By Miranda Gershoni, ’22

The Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute welcomed the second speaker for our Environmental Justice and Indigenous Rights series last Wednesday, “What is a Resource Curse: Energy, Infrastructure, and Climate Change in Native North America,” by Andrew Curley, a member of the Navajo Nation and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His latest publications highlight the consequence of colonial water laws on indigenous nations and the political economy of green transition within reservation economies. His current work is on extraction, energy, and notions of resource curse among tribal governments.

Curley discussed what he calls “a development paradox” in communities that are rich in profitable resources but suffer poorer standards of living. He called out the common misunderstanding of the resource curse, which tends not to address the violent colonization that precluded poor or underdeveloped circumstances. He takes a close look at indigenous communities like the Navajo Nation that live on reservations with significant coal and methane fields and have spent decades fighting for their sovereignty. Particularly in the coal industry, members of the Navajo Nation have been placed in an almost impossible situation: coal workers who need to make a living but are also exploited for the very resources they are responsible for cultivating. 

In an interview with Miranda Gershoni, a second-year undergraduate student working for the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute, Curley said that “we can’t understand the nature of energy and extraction within and around indigenous nations without thinking about the ways in which these nations were structured into disadvantageous states of dependence around these industries.” In his talk, he explained how energy transitions from fossil fuels to natural gas do not account for the burden this places on tribes.

Because these energy infrastructures are “colonial entanglements,” he explains, they are inherently exploitative and dismissive of the indigenous experience and livelihood. While the coal economy was partially bolstered by advertising job opportunities to the Navajo Nation, it was ultimately uplifted through systemic mechanisms of exploitation and racial capitalism through “neoliberalization, privatization of water, extractive infrastructures such as transmission lines, oil pipelines, roads, etc.” At the beginning of his talk, Curley references an IPCC press release on global warming which says that “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” are required to get to a point of environmental stability. 

Rather than seeing environmental preservation and protection of indigenous rights at opposite poles, Curley believes that the two can not only coexist but that environmental preservation necessitates the involvement and protection of indigenous communities. He calls upon both Navajo environmental activists and organizers to “challenge coal mining by changing the development framework through which coal is understood,” while also encouraging Navajo tribal officials and coal workers to “support continued coal mining because it is a substantial source of revenue for their tribe and fulfills a work ethic to provide a living for their families.” He also gives examples of alternative energy projects proposed in his 2018 paper, such as wind, solar, sheep herding, and others. He left the audience with the sentiment that the “rapid, far-reaching changes” must include “decolonization, respect of treaty rights, and enhancement of indigenous ideas of sovereignty.”