A Nation in TransitionCommunities across the country and abroad are setting just, equitable examples for a transition away from fossil fuels.scroll down arrow

Crew members Eva Jones and Chris Farley, residents of Mingo County, work the soil. It is compacted, composed of blasted rock, and lacks organic matter. YES! photo by Paul Corbit Brown

Turning Appalachia’s Mountaintop Coal Mines Into FarmsIn the post-coal economy, a transformation for both miners and the land

YES! photo by Paul Corbit Brown

The Refresh Appalachia farming model can create jobs that enable hardworking people to stay and make a living in this economically depressed region, where 1 in 4 children live in poverty.YES! photo by Paul Corbit Brown

On a surface-mine-turned-farm in Mingo County, West Virginia, former coal miner Wilburn Jude plunks down three objects on the bed of his work truck: a piece of coal, a sponge, and a peach. He’s been tasked with bringing in items that represent his life’s past, present, and future. “This is my heritage right here,” he says, picking up the coal. Since the time of his Irish immigrant great-grandfathers, all the males in his family have been miners.

Catherine V. Moore

Catherine V. Moore is a writer and independent producer based in West Virginia. Her work has appeared in VICE, Columbia Journalism Review, and more. Find her at beautymountainstudio.com.


This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation.

“Right now I’m a sponge,” he says, pointing to the next object, “learning up here on this job, in school, everywhere, and doing the best I can to change everything around me.”

Then he holds up the peach. “And then my future. I’m going to be a piece of fruit. I’m going to be able to put out good things to help other people.”

Jude works for Refresh Appalachia, a social enterprise that partners with Reclaim Appalachia to convert post-mine lands into productive and profitable agriculture and forestry enterprises that could be scaled up to put significant numbers of people in layoff-riddled Appalachia back to work. When Refresh Appalachia launched in 2015, West Virginia had the lowest workforce participation rate in the nation.

When he’s not doing paid farm work on this reclaimed mine site, Jude is attending community college and receiving life skills training from Refresh. “I’m living the dream. The ground’s a little bit harder than what I anticipated,” he says of the rocky soil beneath his feet, “but we’ll figure it out.”

On this wide, flat expanse of former mountaintop, the August sun is scorching even through the clouds. In the distance, heavy equipment grinds away on a still-active surface mine site — the type of site where some of the Refresh crew members used to work, blowing up what they’re now trying to put back together.

Crew leaders drive out to an undulating ridge where we can see a 5-acre spread of autumn olive — a tough invasive shrub once heavily seeded on former mine sites as part of coal companies’ reclamation plans. It’s summer 2016, and the crew for this particular Reclaim Appalachia site is awaiting the arrival next week of a forestry mulcher that will remove and chew up the shrubs into wood chips. By the following spring, the clearing will have been replanted by this Refresh crew with over 2,000 berry, pawpaw, and hazelnut seedlings. During my visit, everyone’s clearly excited for the mulcher to arrive.

“It’s almost like a continuous miner head,” explains Nathan Hall, “but instead of mining coal, it’s mulching autumn olives.” Hall is from Eastern Kentucky and worked for a short time as a miner before attending the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies; now he heads up Reclaim Appalachia, which focuses on repurposing mine land.

There are a few small agriculture projects on other former surface mines in the area, but Refresh and Reclaim are the only outfits attempting anything of this scale while also operating a job-training project. One of the crew members, former miner Chris Farley, says he’s stoked to be a part of “the first bunch” to attempt to farm these rugged lands.

“It’s a long-term science project,” says Ben Gilmer, Refresh’s president.

Southern West Virginia nonprofit Coalfield Development runs Refresh, Reclaim, and a family of three other social enterprises. In an environment where it’s hard to find secure employment, Coalfield offers low-income residents a two- to two-and-a-half-year contract to undergo training in sustainable construction, solar technology, and artisan-based entrepreneurship. Trainees also earn stipends to work on their associate’s degrees and receive life skills mentorship before Coalfield assists them in finding full-time work.

Since 2012, Coalfield Development has created over 40 on-the-job training positions and grown financial wealth for low-income people by over $3.1 million (calculated in wages, benefits, and savings). At current levels of participation, they project hiring 320 crew members and graduating 215 over the next nine years.

