October 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, which launched the Environmental Justice Movement. A 4-day meeting was held, organized by the United Church of Christ and held in Washington DC. The event had 1100 participants from every state, Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands, Mexico and Chile. One of the participating organizations was New Mexico justice organization SouthWest Organizing Project. The summit was followed five years later with the Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade, held in Jemez, New Mexico and organized by New Mexico-based Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. The Working Group produced the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing.
The 1991 summit re-defined the meaning of “environment” away from the narrow sense of wilderness and pristine landscapes portrayed by overwhelmingly white environmental organizations to embrace what is now a familiar phrase: “environment is where we live, work, study, play, and pray.” As such, it led the way in thinking about the intersectionality of environmental issues with housing, transportation, worker safety, and toxic pollution threatening largely low-income and/or people of color communities.
The preamble to the summit’s 17 Principles of Environmental Justice reads:
“WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice.”
Annual Remembrance of the Churchrock Uranium Tailings Spill
Every year, tribal and pueblo members and supporters gather to commemorate the July 16, 1979 spill at United Nuclear Corporation’s mill tailings pond. It is the largest release of radioactive material in U.S. history, but received almost no coverage compared to the much smaller Three Mile Island reactor accident in March of that year. Photo: Larry King, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) addresses attendees with the spill site in the distance; credit: CVNM Staff/Michael Jensen
Know the Score > Take Action
Strategies for Environmental Justice
Actions that advance the cause of environmental justice:
The climate crisis makes it critically important to transition from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Eliminating coal-fired power plants and their associated coal mines was a priority for environmental organizations and some tribal community organizations, but it met tremendous resistance from the Four Corners communities and workers (mostly Navajo) who depended on the facilities for incomes and tax revenue. Working closely with a broad coalition of organizations representing Navajo, local communities, the Governor, legislative leaders, and environmental groups, shutting down the coal-fired facilities used by PNM came with an innovative financing mechanism that will provide tens of millions of dollars to workers, tribes and local communities to support the transition out of coal. In addition, the community-sponsored alternative energy plan won unanimous approval from the PRC and will place 100% solar + battery storage facilities in the local school district as well as in the Jicarilla Apache Nation, providing jobs and revenue.
Actions that perpetuate environmental injustice:
No thank you!
Red Water Pond Road (RWPR) Community, a Diné association, became surrounded by uranium mine and mill tailings facilities that contaminated their land, air and water. For decades, RWPR residents have asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the EPA to move their small community to a culturally appropriate location up on the mesa while uranium pollution is addressed. Instead, they were moved to Gallup while the agencies scraped a foot of soil off and then put back with the same water and dust problems. Now, the agencies are again ignoring RWPR’s simple request and will spend tens of millions of dollars to relocate a mine tailings pile to the top of the old mill tailings site, causing dust and noise and disruption for years to come. As one RWPR member said at an annual commemoration of the Churchrock spill: “It seems like they’re just waiting for all of us to die instead of doing the right thing.”
Communicate with the Governor and your Legislators
Whether you’re congratulating them on their score or expressing your disappointment, be direct, courteous and polite.
The most important part is letting them know that you are paying close attention to how they vote or, in the case of the Governor, what actions she takes on legislation that affects our air, land, and water.
Calling your legislator directly and sending letters through regular mail remain by far the most effective ways to communicate with your legislators.
The Governor and Lieutenant Governor can always be contacted at the State Capitol. Except during the legislative session, state legislators should be contacted in their home districts, as listed on the current Legislators page.