Meaningful Implementation Requires Meaningful Involvement

By Tom B.K. Goldtooth

About the Author:  Tom B. K. Goldtooth is the Executive Director of the Indigenous Environmental Network, formed in 1990 to address environmental and economic justice issues.  Mr. Goldtooth is Diné and Dakota, and, since the late 1980s, has been involved with environment related issues and programs, working within tribal governments and grassroots communities to develop indigenous-based environmental protection infrastructures, and with indigenous peoples worldwide to address environmental and climate justice concerns.


Aerial view

One year ago this month, EPA released its Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples . “All tribal and indigenous communities deserve environmental and public health protection,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy told Indian Country Today. “… [EPA is] reinforcing [its] commitment to tribal communities, especially in addressing issues of Environmental Justice.”

In the years preceding EPA’s new tribal/indigenous policy, there was no framework in place to facilitate building consensus between Tribes, industry, and threatened Indigenous communities and members.

EPA’s improved approach to implementing Executive Order 12898 with tribal officials and Indigenous peoples is a significant step in the right direction. Specifically, the policy outlines the importance of “… early meaningful involvement opportunities for federally recognized tribes, indigenous peoples, and others living in Indian country, at all stages of Agency activity, including the development of public participation activities, the administrative review process, and any analysis conducted to evaluate environmental justice issues.”

Containing 17 principles, the policy is simple to understand and straightforward in outlining how EPA will engage and make decisions based on input from tribal governments, Indigenous peoples, and others living in Indian country.

So, how will this new policy improve environmental justice for Tribes and Indigenous peoples?

Environmentally and culturally harmful practices of extractive industries (e.g. mining of uranium, coal, metals, and other natural resources) on tribal trust lands and traditional indigenous territories has and will continue to be a particular environmental justice concern. Therefore, EPA’s expansion of public involvement and working with “key points of contact in affected communities” is important.  This requires meaningful dialogue and participation of tribal traditional cultural practitioners, spiritual leaders, and community members working on the frontlines for environmental justice and to protect treaty rights.

Collaborative Problem-Solving Meeting with Tribal Government Officials, Indigenous Peoples, EPA and other stakeholders - Fort Berthold, North Dakota

Collaborative problem-solving meeting with Tribal government officials, Indigenous peoples, EPA, and other stakeholders at Fort Berthold, North Dakota.

Under this policy, Indigenous community members can take advantage of various forms of conflict resolution (including “tribal and indigenous peoples’ traditional consensus building and decision-making practices…”) to work with EPA to address threats to the environment and human health in Indian country and other areas of interest to Tribes and Indigenous peoples.

EPA’s technical assistance and guidance can help communities and citizens participate effectively in government outreach and public participation processes, and effect positive environmental justice outcomes. The more that tribal officials, grassroots organizations, indigenous community members, and others living in Indian country, engage with each other, the more likely indigenous social, economic, cultural, and spiritual interests will be preserved and enhanced for future generations.

This new policy was years in the making. Since the 1990s, our network’s frontline communities have called for these policy changes.  Throughout the process, EPA consulted with tribes and engaged many tribal members and Indigenous organizations in an effort to develop a policy that could help improve the protection of the environment in Indian country.

Even though there are challenges, Indigenous peoples and grassroots organizations, as well as tribal representatives, are encouraged to work with EPA to effectively implement the policy to help provide solutions to current environmental problems, protect our sacred sites, and avoid destruction of the natural systems that sustain all life on Mother Earth.

We must be sure to move forward with this policy in a way that:

  • Emphasizes implementation processes for meaningful participation of tribal members and indigenous communities and organizations
  • Improves relationships between federally recognized tribes and government agencies and between other Indigenous peoples and government agencies
  • Provides effective environmental, ecosystem, and public health protection
  • Protects Indigenous lifeways and treaty rights

EPA representatives and I will discuss Implementing EPA’s Policy on Environmental Justice for Working with Federally Recognized Tribes and Indigenous Peoples, at the Tribal Lands and Environment Forum on August 19 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Come join us.

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