YES! photo by Paul Corbit Brown
YES! photo by Paul Corbit Brown

Left, replanted wildflowers. This past spring, the first piglets and kids were born, and crew members harvested honey for the first time. YES! photo by Paul Corbit Brown

Ultimately, they hope that their model will spread to other parts of Appalachia, creating quality jobs that enable hardworking people to stay and make a living in this economically depressed region, where 1 in 4 children live in poverty.

They want to help people like James Russell, a former coal truck driver who now serves as the site’s crew chief. He gathers me up in a donated pickup truck for the full farm tour, where I meet goats, pigs, and chickens with a dual purpose: to provide food and land management. Their rooting and scratching removes invasive plants and their waste helps build the soil back. Eventually the hope is to create a closed loop between the animals and plants, where one nourishes the other, cutting down on feed and fertilizer costs.

This year during peak season, Refresh expects to sell 2,800 eggs per week to restaurants and produce 1,500 meat birds across all sites. This past spring, the first piglets and kids were born, and crew members harvested honey for the first time. In addition to fruits and nuts, they’re also experimenting with hops, lavender, and greenhouse-grown vegetables.

Besides growing food themselves, Refresh wants to help other startup farmers access markets and technical assistance. This year the organization will offer a mobile poultry-processing trailer to area producers, for example, and then help sell the chickens through their burgeoning food hub. Refresh recently hired Savanna Lyons, a leader in West Virginia’s sustainable agriculture movement, to manage the hub. The organization wants to provide people with the whole package — step-by-step guides, management documents, and workshops.

They are also getting creative about markets targeting low-income people, thinking about not only where they can sell their fresh product, but also how they can make it accessible to the communities that need it. They are piloting a community supported agriculture program, for example, with a sliding scale that also accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

The Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, a rare and exceptional governmental resource for economic diversification in the coalfields, owns the land and leases it to Refresh for free. The Authority’s director, Leasha Johnson, says that though many people in the region have already been forced to move away to look for work, “there are a lot of people who are staying and who believe that we can survive this transition.” That makes projects like Refresh worth the investment, she says. A former land manager for the coal industry, Johnson is one of the only economic development leaders here who will utter once-taboo terms like “post-coal economy.”

“It’s an uphill battle,” she adds, “from both an acceptance perspective as well as an economic and capital investment perspective.”

The can-do spirit of this crew works in their favor. And like most people in the region, many of them can draw from their native expertise growing vegetable gardens to feed their families.

This is not easy work. The groves of autumn olives sometimes seem impenetrable, and there are other aggressive invaders, like multiflora rose and tall fescue. The soil is compacted, composed of blasted rock, and lacks organic matter. Refresh doesn’t know how long it will take to bring it back to life. “The soil scientists say, I don’t know, you guys are charting new territory here,” Gilmer says. Virginia’s Division of Mined Land Reclamation estimates that it costs about $2,400 per acre to reestablish a foot of topsoil on previously mined ground. These sites also don’t hold water very well — they were engineered to drain into valley fills, the terraced slopes where rubble from mountaintop removal is dumped.

But they are not barren moonscapes. Appalachia is a temperate region with heavy rainfall. “[These sites] will definitely grow things,” says Carl Zipper, a professor of crop and soil sciences at Virginia Tech specializing in restoration of mine lands. “They just need some care and management appropriate to their characteristics.”

And in this mountainous region, where it’s hard to find large tracts of flat pasture and croplands, figuring out how to use the more than 2 million acres of previously mined land that’s not currently producing anything could unlock a whole new industry. “If [the Refresh project is] able to make a go of it and provide a model for others,” says Zipper, “I think that’s great.”

So far, soil testing hasn’t revealed any worrisome contaminants. While the water that runs off such sites can contain concentrations of heavy metals like selenium and manganese, which cause problems for aquatic life in headwater streams, Hall says, the concentration is undetectable on any given square foot of soil material.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question, though, is whether Refresh’s crew members can really make a living through agriculture in the long term. Russell preaches diversification — shoot for five ventures that produce $10,000 each per year. Jude wants to go the value-added path and combine his wife’s love for cooking with his love for growing to open up a farm-fresh restaurant. Farley is hedging — if coal makes a comeback, he may go back to the mines, but if not, he’s sticking with agriculture.

