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 for its people, our culture and the land, air and water that give us life.
If you walk around town long enough, you’ll eventually find Conejos Clean Water, a grassroots organization, now it its seventh year. Conejos Clean Water came about in 2010 though a struggle for environmental justice when radioactive, hazardous nuclear waste was to be transferred at a site just south of town, right next to the San Antonio River that provides 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.
My roots run deep here, and the Jaramillos and Archuletas, my family, have called this place home for over six generations. That being said, I honor those who lived in harmony with this fertile land, our mother, for over 12,000 years. The layers of oppression are stacked high here, often rendering me helpless as I work towards justice, 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 national public lands. Over the past two years, we have gone door-to-door cultivating conversations about how we might best protect our traditional uses of the land, like piñon picking, firewood and herb gathering, hunting, fishing and grazing. Together, the majority of our people agree that we can do this by designating this land a national monument. Our brothers and sisters 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 our communities are protected from extractive industries, industries like fracking that take our land, water and health for granted, industries that have already left scars upon our people, including wounding a river that once flowed with life.
Funding from The Trinchera Blanca Foundation has helped support us here at Conejos Clean Water to continue standing strong for environmental justice in the Conejos Land Grant Region. We were able to increase our engagement of youth with the natural world through nature outings on our precious public lands, including a camping trip with the Boys & Girls Club of the San Luis Valley.
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, social, economic and food justice right here at home and across the nation.
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.