In early 2017, several coal mines and coal-fueled power plants in the Four Corners area announced plans to significantly scale back operations and close the facilities all together in coming years. This decline also includes Kayenta Mine and Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fueled power plant in the West. These decisions result from the steady decline of the coal industry as a source of power and combines with big business desires to save money by avoiding emissions taxes or obeying federal environmental regulations.
The closure of these facilities will affect everyone living in the Four Corners area and will be especially harmful to the Navajo economy which obtains about a third of its yearly revenues from the coal industry. It will have an equally devastating effect for the Hopi reservation where eighty percent of its yearly revenue comes from Kayenta Mine and NGS operations.
Thousands of decent paying jobs for Navajo and Hopi are in the coal industry, some paying as much as $100,000 a year. Although there are some efforts to diversify the Navajo economy and provide some workers with education and work alternatives, the majority of those who are set to lose their jobs within the next few years have no other opportunities. Their only options are to leave their homes in search of other jobs or to join the nearly fifty percent unemployed population on the reservation.
Corporate and military extractivism pollutes tribal lands, abandons Indigenous people
The Navajo experienced an almost identical crisis when uranium mining was made illegal seeing widespread loss of employment and decent wages along with physical and environmental destruction.
As with uranium mining — coal extraction and use — has resulted in permanent damage to the soil and air pollution. Coal operations also demand billions of gallons of groundwater — a precious resource in the desert that the Navajo and Hopi peoples cannot afford to waste. Much of the water that is left is too polluted to drink, thereby forcing many residents to travel for drinking water. Cancer rates, most notably lung, kidney and stomach cancers, are significantly higher in areas near the mines and power plants. Debilitating neurological birth defects have been reported as well.
A new, very troubling solution has developed. Fracking for fossil fuel is a growing industry on the Navajo Nation, but it poses many of the same problems. Many activists fight relentlessly against the fracking and extractive industries for their continuing polluting of tribal lands and blatant disregard for the well-being of Native people that violate the Navajo and Hopi ways of life. The Navajo consider Black Mesa and the surrounding land to be sacred. The devastation of these lands by these industries is the destruction of heritage and culture.
Self-determination for Native peoples and the fight for socialism
Not unlike the ways in which imperialist powers exploit colonized countries around the world, the U.S. government and corporations seek to obtain endless riches from Native land without compensation to the people. The 2,250 megawatts of electricity produced by NGS travels hundreds of miles away to supply power to big cities outside of the reservation. Meanwhile, one-third of Navajo Nation residents are without power and forty percent of homes on the reservation do not have running water. Forty percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
The U.S. capitalist economy holds the Navajo and Hopi tribal governments hostage with the extractive industries. Depending largely on the revenue from these industries to fund their social service programs — the disappearance of this money will inevitably result in gutting essential services. The U.S. invests little in clean energy anywhere in the country, but especially not on the reservation.
Equally problematic, extractive industries — like most other businesses — are subservient to the boom-and-bust cycle of capitalism. They will only provide income for some workers if there is high demand for whatever resource is being extracted. Recent developments in the coal industry show how capitalism is incapable of providing permanent employment to everyone, much less in an ecologically sustainable manner.
The Navajo and Hopi people — and all Indigenous people — have the right to a living-wage job, food, water, housing, education and healthcare. They also have the right to develop their economy, their political structure and their lands however they see fit. They should not have to choose between destitution or destroying their homeland and way of life just to survive. Capitalism relies on manufactured poverty and repression of colonized people. Only under a planned socialist economy will Native self-determination even be feasible.