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Know the West

Navajo Nation passes green jobs legislation, 62-1


Some 50 Navajos -- including elders and youth and those in-between -- donned green shirts today and filled the chambers of the Navajo Nation Council to promote legislation designed to transform the reservation’s mineral and fossil fuel-based economy into a sustainable, community-based, green system. The show of support paid off: The Council passed the legislation by a vote of 62 to 1.  According to Enei Begaye, who spearheaded a coalition to create the legislation, it is the first tribal government initiative to create green jobs policy and structure. Undoubtedly ambitious -- combining traditional culture, web-based marketing and cutting-edge green technologies -- the plan could transform the Navajo Nation and serve as a model for other tribes.

The legislation will establish a commission to implement projects in seven areas: renewable energy (large-scale and small), green manufacturing (focused on traditional crafts such as rug-weaving, combined with sophisticated marketing and PR campaigns), sustainable agriculture, weatherizing and making energy-efficient traditional and nontraditional homes, green workforce training, management training, and a small business initiative.

A series of 10 pilot projects will launch the program, along with research on current job opportunities and a needs assessment. The legislation will also create “green teams” which will support community initiatives and help with business plans.

Organizer Enei Begaye grew up in a coal-mining region of the Navajo Nation. The daughter of painter Shonto Begay, she went to Stanford, and in 2001 became the director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which worked to close the Mohave Generating Station. The power plant used Navajo Aquifer water to slurry Black Mesa coal from northern Arizona to Laughlin, Nevada. And while the tribe got money from the project, use of the aquifer drained traditional water sources on Indian land. The plant closed in 2006, after ignoring federally-mandated pollution controls and failing to reach agreements with tribal leaders on coal and water leases. Some 200 native people lost jobs because of the closure, tribal coffers suffered from lack of royalties, and putting food on the table became the primary concern. The Black Mesa Water Coalition cites these grim statistics, revealing the situation even before the closure:

According to the Navajo Nation's 2000-2001 Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, the nation's unemployment rate is 44 percent, the median family income is $11,885, and the per capita income is $6,217. Over 56 percent of Navajos live below the poverty level, the highest poverty rate in the U.S., even among American Indians. At the same time, 68 percent of Navajo monies are spent in off-reservation communities. Of the 676 private employers, only 35 percent are Navajo-owned.

The Coalition filed a motion with the California Public Utilities Commission against the power plant's majority owner, Southern California Edison, to reclaim $20 million a year in SO2 allowances for Navajo wind and solar projects, Begaye realized the Nation lacked a system to use the funds wisely. The epiphany inspired the coalition that worked to write the legislation, including the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Sierra Club, New Energy Economy/1Sky NM, Grand Canyon Trust, New Mexico Youth Organized and Dine C.A.R.E.

“It feels really good to do something proactive,” says Begaye, “to be going to our council and saying, ‘Let’s do this positive thing’ instead of ‘Don’t do that.’”