Friday, January 18, 2008

Environmental racism of Indigenous Peoples reported to United Nations

The following is a segment of the Consolidated Indigenous Shadow Report of the International Indian Treaty Council to the United Nations Committee on Racial Discrimination, to be presented in February in Geneva.

Environmental Racism and its effects on Indigenous human rights

Environmental Racism in the United States affects all aspects of Indigenous life ways and their survival as Peoples. It affects our health and well being and the health and well being of our future generations, Their major means of subsistence, their Spiritual and cultural practice, and life itself, both of our people and all our relations are severely and negatively affected. Environmental racism affects biodiversity, traditional medicines and traditional knowledge, cultural expression, all that is required to continue being Indigenous, of being who we are.

You cannot damage the land without damaging those who live upon it. You cannot destroy the land without destroying those with a Spiritual and material relationship with it. Ongoing and planned actions by the United States and its corporate and private entities are taking place on lands that Indigenous Peoples have traditionally and currently use for hunting, gathering, religious, cultural, and other traditional uses.[1] The use of the land for these purposes serves as a vehicle to share knowledge about traditional Indigenous practices between elders and youth. The destruction of the lands and natural environment on and surrounding Indigenous Sacred Lands proves devastating to the perpetuation of Indigenous culture.

The International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) and the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) participated in the Third World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (WCAR) held in Durban, South Africa in 2001. IEN in consultation with IITC developed language on environmental racism and justice which was included in the Declaration and Programme of Action documents of the WCAR.

Recognizing this new form of racial discrimination against Indigenous Peoples in the United States, environmental racism is the implementation of environmental, natural resource, and development schemes that nullify or impair the enjoyment of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Indigenous Peoples. This new form of environmental discrimination is an assault on Indigenous Peoples’ human rights and public health including their right to their unique special social, cultural, spiritual and historical life ways and worldviews. Environmental racism results in the devastation, contamination dispossession, loss or denial of access to Indigenous peoples’ biodiversity, their waters, and traditional lands and territories. Environmental racism is now the primary cause of human health effects of Indigenous Peoples and the forced separation and removal of Indigenous Peoples from their lands and territories, their major means of subsistence, their language culture and spirituality all of which are derived from their cultural, physical and spiritual relationship to their land.

The intentional locating of hazardous waste sites, landfills, incinerators, and polluting industries like coal fired power plants, nuclear power plants and all types of mining on Indigenous lands and communities inhabited by Indigenous Peoples have created devastating impacts to all aspects of the environment, culture, spirituality and human health. These violations have been caused by governments and the private corporate sector policy, laws, practice, action or inaction which intentionally or unintentionally disproportionately targets and harms the environment, health, biodiversity, workers employed in these industries, quality of life and security of communities.

These issues have led to and continue to lead to the ruination of Indigenous Peoples’ lands, waters, and environments by the implementation of unsustainable processes such as mining, biopiracy, deforestation, the dumping of contaminated toxic waste, oil and gas drilling and other land use practices that do not respect Indigenous ceremonies, spiritual beliefs, traditional medicines and life ways, the biodiversity of Indigenous lands, Indigenous economies, and means of subsistence and the right to health.

Closely linked to Indigenous rights to self-determination, culture and health, is the right to access food and water. The effects of the continuing exploitation of Indigenous Lands by mining or the pollution of these lands and waters from toxic waste and other industrial hazards has led to environmental damage to the land and water that the Indigenous Peoples depend upon for their subsistence and that they consider to be sacred. The following are only three examples of how, for Indigenous Peoples, all things are related. Other examples abound throughout this Shadow Report.

I. The Right to Life: The Nuclear Fuel Chain and Environmental Racism

Over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and mills on the Navajo Nation that have not been reclaimed in over 50 years by the federal government or the corporations who reaped millions of dollars in the mining and milling processes. These contaminants pose a continuing health hazard to traditional Navajos who live in close proximity to these sites

The Navajo Nation, which spans the New Mexico-Arizona border, was polluted in 1979 when an accident at the United Nuclear Corporation’s Church Rock Mill near Gallup, New Mexico released 94 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River. The river flows through reservation communities impacting a population of 10,000 Navajos who live along the river using shallow wells and springs which flow from the Puerco to draw water for livestock and personal needs. Despite the fact that the spill is considered the second worst nuclear accident in U.S. history after the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant meltdown in Pennsylvania, and the designation as superfund site by the EPA the area remains un-reclaimed almost 30 years after the spill.