The can-do spirit of this crew works in their favor. And like most people in the region, many of them can draw from their native expertise growing vegetable gardens to feed their families. Jude grew up hoeing corn, raising hogs, and growing pumpkins on his family’s 4-acre farm. And during a recent workshop on marketing produce, crew member Lola Cline piped up that her father ran a produce wholesale business for 35 years.

Whatever the future holds, it is clear that for now these workers are laboring over something they love in an environment that encourages learning, mutual support, and giving back to their community — all qualities that build resilience over the long haul. And in an economically struggling region where hope runs in high demand, this is no small thing.

Catherine V. Moore

Catherine V. Moore is a writer and independent producer based in West Virginia. Her work has appeared in VICE, Columbia Journalism Review, and more. Find her at beautymountainstudio.com.


This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation.

How to Feed Ourselves in a Time of Climate Crisis

Changing the food system is the most important thing humans can do to fix our broken carbon cycles. Meanwhile, food security is all about adaptation when you’re dealing with crazy weather and shifting growing zones. How can a world of 7 billion—and growing—feed itself? Here are 13 of the best ideas for a just and sustainable food system.

LAND OWNERSHIP
Photo by Ignacio Palacios

Photo by Ignacio Palacios

1. Indigenous land sovereignty

The world is watching as historic land reforms on the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu show how to return land sovereignty to indigenous people. The decade-long effort led by Ralph Regenvanu, leader of the Land and Justice Party, is returning control of lands to “customary owners.” More than 80 percent of land in Vanuatu is considered customary: owned by extended families as custodians for future generations.

SOIL
Photo by Hero Images

Photo by Hero Images

2. Agroecology, not chemicals

Instead of single crops and fossil fuel-based amendments, agroecology relies on complex natural systems to do a better job: Bean crops that help soil retain nitrogen are rotated with other crops. Farm animal waste is used as fertilizer. Flowers attract beneficial insects to manage pests. Intensive planting of diverse crops requires less water and helps keep weeds under control.

3. Carbon sequestration

A benefit of soil regeneration practices, which make soils more fertile and resilient to land degradation, is that carbon from the atmosphere is captured in soil and plant biomass. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says carbon sequestration accounts for 90 percent of global agricultural mitigation potential by 2030.

4. Resilient polyculture

After Hurricane Ike hit Cuba in 2008, researchers found polyculture plantain farms had fewer losses than monoculture farms. In general, strongly integrated agroecological farms sprang back to full production two months sooner than conventional farms.

SEEDS
Photo by stilllifephotographer

Photo by stilllifephotographer

5. Open source seeds

The Open Source Seed Initiative was created by plant breeders, farmers, and seed companies as an alternative to patent-protected seeds sold by agricultural giants such as Monsanto. Its goal is to make seeds a common good again, equipping new crop varieties with an open source license. This allows farmers to save and trade seeds and develop their own hybrids for climate adaptation.

6. Genetic diversity

Traditional plant varieties are more adaptive than modern hybrids. In Peru, six Quechua communities form the ANDES Potato Park project, which holds about 1,500 varieties of cultivated potatoes. The project not only models seed diversity conservation, but also studies the traditional knowledge, practices, and spiritual beliefs that nurture those resources.

LABOR
Photo by Erik Mcgregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket

Photo by Erik Mcgregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket

7. Better pay

Agroecology requires skilled labor, yet the worst-paying jobs in the U.S. are in the food system. This makes food and farm labor a poverty issue. Food service jobs are held primarily by women and people of color, making it a social justice issue. Policies addressing these issues would increase wages—which the Fight for $15 campaign wants— protect field workers from harmful chemicals, and treat the migrant labor force fairly.

8. Valuing traditional knowledge

Scientists in Latin America are tapping traditional farmers for their expertise. “Campesino a Campesino” — translated as “peasant to peasant” — is the cultural model of knowledge dissemination throughout Latin America. Farmers sharing their results and ideas have helped to spread agroecological practices.

DISTRIBUTION
Photo by Richard Jung

Photo by Richard Jung

9. Regional food hubs

Will we quit flying out-of-season produce around the world? Australia’s Food Connect program delivers ecologically and ethically produced fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and bakery items from local farmers to consumer hubs. In Brisbane, door-to-door travel must be no farther than 250 miles, and farmers are paid four times what they would get from big grocery chains.

