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United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz visits Tse Bonito for consultation

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TSÉ BONITO — When Counselor Chapter resident Samuel Sage provided his testimony about the impact of energy development on tribal communities during a gathering here today, he started with a story from his childhood.

He said he remembers returning home from a trading post one day long ago when he saw large construction equipment being driven across the land, destroying sacred sites and areas used for traditional gatherings in the process.

Concerns about oil and gas drilling on Navajo land have increased over the years, including a dramatic increase in 2013, he said. That year, Sage said, many community members reported that they had developed respiratory problems, and there were worries about a rise in criminal activity, including sexual assaults and harassment of women.

Sage was one of 23 people who provided comments to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz during her visit to the Navajo Nation today. Her visit is part of a nationwide consultation between the U.N. and tribes about issues and concerns the tribes face due to energy development on their lands.

Tauli-Corpuz will visit Albuquerque on Saturday, and make additional stops in Colorado, North Dakota and Washington, D.C.

Tauli-Corpuz, who was named special rapporteur in June 2014, said by visiting the sites, she will get a clearer picture of the issues faced by indigenous nations, especially when the treatment of their lands and resources is governed by nontribal entities.

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Those issues need to be talked about more strongly, and the balance of power need to be addressed, she said.

Tauli-Corpuz is an indigenous leader from the Kankanaey Igorot people of the Cordillera Region in the Philippines, according to her biography on the U.N. website. She will present a report containing her findings and recommendations to the U.N. Human Rights Council in September.

Leonard Gorman, executive director of the Office of Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, said this is the third special rapporteur to visit the Navajo Nation and to receive testimony from residents.

David Begay Sr., of the Ganado Chapter in Arizona, was among those who spoke about health issues that have developed on the reservation as a result of uranium mining activity. With approximately 500 abandoned uranium mining sites located on the reservation, providing an adequate response is vital, he said.

"When you look at the land from the Navajo point of view, it's damaged. When your land is sick, you're going to be sick," Begay said.

Comments came from community members from across the reservation,as well as statements from members of the Hopi Tribe and Laguna Pueblo, and centered on public safety, federal government regulations, the loss of traditional lifestyles and environmental impacts.

Nageezi Chapter resident Teresa Richards said chapter members remain concerned about safety and emergency response services in light of a fire that broke out at a 5-acre oil production site near her community in July.

"No one has made any attempts at emergency planning for all these areas," Richards said.

She added she has been harassed and threatened by drilling company employees over the years.

"I need someone to help me," she said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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