Indigenous uranium miners in the U.S were exposed to radioactive contaminants in the mining and milling of uranium from the mid 1940’s through the early 1990’s. In the late 1970’s Indigenous miners asked for help to determine whether their cancerous related illness were related to their work experiences in the uranium mines and mills, due to the fact, that miners and millers in the 1950’s and 60’s were never informed by the mining companies, the federal government and individual states of the dangers of exposure to radioactive contaminants. As a result Congress in 1990 passed the Radioactive Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which initially only covered three populations underground uranium miners, populations living downwind from atomic testing sites, and atomic veterans who were present at nuclear weapons testing. In 2000, Congress amended RECA to include all uranium workers such as millers who were also exposed and were not included in the 1990 legislation.

According to the Department of Justice, who is responsible for claims filed under RECA over 15,000 claims have been filed by all uranium workers of this number 5,500 were claims by Indigenous miners, claims approved totaled 4,200 for all workers and 1,050 approvals for Indigenous uranium workers. The current legislation only compensates uranium workers who worked before 1971, post 1971 workers are now petitioning Congress to amend RECA 2000 to include the post 71 working population as documentation has shown that they too were exposed to excessive levels of radioactive contaminants after the 1971 date. Thousands of RECA claims are now filed with the federal government. Health studies are now being conducted by the University of New Mexico Medical School to address the growing concern of kidney failure correlated with uranium working populations.

The Jackpile Mine on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico grew to be the largest open pit uranium mine in North America from 1952-1982. Although the mine is called successfully reclaimed it continues to be monitored for radioactive emissions. The mine site is 2,000 feet from the Laguna village of Paguate which has a population of 2,500 people. Numerous Laguna miners who worked at Jackpile have filed claims under RECA, as over 80% of the male workforce worked in the mine and cancer clusters have developed in the Pueblo among mining and non-mining populations.

Water quantity and quality were directly impacted by the mining of uranium in the Grants Mineral Belt in New Mexico. The Grants Mineral Belt was the most intensely mined area for uranium in the U.S. from 1950-1990. Laguna, Acoma and the Navajo Nation have all experienced impacts of depleted water sources from uranium development in the mineral belt. In the de-watering process necessary in uranium mining and milling many underground sources of water used by the three tribes went dry. Surface water sources like the Puerco River became contaminated due to the close proximity of mines and mills which spread contaminants through run-off and wind. These contamination issues have impacted domestic water consumption and use as well as agriculture and livestock watering and have drawn correlations to cancerous related illnesses among the impacted population The response by state and federal regulating agencies to these important water issues are important at this point in time due to climate change and drought conditions in the Southwest.

Indigenous peoples in the U.S. have been continuously organizing to resist the siting of hazardous wastes sites on reservations. According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over 42 tribes in the United States have been approached by waste disposal companies and the federal government. Currently the Goshute Tribe in Utah is being considered for a low level nuclear Monitored Retrievable Storage Site despite vehement opposition by a majority of tribal members and the state of Utah. Disposal of spent fuel and high level radioactive waste being proposed by the U.S government at Yucca Mountain, Nevada has been an on-going proposal for over 25 years. Yucca Mountain is a sacred site to the Western Shoshone. Transportation of nuclear waste to repository sites poses a problem for the entire country.

These issues exemplify only one area of environmental racism the nuclear fuel chain and its impact on Indigenous Peoples in the United States. The nuclear legacies negative impacts on the environment, human health and the tradition and culture of indigenous peoples led the Navajo Nation Council to pass the Dine Resource Protection Act, in April 2007, banning all forms of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation the largest reservation in the U.S in land area. Currently with developing nations like India and China driving up the price of uranium on the world market (currently at 60.00 per pound, U.S. dollars) the uranium companies are back with mining proposals on or near Indigenous lands and territories in the U.S specifically the Southwest, Northwest and the Great Plains. Despite all the documentation of all the negative impacts of the past uranium mining boom in the U.S. the federal government continues to create policies that favor the uranium industry. Sacred sites like Mount Taylor in north central New Mexico are being threatened by this new wave of uranium development to the extent that the Navajo Nation, the All Indian Pueblo Council, representing 19 Pueblo Tribes in New Mexico, Laguna and Acoma Pueblos have passed resolutions opposing uranium mining and milling on the sacred mountain. Many of the examples stated above are structured as a response or implementation procedure using the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