10. Accessibility, affordability

Low-income people are a large and ready market for farmers. Programs like Double Up Food Bucks make SNAP benefits worth double at farmers markets. In 2013, more than 10,000 first-time SNAP customers in Michigan used farmers markets.

DIET
Photo by mediaphotos

Photo by mediaphotos

11. Eat together

Considering the energy used in daily cooking for 7 billion people, collective cooking and eating should be a goal. Not only does it cost less carbon per plate, but research also shows that where eating is a social activity, people are healthier.

12. A plate full of plants

Blue Hill chef Dan Barber, author of The Third Plate and known for his work to use less carbon in the production and serving of his food, argues that our standard plate of dinner should shift from a slab of protein with a side of vegetables to a plate full of seasonal vegetables with perhaps meat in a seasoning or a sauce. Some 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions is from industrial agriculture, including deforestation to support livestock.

13. Waste nothing

Total land needed to grow feed just for Europe’s pork industry is the size of Ireland. The U.K.-based Pig Idea campaign encourages feeding leftover catering food to pigs because 40 percent of what farms produce is wasted. Also, the Gleaning Network has in the past four years rescued more than 288 metric tons of produce in Great Britain.

Instead of Trains and Buses, India Built a Better RickshawWhere massive public transportation projects are impractical, electric rickshaws make sense

Photo by photodisc/Getty

In most cities, Indian bus systems are in poor shape. The poor do most of the cycling and walking, the most sustainable methods of commuting. Investment in new e-rickshaws has also spurred a comeback for its predecessor, the cycle rickshaw. Photo by photodisc/Getty

It is around 6 p.m. in New Town, a satellite township of Kolkata, India. As the daylight dims, streetlights flicker on. Chintu Mondal has parked his blue-and-red electric rickshaw near a new, swanky glass-and-steel building. Very soon, the offices inside will disgorge hundreds of employees looking for rides home. Taxis here are hard to come by. Buses are few and, at this time, overcrowded. The price for an app-based cab, like Uber, surges in the evening.

Anuradha Sengupta

Anuradha Sengupta is a journalist based in India whose work focuses on the environment, indigenous food, and sustainable living.

New Town is an information technology hub about 12 miles from bustling Kolkata, and every evening — sometimes late at night — workers with backpacks and laptops look for rides to get back home to the city. In this new township of high-rises, apartment complexes, malls, and IT complexes, electric rickshaws have become an economic and environmental lifeline.

In the past four years, the number of e-rickshaws has mushroomed in suburban and rural Bengal, where public transport networks are not as dense as they are in the city. Mondal, 42, has been driving one in New Town for almost three years. Previously, he held odd jobs as a daily wage laborer, carpenter, and sometimes as an istiriwala (literally translates to “ironing man”) ironing people’s clothing for the U.S. equivalent of 7 to 16 cents apiece.

His family and many others like them lost their farmland when the new township was established in the late 1990s. Most of the drivers saved money or took out loans to buy their vehicles.

Mondal says he enjoys driving an e-rickshaw. His day starts at 5 a.m. and lasts until about 11 p.m., with a break for food. The route is fixed and short — less than 2 miles — and close to the neighborhood where he lives. “I earn more than I used to, and it is less of an effort,” he says.

One vehicle seats four passengers, and he charges about 16 cents a ride. The money he earns covers household expenses. The battery takes about eight hours to charge at home, where voltage often fluctuates, and lasts a whole day. He says his electricity bill typically runs as much as one-sixth his monthly income.

For drivers like Mondal, the e-rickshaw provides a livelihood. For a fast-growing India, the vehicles are helping to improve quality of life.

Like most big cities in India, Kolkata is experiencing rising levels of air pollution. The World Health Organization reports that 10 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, and the country is projected to grow by 300 million new urban residents by 2050. Additionally, rising incomes have led to an increase in personal cars, and India is now set to become the world’s fourth-largest market in domestic car sales. To accommodate this growth, India will need to invest in climate-friendly cities. Reliable, affordable, and sustainable transportation will be essential.

