Apr 12, 2011

Environmental Justice in Arizona and Beyond

Two Oregon Sylff fellows were selected for a Sylff Leadership Initiatives award in fiscal 2010. Linda Richards is a Sylff fellow studying the history of science, and co-project leader Shangrila Wynn, also a Sylff fellow, is researching environmental sciences, studies, and policy.

Their project involves organizing a forum entitled “Environmental Justice in Arizona and Beyond” in April 2011 in Phoenix, Arizona. It will address environmental justice for the Navajos, whose habitats have been contaminated by uranium mining practices. In October 2011 Richards and Wynn will organize similar forums on the campuses of Oregon Sylff institutions, including Portland State University, University of Oregon, and Southern Oregon University.

The following is an essay on environmental justice by Richards, who shares her plans for the forthcoming forum and reflects on her visit to Hiroshima. This essay is a very timely one in the light of the current nuclear crisis in Japan.

On September 13, 2007, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, called on civil society to act to make the promise of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a reality. Currently, the impact of climate change on subsistence communities endangers their survivability. Misunderstandings of subsistence communities’ values and reliance on material resources that are unique to place have increased the difficulty of problem solving within the larger society.

Current indigenous regions particularly affected by contamination from past deleterious uranium mining practices, for example, include the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest, the Lakota of South Dakota, the First Serpent People of Canada, the Bihar in Jadugoda, India, and the aboriginal people of Australia. Currently, China and Russia are developing large areas in Africa for mining that are predominantly occupied by indigenous communities. These cases, while specific to uranium mining, are just a few of the many environmental justice issues that impact traditional subsistence cultures.

As the current nuclear crisis continues to unfold in Japan, the centrality of nuclear history to our lives has been reiterated as well as our connection to one another around the world. Two years ago I was with my environmental history students at the Oregon State University Atomic Energy and Nuclear History Collections when the archivist, Cliff Mead, asked if I had ever been to Hiroshima. When I said no, he said that I should not be teaching a class on nuclear history without going there myself.

This past August I used part of the international fellowship I received from Sylff to attend American University’s 2010 Japan Nuclear Studies Course. As part of the course, students learn by listening to the testimony of the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombings. Students also visit peace parks and museums and attend the official commemorations on August 6 in Hiroshima and August 9 in Nagasaki. After the course, I stayed in Japan to interview survivors (hibakusha) and then I flew from Hiroshima to the Navajo Nation, where 20% of America’s uranium was mined since 1944.

Before I even left, my trip became an accidental public history project. Oregon residents folded a thousand origami peace cranes for me to take to Japan as a symbol of condolence and hope. The paper cranes led to invitations to discuss nuclear history at city council meetings, nonprofits, churches, and on campus. I represented two Oregon cities, Ashland and Corvallis, at the official ceremonies and to the mayor of Hiroshima, Tadatoshi Akiba. Mayor Akiba is president of the Mayors for Peace, an organization that has 4,301 member cities. Half the world’s people now live in a city that has a Mayor for Peace, and three-fourths of the world’s landmass is a nuclear-weapons-free zone. The Mayors for Peace and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon endorsed at the commemorations an international convention to ban nuclear weapons.

The guest lecturer for the nuclear studies course was Koko Kondo, the daughter of Reverend Tanimoto, whose experiences are told in John Hersey’s Hiroshima. Koko retraced for us the events recorded in the book. We also went to the former Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC; now the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, or RERF), where Koko was examined regularly as she grew up.

The environmental history of the bombings continues to be contested. Black rain, for example, is the dark-colored precipitation that fell in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the bombing. At RERF scientists presented data that black rain contained only slightly radioactive ash and that some health effects attributed to radioactivity, such as hair loss and nausea, were caused by starvation and stress. However, some survivors, including Dr. Shoji Sawada, dispute this. Not only was the rain radioactive but the Hiroshima bomb cloud may have been twice as large as official US government estimates claim. Dr. Sawada's research suggests the internal dose from residual radiation was disregarded by ABCC/RERF and the actual effects of the bomb may have been underestimated by a 200 to 1 ratio.

Health and environmental effects caused by uranium mining are also disputed on the Navajo Nation. Estimates are that 80% of the mining, milling, production, testing, and storage of nuclear materials occur on remaining indigenous communities worldwide, creating disproportionate exposure. This history of resource extraction and environmental justice on the Navajo Nation will be the focus of a forum, “Environmental Justice in Arizona and Beyond” at the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting on Friday, April 15 from 8:30 to noon in Room 6 of the Wyndham Hotel, 50 East Adams Street, Phoenix, Arizona. The workshop was made possible by the generous support of a Sylff Leadership Initiatives grant. At the workshop we will view the film The Return of Navajo Boy about the Navajo experience and then discuss these issues with the filmmaker, traditional and environmental justice scholars, and Navajo Nation elders (refer to

Like the experience in Japan, hearing firsthand accounts of the Navajo (Diné in their language) will provide the opportunity to learn experientially. Addressing environmental justice also provides an opportunity to educate about traditional cultures and sustainability. The forum will share indigenous values and experiences while building relationships between academics and tribal members for cooperation and exchange across existing cultural and socioeconomic barriers.

Excerpts of the forum in Phoenix will be posted online so Sylff fellows can follow our progress, and information will be shared on how Sylff members can copy and adjust the model to create similar workshops (updates will be available at In October 2011 the forum will travel to four Oregon universities. It is my hope that by reaching out to people who often do not have a voice, we can understand more of the full spectrum of the issues raised by environmental justice and broaden the discourse in climate change and energy policy decisions to act on the promises of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.