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Organizing for Justice on the Border

The goals of the environmental justice movement include both protecting poor neighborhoods from environmental hazards and fostering community development. Success in environmental justice campaigns often comes to those who engage in collective efforts to solve a community's problems. This is the essence of the "empowerment" philosophy espoused by many environmental justice activists.

Like Little League and health clubs, concern for the environment has typically been a middle class pastime. Successful NIMBY ("Not In My Back Yard”) campaigns in middle-class neighborhoods prompted polluters to locate their businesses where opposition was weak and disorganized. As a result, a disproportionately large number of such facilities were placed in poor neighborhoods and in communities of color. Environmental injustice came to be seen as a byproduct of environmental regulation, occurring "not in spite of our systems of law, but because of our system of laws."1 Besides suffering the unwelcome attention of polluting industries, poor communities also have a hard time attracting desirable development. Some areas lack even basic amenities, such as paved roads, drinking water and wastewater treatment systems. There is often no legal remedy for these deficiencies. As with siting decisions for toxic waste dumps and the like, the failure to improve conditions in poor neighborhoods is a normal consequence of powerlessness.

What follows are two stories of successful environmental justice struggles along the Texas-Mexico border, in which the true heroes are the grassroots activists themselves.

Kickapoo Uprising

For more than a century, a small group of Kickapoo Indians, members of an Algonquian tribe native to the Midwestern United States, have lived in the brush country straddling the border between the Mexican state of Coahuila and Texas. Members of the tribe pass freely between the United States and Mexico. A settlement directly underneath the international bridge at Eagle Pass, Texas symbolizes the tribe's transcendence of territorial borders. Perhaps the ultimate grassroots organization, the Kickapoo tribe is a culturally conservative group which has preserved its identity and traditions despite extreme geographic, political and economic challenges.

The Kickapoo have a legacy as regional protectors. In the early 1800s the Spanish Crown encouraged them to settle in Spanish territory to strengthen defenses against Anglo-American encroachment.2 Mexican authorities continued this policy, welcoming the Kickapoo as defenders against raids from other Native American tribes.3

In 1991, the Traditional Council for the Texas Band of Kickapoo resolved to fight environmental degradation by passing a strong Tribal resolution opposing a radioactive waste dump near their land. Texcor Industries, Inc. proposed to build a waste disposal site for uranium mine tailings near Spofford, Texas, along the headwaters of Elm Creek, which flows for some thirty miles before merging into the Rio Grande. The Kickapoo feared their settlements near Elm Creek could be at risk for contaminated ground and surface water supplies. Their opposition to Texcor's dump also had a spiritual dimension. The Tribal Council's resolution to oppose Texcor cited the Tribe's deep interest "in the conservation of nature as God created it" and deemed the Texcor facility "as one more way of contaminating our Earth."4

Represented by Alpha Hernandez and George Korbel of Texas Rural Legal Aid's Del Rio and San Antonio offices, the Tribe became a party to the administrative hearing before the Texas Water Commission on the Texacor permit application. Asserting that conducting the entire hearing process in English violated their equal protection and due process rights, the Kickapoo asked that all legal notices be given in Spanish and English, that the most significant documents, such as the license application, be translated into Spanish and that a certified interpreter be present at the hearing to translate the proceedings into Spanish and the traditional Kickapoo language.

The Kickapoo also argued that the proposed location of the Texcor site violated their religious beliefs in contravention of the guarantees of the First Amendment and the Treaty of Fort Dearborn. The Fort Dearborn Treaty, executed September 28, 1832, reads:

This is to certify that the families of the Kickapoo Indians, thirty seven in number are to be protected by all persons from any injury whatever, as they are under the protection of the U.S. and any person so violating shall be punished accordingly.

Maj. Whittles, 2nd Reg. Inf. Company5

In testimony translated from Kickapoo to Spanish and then into English, Adolfo Anico, the Tribe's religious leader, told of Kickapoo beliefs regarding protection of the earth. "The air, the earth, the wind, the water and the sun are sacred elements of nature which correspond to the various aspects of the human form. The depositing of nuclear waste at a site other than that of its origin is a desecration of the earth and disturbs the balance of nature. This, then, affects the human. In the words of Chief Seattle 'we are a part of the earth and it is a part of us, for all things are connected.'"6

The proceedings, which lasted 65 days, became a tri-national undertaking with parties from the U.S., Mexico and the Kickapoo nations. The broad coalition of interests opposing Texcor clearly helped assure a favorable outcome for the Kickapoo and their allies. The State denied Texcor's permit request. However, since the decision was based on the narrow grounds of Texcor's failure to identify its waste streams, the company continues to look for ways to surmount the opposition and build its dump. The struggle is not yet over, but the Kickapoo are ready.