YES! photo by Anuradha Sengupta

Electric rickshaws in New Town, outside Kolkata.YES! photo by Anuradha Sengupta

The e-rickshaw has become the poster child of India’s drive to meet these goals. Autohaus, a Chinese commercial vehicle manufacturing company, announced that it will invest over $13 billion in West Bengal to manufacture them; app-based cab companies like Ola have added them in small towns and cities; a premier vehicle manufacturing company, Kinetic, has rolled out an electric three-wheeler in Delhi; and even women are getting started in what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry. The Delhi government has funded “smart” e-rickshaws equipped with GPS and cameras. Now, female drivers, trained in traffic rules, road safety, and martial arts, are getting a foothold in a male-dominated industry.

Investment in new e-rickshaws has also spurred a comeback for its predecessor, the cycle rickshaw. The Indian government recently announced a mobility program that includes funding for non-motorized transportation and the expansion of local connectivity in 103 cities.

A new government-funded lightweight e-rickshaw allows drivers to run more trips, carry more passengers, and add to their earnings. The idea was not to make a complex high-tech product that was inaccessible to most, but instead to design a simple and efficient cycle rickshaw, says Shreya Gadepalli, South Asia director of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy. In Delhi, around 85 percent of the 700,000 rickshaws on the street are based on this model.

Surveys have shown that the changes have led to increased incomes for operators. “Not only do the livelihoods improve, but manufacturing the modernized rickshaw in India will open new green job opportunities,” Gadepalli says.

Buses are the most common mode for some of the most vulnerable sections of Indian society. However, apart from a few major cities, like Kolkata and Chennai, Indian bus systems are in poor shape. Last year, Delhi scrapped its Bus Rapid Transit system due to congestion on the corridor, mechanical issues, and lawsuits that pushed for access to bus lanes in a crowded city.

The poor do most of the cycling and walking, the most sustainable methods of commuting. And, perhaps because this segment of the population is less influential, there has been a marked absence of designated lanes for cyclists. Kolkata, in particular, has banned bicycle lanes on many of its roads.

For the majority in India, however, owning a car is still a distant reality, and rideshare apps are unlikely to reduce urban congestion or pollution drastically. This is where the e-rickshaws have picked up the slack.

Meanwhile, rising incomes and increased use of mobile phones have driven app-based cab services that critics argue are consolidating control of transportation infrastructure. Smaller players and local taxi services have been pushed out of the market, and drivers who moved to app platforms have often found themselves working in poor conditions.

In March, around 40,000 drivers affiliated with Ola and Uber went on a daylong strike in Mumbai to protest dwindling incentives and arbitrary fines. In February, Praveen Kumar, unable to pay for his taxi’s loan, became the first Uber driver in India to commit suicide.

Despite the opposition, rideshares are on the rise. Worldwide, India has seen the largest growth of Android taxi app installs, according to the 2015 report by App Annie, which provides industry analytics. For a country that has long considered car ownership a status symbol, consumers are surprisingly open to sharing.

For the majority in India, however, owning a car is still a distant reality, and rideshare apps are unlikely to reduce urban congestion or pollution drastically. This is where the e-rickshaws have picked up the slack. What is still needed, though, is an alternative to lead acid batteries, including their charging capabilities. Already, a few companies are making solar-powered e-rickshaws that are cheaper than automobiles.

All the government needs to do is enable microloans, Mondal says. He has opened a street stall where his wife sells snacks. They are now saving for their daughter’s education. “I am less stressed out because my daughter and wife feel more settled,” he says.

YES! photo by Anuradha Sengupta

Electric rickshaws in New Town, outside Kolkata.YES! photo by Anuradha Sengupta

Commentary

Community Choice Energy In L.A. Began With a Single Citizen

For many homeowners, rooftop solar is a smart move. But what if you could get every home and business in your entire county to switch to renewables, all at once? This is essentially what’s happening in my state, California: a quiet revolution awkwardly named community choice aggregation.

Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is a NASA climate scientist (he writes as a citizen, not on behalf of NASA, JPL, or Caltech). His new book is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

Nine years ago, I moved with my family to Altadena, an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County nestled against the San Gabriel mountains. My only option for electricity was a for-profit, investor-owned utility, a monopoly whose profits came from higher rates, and which offered no option to purchase renewably sourced electricity.

Then, in 2010, California’s first CCA switched on in Marin County, up the coast. It faced a well-funded public misinformation campaign mounted by the county’s for-profit utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, but persevered; in 2011 the state passed a law preventing utilities from mounting such campaigns. There are now eight California CCAs, with seven more starting this year.

