After a protracted battle against a uranium processing company, the activist group Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE) played an instrumental role in shutting down the eastern Oklahoma facility last November. Sequoyah Fuels, which processed uranium for bombs and nuclear reactors, had been cited for over 15,000 violations of state and federal law over its 21-year history. Among other irregularities, the company disposed of thousands of tons of toxic and radioactive waste by calling it fertilizer, and a number of frogs with extra legs (one had nine) have been spotted near the facility. The final straw came when Sequoyah Fuels had an accident releasing a large cloud of nitrogen dioxide that caused about 30 area residents to be hospitalized.
Sequoyah Fuels may have been the most harmful employer in Vian and nearby Tahlequah, Oklahoma, but it was also one of the largest. And NACE’s Julie Moss is well aware of that fact. Sequoyah Fuels employed a number of Native Americans in a county that is 30 percent Cherokee.
“In the Cherokee Nation, unemployment and poverty levels are routinely two to three times higher than for nearby whites,” Moss says. “I think we have a responsibility to do something about that. ”
This fall NACE is embarking on an economic conversion pilot project to change those statistics and serve as a model for other Native American communities and reservations. One aspect of the project will be attracting ecologically safe and green businesses to the area. Another is self-empowerment of residents. NACE hopes to start a peer group lending program where money is lent to a group of people instead of just one person; they all co-sign the loan, divide the money and are collectively responsible for paying it back. A program like this would work smoothly because of the strong tradition of solidarity in Native American communities, Moss says.
“A lot of our view or context is outside of the mainstream thinking. The dependency cycle and colonialism leaves us on the outside and unable to participate in mainstream economics,” Moss says. “What we need is to build bridges between the mainstream and where our people are.”
NACE is one of a growing number of indigenous activist groups seeking innovative ways to build these bridges. As the United Nations largely unheralded “Indigenous Peoples International Year” draws to a close, Environmental Action takes a look at the conflicts between economic development and environmental protection in the Americas.
In the United States alone, there are more than 500 Native American tribes and communities, with a population of about 2 million, or .6 percent of the total population. In Canada native peoples make up 4 percent of the population. Numbers of indigenous people vary greatly by country in Central America. In Costa Rica, they comprise I percent of the population, but four main tribes in Guatemala make up half of the country’s population. The same is true of South America, home to 15 million indigenous people; indigenous people make up. 1 percent of the population in Argentina and 40 percent in Peru.
The thousands of culturally distinct bands of indigenous peoples in the Americas have one thing in common: their inherent wealth – the land and the life it supports – has been parceled out, sold wholesale and marginalized to a point where it can no longer provide for its first inhabitants. In some cases indigenous people have successfully fought back, but elsewhere they are being forced from even the small areas of land allotted to them. For example:
The massive James Bay hydroelectric electric project in Quebec could eventually include 600 dams, blocking 11 rivers and creating a watershed area three times as large as New York state. Already the first phase of Hydro Quebec has flooded thousands of acres that were home to Cree and Inuit people and spread mercury contamination to fish. The next phase isn’t flowing as smoothly as developers hoped: Cree, Inuits and environmentalists are contesting in court the second phase of the project. And last year New York decided to withdraw from a contract worth $12.5 billion to buy electricity over the next two decades.
Two years ago, North America’s northern most indigenous people – the Gwich’in – waged a successful battle against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a centerpiece of President Bush’s energy strategy. The Gwich’in’s culture, religion, nutrition and economy are all tied to the 200,000-member caribou herd that migrates through the refuge. During the debates over the energy bill, two members of the Gwich’in tribe testified before Congress.
In Ecuador, 900 Waorani may lose the last reaches of their forest homeland to oil companies. Nine oil companies have already been granted access to the Waorani’s land by the Ecuadoran government. Initially, Waorani were promised jobs to clear forests, but as pollution and land loss eroded their economic base, no major oil companies have hired them. In the last few years, palm oil plantations have begun operations in the country as well, affecting the 35,000 Quichua people as pesticides drift into nearby rivers, contaminating fish.
In Brazil, 50,000 gold prospectors have poured into land historically belonging to the Yanomami Indians. Miners have cleared forests, destroyed soil, diverted rivers and polluted them with mercury. In August, miners murdered at least 40 Yanomami, a sharp escalation of the violence by gold prospectors who say the indigeneous people are inhibiting their mining efforts.
It’s nearly impossible to calculate just what has been and is being lost in economic terms as a result of the marginalization of indigenous peoples. In the United States, where statistics are most readily available, Native Americans have an unemployment rate of 45 percent, and only 25 percent of the population made over $7,000 in 1989, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). On some reservations, the unemployment rate can reach up to 85 percent.
But BIA spokesperson Carl Shaw scoffs at the unemployment figures. “I don’t believe them. They’re way too high,” he says candidly. “If you come to Washington and say unemployment is 1 percent or 5 percent, who’s going to listen? But if you say 60 percent or 35 percent, everyone jumps up and says we’ve got to do something.”
That’s just the sort of attitude Chris Peters, executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund, a group that gives grants to Native American activists, hates. While he concurs that some income doesn’t get counted because of subsistence hunting and fishing and home businesses, he says reservations still house the poorest people in this country. And they are looking for more than a government handout.
“On Indian reservations the Euro-American capitalism economic model has failed. It was based on resource and labor exploitation and that model just doesn’t work any more,” Peters explains.
What’s needed is seed money to get businesses off. the ground or bolster an on-going small business, says Sandra Abrams, a program manager with the First Nations Fund, which, in a similar program to Seventh Generation, awards grants to indigenous economic projects.
Both Abrams and Peters advocate small community businesses that work in harmony with the land. The Seventh Generation Fund has given grants of $1,000 to $9,000 for such projects as the Columbia River Defense Project. The project was established to protect the fishing rights of native people and the environmental integrity of the river against contamination by the Hanford nuclear facilities in Washington. Seventh Generation also gave a grant to the group Dine CARE (Citizens Against Ruining our Environment). The group successfully defeated a proposed toxic waste incinerator for the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and now serves as a model for other native environmental organizations.
In contrast to the long-term, micro-enterprise models advocated by Seventh Generation and First Nations, far more lucrative – and many times more dangerous – deals have been proposed for reservations in recent years. Seventeen tribes have or are considering siting a temporary nuclear waste site – termed monitored retrievable storage, or Mrs – on their reservations in exchange for millions of dollars. And private waste companies have promised big money for landfills, hazardous waste incinerators and mining operations. In addition, because reservations are sovereign entitities and not subject to state laws, ten so far have been enticed to build gambling casinos.
But NACE’s Moss views both gambling and waste proposals as economic quick fixes. “It’s almost the exact thing the U.S. is doing in the Third World, going to the desperately poor who are going to find all that money pretty hard to refuse. Especially with the MRS’s, ifs insidiously sinister and cold-blooded to do that without presenting the dangers.”
And in Central and South America, the story is much the same: marauding entrepreneurs and mega-corporations taking and polluting land that for thousands of years belonged to indigenous people. To explore the similarities of the problems of indigenous people in North, South and Central America, a conference sponsored by the Continental Community of Indigenous Nations is scheduled for October in Mexico. Land rights, development and the environment will be featured.
“The struggle over Indian lands in the United States last century and the first part of this one is the same as what is happening all over the world now,” says Jacob Scherr, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Fund. “Indigenous people are sitting on top of oil and gold and trees, exactly what big companies covet, and they’re being exploited.”
Seventh Generation’s Chris Peters also points to the parallels between exploitation above and below the equator. A prophecy, he says, talks of a day when indigenous people in North and South America will join forces to protect the land and their heritage.