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Bay Area activists demand protection for Tohono O’odham lands

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SAN FRANCISCO – More than 850 miles from where a Mexican company has renewed its proposal for a commercial hazardous waste landfill near a sacred site, activists demanded the United States Environmental Protection Agency take action.

“Protect sacred sites. No dump on O’odham land,” a small group of mostly young Latino and Native American protestors chanted May 6 as they marched nearly a mile from the Mexican consulate in the Mission District to the EPA building downtown.

Simultaneous protests took place in Arizona and Mexico, organized by the environmental group Greenaction and the O’odham Rights Coalition, which was founded by ceremonial and traditional leaders of the O’odham in Mexico and the U.S. in direct response to the landfill proposal near the ceremonial site of Quitovac and O’odham villages on both sides of the border.

The dump proposed by the Mexican company Centro de Gestión Integral de Residuos would be a few miles southwest of the Sonora, Mexico border with Arizona. CEGIR recently renewed its attempt to win approval of the proposal, which has been rejected twice by the municipality of Sonoyta.

If built, up to 45,000 tons of industrial waste would be dumped in the Sonoran site annually, threatening O’odham communities and their cultural practices, sacred sites and health, according to the coalition.

The group has organized demonstrations in front of the Mexican Consulates in Phoenix, Tucson and San Francisco for several years in hopes of protecting sites including the Quitovac spring and pond, one of the most sacred sites for the O’odham, whose lands once stretched from northern Sonora to south-central Arizona.

Despite the border wall being built across their lands, further encroaching on tribal unity and sovereignty, “the O’odham lands continue to be part of O’odham lives,” Ofelia Rivas, O’odham tribal member and spokesperson for the O’odham Rights Coalition said. “The O’odham will continue to uphold their mandate to protect and maintain the songs and stories of our Mother Earth.”

The O’odham have held an annual ceremony at the Quitovac spring and pond since their people were created. At protests in Quitovac, protestors have blocked the highway and sung traditional songs in ceremony.

Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) quietly approved plans for a landfill near Quitovac in 2005 apparently without notifying the U.S., despite the 1983 La Paz Agreement requiring notification and discussion regarding hazardous waste facilities within 100 kilometers of the border.


Photo courtesy Shadi Rahimi Activists demonstrated in San Francisco as part of a simultaneous protest in support of the Tohono O’odham lands.

The San Francisco protestors represented local communities deeply affected by pollution and environmental hazards and racism, including Bay View Hunters Point, the most polluted area of San Francisco with the largest African-American population.

Other protestors came from People Organized in Defense of the Earth and her Resources, which works with mostly Latino communities and young people in southern regions of the city to demand better air quality, less transportation pollution, the cleanup of power plants and better access to health services.

Some held signs in Spanish, “Justicia Para El Pueblo,” or “Justice for the Village.”

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“The government should in no way contaminate anybody – we are all human and we all deserve a clean environment,” said PODER member Raul Barrera, 17, whose family is from Veracruz and Oaxaca, Mexico.

An 18-year-old Yaqui woman, Madeline Elenes, spoke afterward and expressed rage at the proposed dump and the border wall being built across tribal lands. “We are being divided because of these borders!”

She said much of her family lives in neighboring villages to the O’odham and they are harassed when they attempt to cross the border to attend ceremonies. The recent war on drugs in Mexico and across the border has further “militarized” the region.

Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, said the U.S. government should exercise its right to comment on projects close to the border. He said it has largely failed to stress the threat to O’odham and other communities and sacred sites with this proposal.

A few EPA officials came outside and told Marie Harrison, Greenaction environmental justice and green energy community organizer, that they planned to speak to SEMARNAT about the issue.

Angel continued to speak to the protestors through a megaphone.

“The reason we’re here is because the U.S. government is almost as guilty as the Mexican government in this project,” he said, as some nearby EPA employees scoffed. “What?!” one man exclaimed before walking away.

The U.S. EPA sent a letter to Greenaction in July 2008 notifying them that SEMARNAT had halted its plans to permit the toxic dump at Quitovac. But in December 2008, CEGIR resubmitted its plans.

On March 28, a gathering of indigenous activists and environmentalists in Quitovac created a resolution to “oppose and stop for once and for all” the hazardous waste landfill proposed near the O’odham sacred site.

“The O’odham know that regardless of what environmental and cultural protection laws would be implemented and enforced for this project, the effects of hazardous chemicals will have a detrimental and injurious effect on the human and biological environment of the region and a devastating effect on O’odham culture, tradition and sacred sites,” the resolution read.

It also called on the U.S. government to “exercise its environmental justice and trust responsibility to speak out in defense of the culture and sacred sites of O’odham who are U.S. citizens whose spiritual well-being would be devastated.”

Participants agreed upon May 6 as an international day of protest to bring attention to the issue. That day in front of the EPA building, Angel said Mexican consulate officials in San Francisco had also promised to contact the Mexican environmental ministry.

But he said the protestors would not let up until the proposal is dropped and indigenous people, including the O’odham, the Gila River and Colorado Indian communities and others, are consulted in the future regarding proposals on sacred sites and tribal lands.

“We’ll be back, we’ll be back,” the protestors chanted before leaving.