Community energy tells a story that people desperately need to hear: We can do something about the climate, despite all the money in politics and despite the denier in chief.

Whereas a typical utility offers its customers little or no choice about where their power comes from, CCA programs enable coalitions of cities and counties to choose. The utility then delivers that electricity using its pre-existing infrastructure. The result for an increasing number of California communities is cleaner and cheaper power.

Local control brings tangible community benefits, such as job creation and economic growth. It also allows communities to express their values. For example, communities that value climate action can pursue renewable generation, adopt efficiency programs, provide electric vehicle charging stations, adopt fair net metering rates to encourage rooftop solar, and choose to site projects in front-line communities.

So far these benefits have not come at a premium, and renewable energy is only getting cheaper. Sonoma Clean Power charges 28 percent less than PG&E for generation, even while emitting 46 percent less carbon dioxide. However, because utilities purchase electricity via contracts that span years, or even decades, they’re allowed to add a power charge indifference adjustment (PCIA) to account for stranded energy purchases. (Choosing where to set the PCIA is perhaps the most controversial aspect of CCA.) After the PCIA, Sonoma Clean Power’s electricity is only 1.5 percent cheaper than PG&E. CCA proponents therefore take care not to oversell their program, promising cleaner electricity at competitive rates.

The story of CCA in Los Angeles County begins with a single citizen from Redondo Beach. In 2014, Joe Galliani attended a community Earth Hour forum featuring a founder of Sonoma Clean Power. Inspired, Galliani dove in as a volunteer, first learning all he could about CCAs, then forming a working group and meeting one on one with municipal leaders to develop support.

Marin County’s CCA had faced stiff opposition from labor unions, so Galliani found common ground with local electricians over a shared vision of a transition to 100 percent renewable electricity that would, of course, create electrical work. By September 2015, his working group had grown to 45 members, providing guidance on economic, legislative, design, governance, and public outreach issues; and 13 cities had signed a resolution for a feasibility study. The county board of supervisors voted unanimously to fund the study.

Today, three years after one committed citizen’s inspiration, CCA is imminent in Los Angeles County. Earlier this year, county supervisors voted — again unanimously — to form the CCA with $10 million in startup funding. The business plan calls for the enrollment of 5 million county residents by 2019 and installation of several dozen 50-megawatt solar plants. This would create at least 50,000 local construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs.

It’s long past time for an all-out climate mobilization, and CCA is only a small piece of the puzzle. A California transition to 100 percent renewable energy would translate to a global GHG emissions reduction of only 0.2 percent. So far, six other states allow CCA, but even a national electricity transition would translate to just a 4.5 percent global reduction. CCA must therefore be pursued in parallel with more comprehensive and far-reaching tools such as a carbon fee and dividend; the climate emergency calls for an all-of-the-above approach. Within this context, though, CCA provides a hopeful message: We can do this.

Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is a NASA climate scientist (he writes as a citizen, not on behalf of NASA, JPL, or Caltech). His new book is Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

Tribes Are First to Respond to Life on the EdgeThe Swinomish of Washington produced a climate resilience plan two years before the state. Now it’s a template for all of Indian Country.

YES! photo by Lori Panico

The waters around the Swinomish community have provided salmon and shellfish for 10,000 years. But today they pose a great threat to the tribe, much of whose 15-square-mile reservation sits at or near sea level. YES! photo by Lori Panico

Chief Albert Naquin was astounded when emergency officials warned him in September 2005 that a second hurricane would soon hammer the southern Louisiana bayous where Hurricane Katrina had struck less than a month earlier. The leader of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe, Naquin took to the Isle de Jean Charles’ lone road to urge residents who had returned home after Katrina to leave their listing, moldy homes once again.

Terri Hansen

Terri Hansen is a member of the Winnebago tribe and has covered Native and indigenous issues since 1993. Hansen’s focus is science and the environment. Follow her on Twitter @TerriHansen.

Don’t wait until the last minute, he warned. “Once the road is flooded, you can’t get out.” Hurricane Rita flooded the island for weeks, adding insult to injury that had already reduced the tribe’s homeland to a sliver of what it once was. Rising sea levels, hurricanes, erosion from oil production, and subsidence have since shriveled the Isle de Jean Charles peninsula from 15,000 acres to a tiny strip a quarter-mile wide by a half-mile long. There were once 63 houses flanking the town’s single street. Now only 25 homes and a couple of fishing camps remain. The rest have washed away or sunk into the Gulf of Mexico, the town emptied and families scattered.