As stated in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in Article 29:

1. Indigenous Peoples have the right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories and resources. States shall establish and implement assistance programmes for indigenous peoples for such conservation and protection without discrimination.
2. States shall take effective measures to ensure that no storage or disposal of hazardous materials shall take place in the lands or territories of indigenous peoples without their free, prior and informed consent.
3. States shall also take effective measures to ensure, as needed, that programmes for monitoring, maintaining and restroing the health of indigenous peoples, as developed and implemented by the peoples affected by such materials, are duly implemented.

As the Bush administration has advocated the use of nuclear power as an answer to global warming and climate change indigenous peoples must strongly consider the historical past that have left the legacy of health impacts from human exposure, land, air and water contamination, contamination to traditional food sources, sacred sites, tradition and culture from past uranium exploration and production.

II. Environmental Racism and the Right to Food
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has placed special attention on the significance of the rights to food and water in relation to indigenous peoples.

“In international law, the right to adequate food and the fundamental right to be free from hunger applies to everyone without discrimination, yet the right to food of indigenous peoples is frequently denied or violated, often as a result of systematic discrimination or the widespread lack of recognition of indigenous rights…[u]nderstanding what the right to food means to indigenous peoples however is far more complex than merely examining statistics on hunger, malnutrition or poverty. Many indigenous peoples have their own particular conceptions of food, hunger, and subsistence…[and] understand the right to food as a collective right. They often see subsistence activities, such as hunting, fishing, and gathering as essential not only to their right to food, but to nurturing their cultures, languages, social life and identity. Their right to food often depends closely on their access to and control over their lands and other natural resources.”[2]

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comments 12 and 15 succinctly spell out that State parties should recognize the essential role of international assistance and cooperation and comply with their commitment to take joint and separate action to achieve the full realization of the rights to food and water.[3] In this way, States are obliged to respect these rights of persons living in other states and guarantee that their policies do not contribute to violations of the right to adequate food in other countries or to safe drinking water. They have the duty to promote and help other states (through international assistance and cooperation) to implement the right to food and water in a manner that is culturally appropriate.

In addition to loss of traditional foods and medicines, the United States has failed to implement legislation that will enable the U.S. to assert leadership in protecting American Indian and Alaska Natives (and the American public) from toxic and deadly substances that persist in the environment creating toxic body burdens. This inaction has placed American Indian and Alaska Natives in a situation where our human rights have been jeopardized by the U.S. failing to ratify within the Senate, the POPs Stockholm Convention (2004).

