In March of this year, Indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres was assassinated in Honduras. Her family is certain the assassins were sent to end Cáceres’ opposition to a twenty-megawatt hydroelectric project at Agua Zarca, on the Gualcarque River near Honduras’ border with eastern El Salvador.
The project, which is still being touted as a source of carbon-free power for more than 100,000 Honduran households, would have blocked Cáceres’ Lenca people from access to the river. The Lenca hold the Gualcarque as sacred. Cáceres’ work to stop the project, on behalf of the group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was lauded worldwide. Her efforts won her the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Her death is mourned by human rights and environmental activists around the world.
Also in March of this year, The Bureau of Land Management held a meeting with Native tribes in the California desert to discuss the proposed Crimson Solar Project, which would generate more than 20 times the power of Agua Zarca, using six million solar panels on as much as 4,000 acres of land adjacent to the Mule Mountains, which the Mojave people and others hold sacred.
The project is new, and local Native people sometimes take a while to draft opposition to specific projects. I don’t wish to put words in their mouths. But after talking to a few of them, it’s clear to me that Crimson enjoys little support among local tribes, and is opposed by many. Aside from infringing on landscapes held sacred for millennia, Crimson risks depleting valuable groundwater — solar panels in the desert do need washing, and dust control is a serious public health issue — and the Mohave in particular suspect their rights to use Colorado River water may be a casualty to increased water demand from industrial solar.
And yet few of the environmental organizations who lent early support to COPINH and to Berta Cáceres as they fought renewable energy development on the Gualcarque have not said word one to oppose Crimson Solar, or to support the project’s Native opponents.
There are two main reasons for this. One is sad, the other ugly.
The sad reason? While Agua Zarca is one of just four planned hydroelectric projects in Lenca territory, there are dozens of solar projects proposed, under construction, or completed on culturally significant lands in the California Desert. Across the interstate from the Mojave fringe-toed lizard habitat Crimson would convert to an industrial facility lies the nearly 2,000-acre Genesis Solar Project, which generates 10 times as much power as Agua Zarca would, and the construction of which was halted time after time as construction crews found cultural artifacts, habitation sites, and human remains. Being built not far to the east are the Blythe solar projects, which will generate 485 megawatts on a bit under 4,000 acres, and the adjacent McCoy solar project, now generating 250 megawatts on about 2,300 acres — though McCoy’s owners hope to double its output once they find a buyer for the additional power. To the west, the 3,800-acre Desert Sunlight solar project has been powering Californians’ video game controllers for a few years, at the cost of culturally significant landscapes and the views from Joshua Tree National Park, which surrounds the plant on three sides. Down the road from Desert Sunlight, the ever-changing Palen Solar project might convert as much as 5,000 acres if it ever gets built. The proposed 3,600-acre Blythe Mesa solar project and 4,900-acre Desert Quartzsite project, both within view of the shifting sacred sands Crimson would occupy, merely drive the point home: part of the reason you haven’t heard of the Crimson Solar Project’s harm to Native people is that Crimson is just a drop in the bucket.
And that’s only counting projects within an hour’s drive of Crimson. There are just far too many projects to track.
The ugly reason: It’s easier for American environmentalists to support Native activists living in lands far away, where their activism doesn’t risk cramping the environmentalists’ lifestyles.
And, of course, we do things differently for the most part in the United States. Cáceres’ assassination was an atrocity, as are the killings of her COPINH compañer@s both before March and since. In the U.S., we don’t bury our Native activists in unmarked graves so much any more: we bury them in paperwork and poverty and bureaucratic inertia. The Bureau of Land Management is obligated by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to consult with federally recognized Native tribes when considering a project, and to take steps to protect the kind of artifacts and remains found on the Genesis Solar site and to protect the location of other sensitive sites by keeping them confidential. But while those distinct and discrete artifacts and sites are important to the tribes, they aren’t the whole story.
There are few generalizations one can make about the dozens of diverse Native cultures in the California desert, but here’s one, as near as my faulty understanding can manage: The whole desert landscape is considered something like sacred. That “S” word, mind you, carries connotations of piety that are both too exaggerated and too superficial to describe the actual relationship of people and desert. The people see themselves as part of the landscape. They see the landscape as part of the people. They see landscape, people, and a metaphysical layer of ghosts and supernatural entities inextricably intertwined.
In this world view, paving the living landscape of the wild desert is something akin to homicide. Wreaking massive changes on that landscape — industrial conversion of 40 square miles just in eastern Riverside County, if all plans proceed — is a blow to both Native culture and Native lives every bit as threatening as the joint Honduran-Chinese plan to dam the Río Gualcarque.
And yet some of the same environmental organizations that lauded Cáceres’ work, and wrung their organizational hands over her murder, are supporting the wholesale conversion of California desert Native people’s sacred landscape to power plants to run coastal cities.
It’s easier to oppose colonialism when it’s someone else doing the colonizing. When you are the colonialist, it’s important to mask it in procedure, to make a show of formal consultation and grinning respect, to speak in high-minded tones of stakeholding and win-win solutions.
That illusion must be maintained. Faults in the rhetorical armor must be defended. Those of us who’ve spoken up have often found ourselves criticized by our erstwhile colleagues; ostracized, barred from supposedly public meetings and conferences, having our jobs threatened for the simple sin of saying something about the growing cultural genocide that is renewable energy development in the desert Southwest.