In January, Louisiana received a $48 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to move the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Houma Nation tribal members to more solid ground and reestablish their communities, making tribal members the first climate change refugees in the U.S.

Relocating an entire community is extreme adapation. Across the country, 24 tribes have responded to climate change with plans for adaptation and mitigation, and more are in development. These efforts are providing roadmaps for other communities across the country.

“We’re trying to build out models that could be replicated” based on the best data and science, said Mathew Sanders, resilience policy and program administrator for Louisiana’s Office of Community Development, who is coordinating the Isle de Jean Charles Resettlement Project. Community members have chosen three of the 16 sites pinpointed.

As rising temperatures cause heatwaves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and increase the severity of weather events, tribes are on the forefront in respect to both degree of impact and in initial efforts to respond to adaptation, said Ed Knight, director of planning and community development for the Swinomish tribe in Washington state.

Most tribal nations depend heavily on their environment for subsistence as well as cultural identity. On the whole, Native Americans experience poverty at a higher rate than any other group in the country, and are more likely to suffer from health ailments like obesity and diabetes. Some reservations also lack social services and transportation resources. This has made tribal communities particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and adaptation strategies are crucial to building resilience.

Under the leadership of Chairman Brian Cladoosby, the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community on Puget Sound developed the first comprehensive climate change adaption plan in 2010. Today, it’s the template for climate resilience planning throughout Indian Country.

YES! photos by Lori Panico
YES! photos by Lori Panico

Left, Todd Mitchell, environmental director of Swinomish Department of Environmental Protection, digs clams. Right, Carter and Sonia Daniels play in the water. YES! photos by Lori Panico

The azure waters around the Swinomish community are breathtaking, especially at sunrise and sunset, and have provided salmon and shellfish for people there for 10,000 years. But today they pose a great threat to the tribe, much of whose 15-square-mile reservation sits at or near sea level. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that sea levels in this region will rise 4 to 8 inches by 2050.

Using climate projections available in 2009, the Swinomish analyzed the highest predicted risks and the tribe’s priorities. They categorized the level of risk to infrastructure, human health, and natural resources from low to high, and estimated the time needed to develop strategies for adapting to those impacts.

Using a unique model based on an indigenous worldview, the tribe updated its adaptation strategy in 2014 with environmental, cultural, and human health impact data. It now views health on a familial and community scale, and includes the natural environment and the spiritual realm, said Jamie Donatuto, Swinomish community and environmental health analyst.

The innovative report provides a model for other tribal communities looking to understand how predicted climate changes will affect their people and homelands in practical ways specific to indigenous life. The Swinomish won a national Climate Adaptation Leadership Award for Natural Resources for the report.

Ann Marie Chischilly (Navajo) is executive director of the Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals at Northern Arizona University. In the last year, she and co-managers Nikki Cooley (Navajo) and Karen Cozetto led climate resilience trainings in California, Idaho, Alaska, Washington, Wisconsin, Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, and Alabama. With support from ITEP’s Tribal Air Monitoring Steering Committee and the EPA, she said, the Tribal Climate Resilience Program has trained more than 300 tribes and 700 people since 2009.

Under the new administration, however, the future is uncertain. In 2016, the Bureau of Indian Affairs became the primary funder of ITEP and other tribal climate projects. After the Trump administration took over, the BIA eliminated the word “climate” from the program — it’s now called the Tribal Resilience Program — and deleted all references to climate on its website in June. As the administration turns its focus away from addressing climate change, there is concern that adaptation funding will be cut.

“We continue to hope that all these programs will continue to be funded,” Chischilly said. “With 567 tribes [nationwide], the potential lack of funding will vary; some tribes may continue to develop their adaptation plans while others may be forced to stop.”

After the Trump administration took over, the BIA eliminated the word “climate” from the program—it’s now called the Tribal Resilience Program.

The successful implementation of mitigation measures will depend heavily on the participation of those affected. Chischilly was recently appointed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment, where she now provides input on behalf of tribal nations. “Having a seat at the table and being included in future assessments is critical to maintaining a strong voice,” she said.