La Union de las Colonias Olvidadas

The people living in the colonias along Highway 359 had good reason to feel forgotten. After years of pleading with elected officials, these colonias east of Laredo still lacked public water and sewage services. Residents had to haul their water in 65 gallon barrels, sometimes making several trips a day in the hot summer months. With no sewer system, residents resorted to pit privies and septic tanks. Webb County officials frequently promised public services to the Laredo colonias but never delivered on those promises.

Lack of money wasn't the problem. Literally millions of dollars of state and federal funds have been available for years. A 1990 GAO study showed that Texas had 842 colonias with 198,000 residents.7 Of the Texas colonias visited by GAO, less than one percent had sewage systems, and 40 percent did not have water supplies. In 1991 Congress required Texas to set aside 10% of its Community Development Block Grant funds for assistance to colonias. Grant money for the colonias could also come from the state's Economically Distressed Areas Program.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has included a $100 million Colonias Assistance Program initiative in its 1995 budget. This program would assist state and local efforts to address the severe housing and infrastructure needs of the colonias. The $100 million would be used to match funds provided by the states of Texas, New Mexico, California, and Arizona and local governments and non-government organizations in those states. In spite of all the resources available to them Webb County officials simply hadn't asked for the funds to improve the colonias.

By July 1994, residents of the Laredo colonias had had enough of Webb County's torpor and formed La Union de las Colonias Olvidadas (LUCO). About 700 people from 10 of the Highway 359 Colonias elected two representatives from each colonia. Their goal was to pressure the County Commissioners and the County Judge into finally bringing drinking water and sanitary sewer services to their homes. A spokesperson for the group told the media "We are prepared to cooperate with all the authorities and parties who Summerffall 1996 seek to find a solution. But if we have to file a lawsuit to get them to act, we will. If we have to file a lawsuit to get answers, we will. If we have to become a political thorn in their side, we will. If we have to march in the streets, we will."

True to its word, LUCO promptly organized a public protest. 100 families paraded down the streets of Laredo in trucks carrying 65 gallon water drums. LUCO organizers carried posters that read, "We need water, nuestros hijos necesitan la agua."

County officials were quick to absolve themselves and pin the blame on others. Responding to criticism from colonia residents that she has done little to help them, County Commissioner Judith Gutierrez contended "the Union members are threatening to sue the wrong people. They should be suing the developers. We at the county feel a tremendous moral obligation to help them, but we have no legal obligation."

"The county is saying that they do not have a legal obligation, we are saying that they do," said Texas Rural Legal Aid attorney Israel Reyna. According to Reyna the county received a $52,000 grant for a county engineering plan three years ago but still hadn't completed it. The plan was to lay out how services could be delivered to the colonias. He argued that since the colonia residents were the intended beneficiaries of the grant, the county was under a legal obligation to follow through and complete the project. Reyna said, "it is not unreasonable to expect public officials or county officials who are using state funds earmarked for that purpose, to write down on a piece of paper when this project will be completed."

LUCO's demand for results bore fruit. By April 1995 Webb County and the City of Laredo had entered into an agreement for water and sewer services to the colonias. Both the city and county agreed to provide water distribution, waste water collection and water and waste water treatment. Plumbing lines to colonia homes will be installed before the end of the year. State EDAP grants will cover the cost of the project, estimated at $15 million dollars.


The remedy for environmental injustice lies with the people most affected; Communities that once were invisible or forgotten can gain control over their destinies. But first they must overcome the root causes of their impoverishment. Chief among these is the lack of political clout endemic to poor communities. Only by organizing and coming together can communities realize their power.


1. Luke Cole, "Empowerment as the Key to Environmental Protection: The Need for Environmental Poverty Law," 19 Ecology L.Q. 619,667 (1992).

2. Callender, Charles, Pope, Richard K. and Susan, "Kickapoo," pp.656-667, in W. SMevant, ed. Northeast, vol. 15 Handbook of North American Indians. Smithsonian (1978).

3. See Latorre, Felipe A. and Dolores L., The Mexican Kickapoo Indians (1976).

4. Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas Resolution 91-0017. Confirming the Citizenship Status of the Texas Band of Kickapoo Indians: Hearings on H.R. 4496 Before the House Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, 97th Cong. 1st and 2nd Sessions 67 (1983) (Statement of Adolfo Anico, Religious Leader, Kickapoo Tribe).

5. Closing Brief on Behalf of the Kickapoo Tribe at 2, In the Consolidated Proceedings on the Application of Texcor Industries, Inc., (Texas Department of Health, Proposed Radioactive Materials License No. 4336 and Texas Water Commission, Proposed Discharge Permit No. 03328) (1992).

6. United States General Accounting Office, Report to the Chairman, Committee on Agriculture, House of Representatives: Rural Development- Problems and Progress of Colonia Subdivisions near Mexico Border (January 31, 1991).     

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