As Indian nations are battered by the COVID-19 pandemic, many are simultaneously battling ecological brutality brought about by governments and corporations.
The United States has repeatedly broken its treaties with natives in its constant hunger for natural resources.
The Navajo and nearby tribes in the Southwestern United States have been plagued by residual radiation from nearby uranium mines for the past 70 years. Uranium exposure can lead to various health complications, including cancer, lung disease, kidney disease, skeletal weakness and developmental disabilities. These preexisting health conditions also make them more susceptible to other diseases, and, along with a lack of infrastructure, have contributed to some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the United States.
This sort of environmental neglect and the devastating health effects it brings upon exposed populations has been termed “environmental violence” and the responsible corporations are often well aware of the toxic impacts their enterprises produce.
As indigenous people tend to have a close relationship with their natural environment — including hunting, fishing, and agriculture — they are more vulnerable to environmental violence than other populations. Women are particularly impacted by environmental violence, as exposure to toxic compounds increases the risk of birth complications. Toxins accumulate in breast milk, which further inhibits healthy child development.
Yet, corporations, abetted by governments, often turn a blind eye in favor of short-term profits.
“For over 70 years in the American Southwest, we have been confronted by uranium mining in the Navajo nation,” says Manny Pino from the Laguna Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment and the Indigenous Environmental Network. “Many of these contaminated areas in the Southwest have not been cleaned up.”
In a Zoom webinar conducted by the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) last week, Pino cited a study conducted by the Southwest Research and Information Center, which has found elevated levels of uranium in the urine of the Navajo citizens, especially infants. Other studies have found that drinking water and dust in the Navajo nations contain levels of uranium and arsenic that exceed safe limits.
Despite the apparent dangers, the Trump administration has been looking to revive the uranium mining industry in the region.
“It continuously blows my mind why anyone in their right mind would want to situate a uranium mine in close proximity to one of the 7 natural wonders of the world,” he says, in reference to the mines’ location near the Grand Canyon. Moreover, the Colorado River flows through the region, a major source of drinking water for many western states.
“The federal government has ignored our pleas for comprehensive health studies,” says Pino. “The ignorance of this government for over 70-plus years in these contaminated communities and nations is a definite breach of the trust relationship that exists between the U.S. government and Indian nations of the United States.”
“Breach of trust” is a phrase that has been echoed by native tribes throughout America’s history, including modern times, as the United States has repeatedly broken its treaties with natives in its constant hunger for natural resources. To this day, native nations repeatedly fight to protect their land from environmental degradation, as in the case of the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota and protests against the Canadian-U.S. Keystone pipeline.
Environmental Violence in Minnesota: Native Nations vs. the PolyMet Mining Corporation
In Minnesota, the Ojibwe Nation (also known as Chippewa by the federal government) is currently involved in an ongoing court battle with the Department of Natural Resources regarding the proposed establishment of a new sulfide mine by the PolyMet Mining Corporation.
The mine would be located in the pristine Boundary Water Wilderness Area in northern Minnesota, which was declared a protected area under the Obama administration. However, the Trump administration dismantled this protection almost immediately upon taking office in 2017.
“It’s hard to fight when the president gets involved,” says Rochelle Diver, Environmental Health Program Coordinator at the International Indian Treaty Council. “He has close ties [to] Polymet.”
Diver, who is also a citizen of the Ojibwe Nation, says the nearby Grand Portage Nation has suffered from similar existing mining projects. Due to contaminated runoff from the mines, mercury has been detected in the St. Louis River and its fish. As a result, babies born to Grand Portage women have been found to contain mercury in their system at birth, which can lead to serious health complications.
Further complicating the issue are difficulties in the spread of information. The Grand Portage nation, says Diver, had no internet access on their lands until one to two years ago, making it difficult to inform people about the toxicity of the river and their food sources.
As traditional methods of obtaining food, namely hunting and gathering, have always persevered in native lands to some extent, native people are at greater risk when their natural environment becomes contaminated with harmful chemicals. In addition, says Diver, there has been an increased effort among native nations in recent years to revert to a completely self-sustaining lifestyle.
“We are trying to decolonize our diet,” she said. “We are trying to cut out these processed foods which bring us heart disease and other illnesses.”
However, when toxins accumulate in fish, deer and other animals, and wild rice can no longer grow, such food sovereignty becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous. The Ojibwe have already been warned to refrain from fishing because of mercury contamination, making them more reliant on outside food sources.
Like Pino, Diver says that the U. S. government’s support of the mining industry in the region constitutes a breach of trust.
Environmental Violence as a Global Issue
On a global scale, Diver works to battle the use of harmful pesticides. Indian nations are recognized by the U.N. as sovereign and many are working through the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty effective since 2004 that aims to phase out the use of persistent organic pollutants(POPs), to halt the use of harmful chemicals completely.
Several toxic chemicals listed within the Stockholm Convention are banned in the United States, but as their manufacture is still legal, they continue to be produced by American corporations and exported abroad. In Mexico and Guatemala, various instances of birth defects linked to these chemicals have been documented among indigenous populations living in proximity to agricultural fields, where the pesticides are frequently used.
“This is what environmental violence is,” says Diver. “These multinational corporations know how harmful these chemicals are and they continue to use them.”
Pino believes that the negligent contamination of indigenous land — and refusal to clean up the mess — goes even further.
“These are examples of environmental genocide,” he says.