In Louisiana, Chief Naquin was dismayed that others will face situations like his, but efforts being taken there will serve as a model of resiliency for people throughout the world. For the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw and Houma others, that means providing a way forward for a people who have been torn from their homeland.

Terri Hansen

Terri Hansen is a member of the Winnebago tribe and has covered Native and indigenous issues since 1993. Hansen’s focus is science and the environment. Follow her on Twitter @TerriHansen.

Commentary

A Just Transition For Earth What if U.S. rivers and mountains had the legal rights of people?

In mid-March of this year, New Zealand officially recognized the Whanganui River as a living entity with rights. The river, which the Maori consider their ancestor, is now offered protection through the New Zealand legal system against any human or human-led project that threatens its well-being. It is a critical precedent for acknowledging the Rights of Nature in legal systems around the world.

Kayla Devault

Kayla DeVault is an Anishinaabe and enrolled Shawnee, living on the Navajo reservation. She currently works as a research assistant/engineer. She is pursuing an A.A. in Diné studies and a master’s in American Indian studies before starting a Ph.D. program in tribal energy policy.

The communities seeking protection for their natural entities through this approach are operating from a non-Western, often indigenous paradigm that holds a spiritual reverence to homelands and natural systems and an urgency to protect their natural resources. These values are not held in the laws of colonial governments like New Zealand, Australia, Canada, or the United States. But that does not mean they cease to exist, and, in fact, we are seeing a revival.

In response to the Standing Rock Sioux battle against the Dakota Access pipeline, the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin amended its constitution to include the Rights of Nature. This is the first time a North American tribe has used a Western legal framework to adopt such laws. Some American municipalities have protected their watersheds against fracking by invoking Rights of Nature.

Operating from a Lakota paradigm, the oil pipeline damage to Standing Rock sacred sites and threats to the Missouri River are an infringement on spiritual connection. Consider the irony of a Western paradigm that gives corporations the rights of people while government agencies give insufficient protection to the actual people affected. What if these waters — connected to the Creation Stories of the Lakota communities — were given legal personhood?

Here’s how New Zealand did it. After more than a century of legal battle, the Maori Iwi secured protection by forcing the New Zealand Crown to honor their practices, beliefs, and connection to the Whanganui River. As a result of the Te Awa Tupua Bill (Whanganui River Claims Settlement), the river has the legal rights of a person and is represented by two individuals. In passing this legislation, the New Zealand Crown also committed to protecting the customary practices of the Iwi regarding the river, and offered apologies and financial redress for historical wrongdoing.

If the Te Awa Tupua was able to correct the gap in Western and indigenous paradigms in New Zealand, surely a similar effort to protect the Missouri River could be produced for the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River nations by the American government.

How would that work? After defining the Missouri’s personhood, the collection of nations that hold cultural connection to and physical reliance on the river would next agree on the values that would govern its treatment. Under a joint agreement with the federal government, legal representatives for the river’s personhood would be appointed.

If the Missouri River had this kind of status, the Dakota Access pipeline would become a much different battle. Construction of the pipeline would first have to be approved by the river. Physical injury to the river could result in a lawsuit. Altering or confining the free-flowing nature of the river could be considered trauma. In combination with the risk of future chemical spills, these harms to the river should be enough to halt any Army Corps of Engineers permitting. Any negotiation would require legitimate consultation and consent from the river’s representatives. Consent might require royalties paid by Energy Transfer corporations to the river’s account. This account could be used to compensate those harmed by the river’s floodwaters and other natural disasters.

The Navajo still defend assaults on surrounding waters. The Winnemem Wintu work to recover the salmon that the Shasta Dam destroyed. And what about the mountains? The Gila River Indian Community and other O’otham groups continue decades of opposition against the Arizona state Route 202 extension that would cut through South Mountain, a sacred place to the people who have inhabited the Phoenix area since the beginning of their times. As construction begins this summer, many are scrambling to prevent irreversible destruction to the mountain and, by extension, the culture.

Should more tribes follow the path of the Ho-Chunk Nation, we may finally see an end to unconsented infrastructure projects in Indian Country.

Kayla Devault

Kayla DeVault is an Anishinaabe and enrolled Shawnee, living on the Navajo reservation. She currently works as a research assistant/engineer. She is pursuing an A.A. in Diné studies and a master’s in American Indian studies before starting a Ph.D. program in tribal energy policy.