III. Health and Environmental Racism
The term POPs is short for persistent organic pollutants. POPs are long-lived chemicals that build up in the food chain and slowly poison animals and humans. POPs travel thousands of miles and enter the soil, oceans, rivers, plants, and animals far from where they are produced or used. Indigenous peoples who maintain a land-based culture can be heavily exposed to POPs from their diet. In this way, POPs threaten our culture and our future. The most well-known examples of POPs are PCBs (transformer fluids), DDT (a pesticide) and dioxin, an unwanted byproduct of manufacturing and one of the most toxic man-made substances known. Historical tribal hunting and fishing rights are undermined by POPs contamination. ...Dioxin, PCBs, DDT and nine other chemicals are considered to be "a serious threat to human health" throughout the world by the United Nations. ...
Many of our American Indian and Alaska Native tribal members may now carry enough POPs in their bodies to cause serious health effects, including reproductive and developmental problems, cancer, and disruption of the immune system. Tribal nations in the Arctic region, the Great Lakes, Maine, the Columbia River basin region, and other locations are exposed to especially high levels of these pollutants. POPs migrate on wind and water currents, where they bio-accumulate and bio-magnify in the food chain, contaminating the traditional foods of many of our tribal members. The propensity of POPs to travel such long distances means that no country can fully protect its citizens by acting alone. The effort to control POPs must truly be a global one as demonstrated in the Stockholm Convention. American Indian and Alaska Natives and Native organizations continue to support the Stockholm Convention on POPs. We believe that U.S. participation in the Convention is essential to eliminate POPs and other persistent toxic substances on a global level and especially in the Arctic region. Our tribes are convinced, however, that any domestic implementing legislation must enable the U.S. to fully carry out its obligations under the treaty, and must reflect the Convention’s precautionary spirit and public health emphasis.
Indigenous Peoples have special cultural and spiritual relationships to traditional foods that create increased consumption patterns compared to non-Indigenous populations. Unfortunately, the main way POPs enter our bodies is through food. POPs have been found in eagles, cormorants, ducks, geese, caribou, reindeer, raccoons, rabbits, quail, deer, moose, bison, turtles, crocodiles, sheep, cows, polar bears, seals, whales, and fish. POPs accumulate in fat and their concentration increases at each step of the food chain. For example, PCBs have been found to accumulate in the livers of sheep. In addition, dieldrin, a pesticide, accumulates in the wool of sheep that eat from contaminated land. Advisories prohibiting or discouraging the consumption of traditional foods affect Indigenous Peoples' right to practice our cultural and spiritual ways. Store-bought food does not solve the contamination problem, since it may also be contaminated.
In many areas of our Indigenous territories, our communities are being told not to eat the contaminated fish and animals. Advisories are being posted everywhere. According to a report by Health Canada, "Great Lakes residents who consume larger amounts of certain species of contaminated fish and wildlife than the general population are at an increased risk of exposure to toxic pollutants." The report names affected subpopulations that include anglers, their families, and Indigenous Peoples.
To Indigenous Peoples, fishing and hunting are not sport or recreation, but part of a spiritual, cultural, social and economic lifestyle that has sustained us from time immemorial. In some areas, fishing and hunting rights are treaty rights. When we no longer can eat fish and wild meat, high protein food is often replaced with junk food like potato chips and soft drinks. In addition, the active social part of harvesting of traditional foods is replaced by a less active lifestyle. The junk food diet is less healthy and has contributed to problems with obesity, high blood pressure and chronic diseases like diabetes. Cutting off traditional food supplies from Indigenous Peoples could be a form of cultural genocide.
Children are more vulnerable than adults to many kinds of pollution, and POPs are no exception. Toxic exposures during fetal development, infant life, and childhood can have lifelong effects including increased susceptibility to cancer, and damage to the immune and reproductive systems. These health effects may not be apparent until much later in life, making them difficult to link to early-life exposures. For example, a study of children whose mothers ate PCB-contaminated fish from the Great Lakes during pregnancy showed that they had lower intelligence and problems with reading comprehension. These damaging effects were still observed when the children were 11 years old. After birth, POPs can also enter children during breast feeding. Many POPs have been detected at significant levels in the breast milk of Mohawk and Inuit women as well as women from many countries worldwide. The average breast-fed baby in North America grossly exceeds the World Health Organization "acceptable" daily intake of dioxin.

Indigenous Peoples unjustly contaminated by POPs include:
Yaqui farming communities of Mexico
Mohawks of Akwesasne in the Great Lakes
"River Peoples" of the Colombia River Basin in Washington and Oregon
Inuit, Cree and Dene of Canada, and
Alaska Natives.

[1] See Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada, Great Basin Mine Watch, Western Shoshone Defense Project v. U.S. Department of Interior et al., Case No. CV-N-05-0279-LRH-VPC (Declaration of Carrie Dann, Western Shoshone Elder) (D. Nevada 2006).
[2] U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Annual Report to the General Assembly, UN Doc.A/60/350 at paras. 19 and 21 (2005) (available on the internet at:
[3] See CESCR, General Comment No. 11, UN Doc: E/C.12/1999/5, para. 36 (1999); CESCR, General Comment No. 14, UN Doc: E/C.12/2000/4, para 39 (2000).

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Censored News is published by censored journalist Brenda Norrell. A journalist for 27 years, Brenda lived on the Navajo Nation for 18 years, writing for Navajo Times, AP, USA Today, Lakota Times and other American Indian publications. After being censored and then terminated by Indian Country Today in 2006, she began the Censored Blog to document the most censored issues. She currently serves as human rights editor for the U.N. OBSERVER & International Report at the Hague and contributor to Sri Lanka Guardian, Narco News and CounterPunch. She was cohost of the 5-month Longest Walk Talk Radio across America, with Earthcycles Producer Govinda Dalton in 2008:
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