Commentary

It’s time to listen to Indigenous people who are risking their lives to save us all

Demand more — a lot more —from New Mexico leaders if you want to stop our planet from burning up

September 23, 2021 5:53 am

An activist fights the wind while walking along Flag Road in Oceti Sakowin Camp as blizzard conditions grip the area around the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 6, 2016. (Photo by Scott Olson | Getty Images)

After decades of malnourished approaches to environmental conservation being pushed by settler society, the world is starving for Indigenous solutions. Across the world, from Chaco Canyon, N.M. to Ihumātao, New Zealand, frontline Indigenous communities are putting their bodies on the line and rising to protect their sacred lands from extractive desecration — and many of them are being murdered as a result.

As Indigenous people protect at least 80% of biodiversity across the planet, a grim record-breaking 227 climate activists were murdered in 2020, and over one-third of them were from frontline Indigenous communities.

As a young Indigenous organizer, my connections to environmental justice came many decades before I was even born. In 1954, the Jackpile-Paguate open-air uranium mine was opened less than two miles from the village of Paguate in Laguna Pueblo, where my family has resided for generations. 

Over the next 30 years, Jackpile became one of the largest open-air uranium mines in the world. It spent decades polluting the soil and air of our Pueblo and poisoning the water my people have prayed upon for centuries. In 1957, only four years after the mine had opened, five members of my family sued Jackpile for stealing millions of dollars in resources and poisoning the ancestral homelands of our Pueblo people. 

Our lawsuit eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court but was ultimately dismissed because our family could not provide a title proving “legal ownership” of the lands our Pueblo has inhabited for centuries. As a result of the mine and its contamination, my grandfather would eventually relocate his family to Albuquerque, meaning that the effects of environmental racism and ecological destruction directly forced my family off the lands that had sustained us for generations. The Jackpile Uranium mine remains an EPA Superfund site to this day. 

Over 20 Indigenous tribes have occupied the land that is now New Mexico for hundreds of years, many of whom originally settled along the Rio Grande. But now the fifth-longest river in the country is running dry for miles at a stretch. Indigenous communities across New Mexico — including my own — have been sustained by the life-giving water that flows through the Rio Grande for generations.

Seeing the river that has sustained my ancestors for hundreds of years running dry is personal — not only has the Rio Grande irrigated our crops, and quenched our thirst, it plays a vital role in many of our prayers and ceremonies.

As water reservoirs across New Mexico hit record lows, 2021 has already been a record-breaking year for New Mexico’s oil and gas industry, which averaged a mind-boggling 1.16 million barrels of crude oil and 6.19 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day in March 2021. Both the oil and gas industries saw a more than 10% increase in production since February 2021, and in April of this year, our state netted $109 million from oil and gas production — the highest profit in the history of the fossil fuel industry in New Mexico.

Despite our current elected officials claiming to be leading New Mexico toward a green, renewable future, these numbers tell a much different story. Outside of Alaska, the Southwest is the fastest-warming part of the country. Our communities are already dealing with the consequences of warmer summers and drier monsoons. Since 2019, the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Western Texas has been the top oil-producing field in the world. We are directly fueling the warming of our planet, and the extractive industries in our state — as well as our elected officials — are directly responsible. 

The Rio Grande riverbed in Albuquerque in September 2021. (Photo by Marisa Demarco | Source NM)

For years now, the scientific community has agreed that the climate crisis is no longer a future dystopian threat. It’s happening before our eyes, and it’s going to get worse because of the inactions of our elected leaders right here in New Mexico.

The fires will become more frequent, the droughts longer, the floods more deadly, and the heat waves more extreme.

Millions of people are going to be displaced from their homes, and there will likely be unimaginable loss of life, the likes of which our species has never seen before. 

As one of the largest producers of fossil fuels in the world, as well as home to hundreds of thousands of Indigenous people, we have a responsibility not only to protect sacred lands but to lead the way in Indigenous solutions to the climate crisis threatening our future. By failing to act urgently to reduce our state’s production of, and reliance on fossil fuels, elected officials across New Mexico and the United States are once again betraying Indigenous peoples, as well as an entire generation of young people who have entrusted those in power to make the decisions that will impact us for the rest of our lives. 

The answer to mitigating and surviving the impending climate catastrophe lies in Indigenous-led solutions like land stewardship and the Land Back Movement, not false capitalist-fueled solutions like cap and trade, carbon pricing, or the expansion of an electric car market that is inaccessible for the vast majority of our country’s working class. 

Even if the world stopped emitting CO2 yesterday, our planet would continue warming at a rapid rate for several decades before temperatures began to fall once again. Rather than rising to the challenge of turning one of the world’s largest fossil-fuel producers into a leader in sustainable energy, New Mexico’s elected officials are choosing short-term profits without considering the consequences — and our grandchildren’s history books won’t forget what we did with these fleeting months before triggering an irreversible chain of catastrophic climate conditions. 

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Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo
Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo

​Jonathan Juarez-Alonzo is a queer, two-spirit Indigenous climate activist and award-winning community organizer in unceded Tiwa Territory (Albuquerque, NM). Coming from the frontline Indigenous communities of Laguna and Isleta Pueblos, Jonathan has always understood the important role that environmental stewardship has in the complex identity of Indigeneity. Throughout his 19 years of life, Jonathan has been involved in countless organizations and social movements throughout the state of New Mexico and across the United States. In October of 2016, Jonathan’s family traveled to Standing Rock to deliver food and supplies to Water Protectors on the front lines against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Throughout 2019, Jonathan organized several school climate strikes across Albuquerque where thousands of students united to call for urgent action from local and state officials. Currently, Jonathan serves as the Chairmxn of the Board of Directors of Pueblo Action Alliance, a grassroots organization working on the frontlines of combating environmental racism and ecological destruction here in New Mexico.

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