Environmental Justice in Colorado's Conejos Land Grant Region
It’s another morning in southern Colorado’s Conejos Land Grant Region, a region that has seen more sweat and tears than I will ever know, a region with so much promise, resiliency and aspirations for a brighter future.
I walk the aching streets of Antonito, and the warm Colorado sun spreads its blessings upon the adobe houses, houses that were once homes, some that still are, holding on in a town whose heart beats slow and steady, keeping a watchful, caring eye on its people, our culture and the land, air and water that give us life.
If you walk around town long enough, you’ll eventually stumble upon River Street and Conejos Clean Water, a small, grassroots organization, now it its seventh year. Conejos Clean Water came about in 2010 though a struggle for environmental justice when radioactive, hazardous and toxic nuclear waste was to be transferred at a site just south of town, right next to the gentle San Antonio River that provides water and life for our people. We won that battle, and today we continue to build public awareness and encourage advocacy and education around environmental, social, economic and food justice issues throughout the Conejos Land Grant Region.
Seven years later, I find myself charged with leading Conejos Clean Water into the future. My roots run deep here, as I was born 26 years ago, and the Jaramillos and Archuletas, my family, have called this place home for over 6 generations. That being said, I recognize and honor those who lived in harmony with this fertile land, with our mother, for over 12,000 years. The layers of oppression are stacked high here, often rendering me helpless as I attempt to do everything I can in the name of justice, in the name of ensuring my people are protected from environmental and health hazards and have healthy environments in which they can live, work, play and learn.
One of our current environmental justice campaigns focuses on the permanent protection of our heritage as it pertains to around 66,000 acres of timeless, pristine federal public lands here in Conejos County. Over the past 18 months, we have gone door-to-door cultivating conversations with our communities about how we might best be proactive in protecting our traditional uses of the land, like piñon picking, firewood gathering, herb gathering, hunting, fishing and grazing. Together, the majority of our people agree that we can do exactly this through the designation of this public land as a national monument. Our brothers and sisters just south of us in Northern New Mexico accomplished this through the designation of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument in 2013. We are following in their footsteps, demanding that our communities are protected from further extractive industries, industries like fracking that take our land, water and health for granted, industries that have already left their scars upon our people, including wounding a river that once flowed with life and provided for our people.
Over the coming months and years, we will continue working with our entire community and our brothers and sisters from across the country, advocating for environmental justice through the expansion of the existing Rio Grande del Norte Monument into southern Colorado's beautiful Conejos County.
Justin Garoutte is an Antonito native who recently returned home. He is the founder of Valleybound, the Antonito School and Community Garden, and works as the Executive Director of Conejos Clean Water, a grassroots nonprofit focusing on environmental, economic, social, and food justice issues in the Conejos Land Grant Region. To learn more about his work, email him at Justin@cccwater.org.