Navajo Nation government not to make this kind of mistake again.
According to another report:
Sithe, in collusion with our Navajo Nation executive office, have strong-armed, threatened, lied to and otherwise coerced our local population to accept this proposed power plant throughout the past two years. Families have had their land taken from them with insufficient compensation to move anywhere else. We’ve been told, as we’ve been told many times in the past, that this polluting monster will bring “hundreds of jobs” to the Navajo Nation, and lots of economic benefits. Time after time, we’ve heard this same lie for too many projects just like this one. After over a hundred years of such development the Navajo people are among the poorest people in the entire United States.
DPA went as far as to request restraining orders against ten of the blockaders, but a deal was eventually struck that allowed the resisters to remain on site as long as they did not blockade the road (perhaps a tactically unfortunate compromise). Today, the Resistance Camp still stands, and the resistance to Desert Rock and all decimation of the sacred Earth continues.
Sarah J. White, President of the Doodá Desert Rock Committee, has been quoted as saying of Sithe/DPA and their goons in the tribal government and law enforcement, “We’re fed up with them… the grandmas and the grandpas are being walked over by these monsters and they’re being denied information. We’re standing our ground now.”
The battle against Desert Rock is far from over, as is the battle against the systematic and industrial destruction of the environment and the indigenous cultures who depend on it. The American Southwest is bound to increasingly become the focus of capitalist ecocide, as well as grassroots resistance to the ruination of the land base. The future generations of humans and non-humans alike depend upon the health of the land base for their survival. We must act responsibly.
As one report puts it,
This is not just a local problem. This is big energy companies forcing themselves on the American people. This is a violation of civil rights and an illegal suppression of dissent here at home in the United States. This facility will further pollute the air and water throughout the area. And those who are speaking out in opposition, innocent grandmothers who only care about their families, are being silenced with violence. We ask that all who share our concern about our future, and are tired of being forced to pay the consequences of these corporations and government bodies, who care nothing for the lives of people.
It is up to the people of the planet to wrest the sacred earth from the hands of the corporations who would destroy the future world for profit in the present. We are faced with an energy crisis of epic proportions, and this situation is bound to lead to increased industrial “production” before the machine sputters to a final halt. And when it does, it will be to the indigenous people of the world, whose traditional life ways are intact, that we shall turn in order to be taught how to live in balance with the land once again. It is to the land base—the earth itself—that we all shall turn for our very sustenance and survival.
If there is to be a viable land base left for future generations of humans and non-humans alike to live upon, we must stop Desert Rock and all environmentally destructive practices and behaviors. This means nothing less than a fundamental shift in every aspect of the way we live, and a total re-evaluation of our values. It also means a return to sustainable, decentralized, and localized economies, at the community and bioregional level.
Ultimately, though we face the oppression of an immense system the likes of which has never been seen, the future really is up to us. But it isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to mean facing our fears, and being honest with ourselves. It’s going to mean risking our safety and well-being for the sake of the earth and future generations. It’s going to mean getting out there and taking direct action, actively opposing the ecocidal corporations and the governments that protect their interests and enforce their will. It’s going to mean decolonizing our minds and reclaiming our stories and narratives from those who have imposed their own narrative upon us and caused us to mistake it for our own. It’s going to mean reclaiming our humanity and our true freedom, which cannot be granted by any government, but rather can only be claimed and lived, with passion and conviction. Above all, it is up to the Youth to stand strong with their Elders to protect their land and their traditions.
For more information, go to www.desert-rock-blog.com.
GNN contributor and blogger Nathan Coe is a guerrilla journalist and activist residing in the mountains of Southwest Colorado, where he is attending college and working on his Major in Humanities. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Navajo people involved in this protest have produced a short video explaining their position. Please take a few minutes to view this video.
View the video at Indigenous Action Media
Also see: Native Radio 4 All
Sarah Jane White, Doodá Desert Rock Committee (505) 860-6166
Dailan J. Long , Diné CARE, Doodá Desert Rock Committee (505) 801-0713
Elouise Brown, Doodá Desert Rock Committee (505) 974-6159
Lori Goodman, Diné CARE (970) 759-1908
Black Mesa Water Coalition
408 E. Route 66, Suite #1
Flagstaff, AZ 86001
Office #: (928) 213-9760
Contact the Following Authorities! Tell them you have heard about Desert Rock’s harassment of Navajo elders and youth. Tell them you are extremely concerned! If enough people contact these offices they will know that the world is watching.
EPA Region 9: San Diego Border Liaison Office
610 West Ash St., Suite 905
San Diego, CA 92101
phone: (619) 235-4765
or (800) 334-0741 and press “03”
Shiprock Police Department
phone: (505) 368-1350
fax: (505) 368-1293
Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley’s Office
P.O. Box 9000 Window Rock, Arizona, 86515
phone #: (928) 871- 6352
George Hardeen, Navajo Nation Communications Director Office of the President
Office #: 928-871-7000
Cell #: 928-380-7688
Bureau of Indian Affairs (Gallup Office)
(They are conducting the Environmental Impact Statement.)
Harrilene Yazzi, NEPA Coordinator Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajo Regional Office
P.0. Box 1060 Gallup, New Mexico 87305